Swans – The Seer

Swans are a band that conjure primal forms of power: thunder and lightning, fire and brimstone, master over slave, predator over prey. Their earliest albums came out in the wake of New York’s no wave scene, a loose, radical contest to see who could make rock’n’roll sound as ugly as possible while still retaining the rhythms and forms that made it rock’n’roll. Swans, not central to the scene, countered with the possibility of wiping out rock altogether. The result was something that sounds sort of like monks chanting in front of a jet engine. Frontman Michael Gira once compared being in the band to “trudging up a sand hill wearing a hair shirt, being sprayed with battery acid, with a midget taunting you”– a description that could just as easily describe listening to them.

During the late 1980s and early 90s, Swans went through a goth phase, incorporating sparkly synths, reverb, acoustic guitars, and other signposts of what most people would call “music.” But whenever things felt too comfortable, Gira would flatly drop lines like, “You never say you know me when I’m inside you,” or, “I’m so glad I’m better than you are.” Beauty and ugliness have never been as relevant to their music as the possibility of turning music into a space of confrontation. In the parlance of reality television, Swans aren’t– and never have been– here to make friends.

After a nearly 15-year break during which Gira focused on the dark Americana project Angels of Light, Swans reformed. Since then, they’ve released two albums, one studio (2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky) and one live (2012’s We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Head). “[The reunion] is not repeating the past,” Gira said in 2010. He is currently 58 years old and often photographed in a cowboy hat, not smiling. At two hours, The Seer is among the group’s longest studio albums and, in a sweeping gesture that only the most confident and egocentric artists can pull off, it manages to expand on their sound while simultaneously summarizing everything they’ve ever recorded before.

The band’s current palette includes a whole trunkload of acoustic instruments: bells, accordion, clarinet, dulcimer, a chorus of bagpipes, and what’s referred to cryptically as “handmade violin thing.” With the exception of some amplifier distortion, the album puts incredible emphasis on the human body’s capacity to beat the shit out of an instrument in a far more satisfying way than machines ever could. (As an instructive gesture, Gira spends the first four-and-a-half minutes of “Mother of the World” panting in rhythm.) Noise has never been as much of a concern in Swans’ music as pure dissonance; of the way certain combinations of notes literally cause the air to vibrate more violently than others. At its most chaotic, like the climax of “The Seer”, the band doesn’t just sound aggressive, it sounds like it’s bursting apart.

The tracks on The Seer aren’t songs but incantations, riffs piled on riffs shifting and evolving for as long as half an hour at a time. Sometimes Gira sings; often, there’s a zombie-like chorus behind him. One section fades into the next in ways more reminiscent of a soundtrack than an album, and even relatively contained tracks like “Lunacy” start and end with winding, immersive passages as the band comes to a boil. Like airplanes, Swans take their taxiing and descent as seriously as their flight.

Stylistically, the album draws a jagged line through a universe of serious, apocalyptic music, from country blues to free jazz to drone and the brutal, hypnotic guitar rock Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth made while Gira was still moaning into the void. A big group of guests are important here. Former Swan Jarboe contributes, as do Karen O, and Ben Frost on my personal favorite credit, “fire sounds (acoustic and synthetic).” The bigger the group, the more familial the feeling and the more heightened the illusion is that the music is not coming from inside its players but existing, like a spirit, somewhere outside and between them.

In the same way it would be hard to get the full experience of a good movie by only watching half of it, The Seer demands its two hours. To paraphrase something the author Ben Marcus said in a trenchant conversation with Jonathan Franzen about the value of experimental fiction, it is not a record for someone deciding whether or not they’d rather be listening to music or playing paintball. Of course this doesn’t mean you need to peel off your own skin while listening to enjoy it. It has made my experience of cleaning the house, for example, feel very, very consequential.

At each step of Swans’ career, they’ve been somehow tied to whatever “dark” genre was most culturally prominent, but The Seer affirms what they really are and what their legacy will probably be: A psychedelic band that rejects the musical template of psychedelia the 60s gave us. Vision has always been a metaphor for both political counterculture and religious mysticism. Prophets, pulling back the veil, “seeing through” things in an interest of revealing what they believe to be the raw, burning truth– this is what Swans have always been about, and what The Seer seems more explicitly occupied with than anything they’ve ever done before.

Gira had come out of art school, and even Swans’ most mature sounding music is rooted in the kind of catharsis through self-negation that was at the conceptual heart of 70s performance and body art. One piece from his student days involved him being blindfolded and led naked into a roomful of strangers with a tape player strapped to his body, playing a prerecorded confession of his sexual desires. The piece’s coordinators had found women willing to do the same. The crux of the piece was Gira and the stranger crawling around in the room until they found each other, at which point, they’d have sex.

In the world of Swans, the pain of catharsis is always in service of elevating to some higher plane of being. Granted, most people probably prefer to find this in exercise and not public sex, but when sifting through Swans’ apparent bleakness, it’s important to recognize that their goals are and always have been to remind us of the ways extreme states of being, however intense, a unique kind of blessing. One of their live albums was called Feel Good Now, which is as succinct a self-summary as any artist could offer: Later, Swans bluntly suggest, you’ll be dead.

Is this music primal? Yes. Intense? Absurdly so. On “A Piece of the Sky”, Gira sings that “the sun fucks the dawn.” Why the sun can’t just come out normally is unclear. But there’s still room for music like this, music that claws its way unapologetically toward wherever it thinks answers might be hiding. After all, without Icarus and his wings, we might never know how high the sky went or how hot the sun got. For 30 years Swans have challenged the boundaries between beauty and ugliness, music and noise, catharsis and abuse. To borrow a verb from their own violent, polarized world, The Seer is the album that transcends them