Harmonizing the light and shadow: Swans – ‘The Seer’ – an album review
August 30, 2012
Allow me to temper the following review with the expectation that the album I am about to review is an acquired taste. It is also not for the faint of heart nor the easily influenced. Accepting that this review comes from a long-time Swans fan, allow me to declare the legendary New York band’s new album, the Seer, a masterpiece (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase the vinyl with MP3 download on Amazon). Though it saw release only this past Tuesday, Swans representation shared a preview copy via MP3 in mid-July, and I have devoted much time to appreciating the work.
The album opens with the persistent throb of nylon guitar strings and the swirl of a four-note refrain on the high-end of a piano. As the guitar pulses on and on and the piano notes repeat over and over, other instruments layer up, creating a swirling repetitive din of electric guitars, drums and even hammer dulcimer that end in a ringing minor-key refrain that captures the typical dark tone of Swans. Insanity, Albert Einstein famously said, is defined as repeating the same action though always arriving at the same result. Here is the musical equivalent, so aptly named “Lunacy.”
Besides the sound of Swans’ mastermind Michael Gira moaning as if about to wretch, vocals do not appear in this lead track until well after two minutes have passed. And then, the voices of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, of the band Low, join Gira in a monotonous chant that includes the phrase: “Hide beneath/Your monkey’s skin/Feel his love/Nurture him …” among other expressionistic lines. The lyrics end with rattling dulcimer, piano and the rapid-fire thud of a bank of snare drums being flourished. The clamor crescendos as the voices chant, “Lunacy, lunacy, lunacy, lunacy.” But the song suddenly comes apart to a creaking, sputtering stop.
It is as if a building had just crumbled and the dust is now clearing. The song takes a turn into stillness, on an acoustic guitar’s ramble and the creek of bowed cellos with a distant, barely perceptible melody on what maybe a flute or a synthesizer. The instruments are loose and meandering. There are occasional swelling splashes of mallets on cymbals, as the trio’s voices take overlapping turns to softly sing, “Your childhood is over.” The voices sing slow and quiet, extending the words with soft tremolo and patient, possibly tired, extended syllables here and there, until the song fades away.
Prepare for a journey. The Seer, runs only a few seconds shy of two hours long, and is best experienced in one uninterrupted sitting*. This is a masterpiece of entrancing dynamics and mood. One cannot just pull these songs out of context, for maximum effect only arrives in a single sitting with two hours to invest. It takes a remarkable album to hold anyone’s attention for that long, and I can think of many acclaimed double-disc concept albums that fail to maintain such quality for their duration. However, the Seer is something beyond a concept album. It’s a meandering piece of expressionism in music that reveals an intelligent and sensitive awareness of a variety of instruments capabilities in creating mood. All these songs earn their moments because of the other songs in the album. This album is like a living organism.
When “Lunacy” ends with the soft whispering of “Your childhood is over” and the hushed hum of barely perceptible instruments, a percussive assault kicks off “Mother of the World.” This dichotomy, though seemingly in opposition, only enhances the effect of the other. The coda of “Lunacy” haunts and may linger like the ghostly wavering, glistening metallic creek that hums through the start of “Mother of the World,” as the second track heaves and crunches along on sporadic drums beats. The song is as much about its varied, yet steady beat, as it is about the surprising moments during its build-up, such as Gira’s quiet muttering honk that grows into what sounds like the chant of a shaman. The entranced man mutters along until everything halts to reveal a panting, solitary Gira, the creaking music reduced to a ghostly, aural residue on an erased tape, heard very faint below his exhausted breathing. The starkness of the rattle of those breathes shocks, which is then multiplied when all the percussion comes back only a few seconds in, then Gira snarls, “In and out and in and out. Again!” After a few refrains of the phrase by Gira, this song, like “Lunacy” veers into peaceful tranquility.
A humming organ and only one drum kit patters along softly. It’s all humming afterglow until the ramble of an acoustic fades in and a treated piano offers a repeated phrase. The instruments drone and entrance until Gira starts to sing, finally at an even-tempered tone: “and where are you now … oh mother … of the world?” The last syllable repeated in imitation, man-made echo. After a few verses as brilliantly expressive as any can be expected of this surreal songwriter, the song swells with tremolo mandolins and hushed, though frantically bowed violin.
“Lunacy” offers a brilliant set-up of what to expect in the extreme dynamics, original song construction and creative use of instruments throughout the Seer. “Mother of the World” offers a similar structure in a song that takes a third of the time longer to finish. Then comes the real epic moment of the album comprised of the nearly acapella “The Wolf,” the 32-minute title track, capped with “The Seer Returns.”
One must consider all three tracks together as one piece, as they all work that well together. Unless the barely touched strings of an acoustic guitar and the subtle hiss of what sounds like an oscillating fan, which appears halfway through the song, count as instrumentation, “The Wolf” sounds, or better, feels acapella. Gira slowly mutters softly in that wonderful gravel baritone of his: “Now, feed … me through … the power … line/Wash … me in … your blood … less light…” The song ends with the screeching, netherworld quality of bagpipes blown at full force, damn the notes. Meanwhile, dulcimer and tubular bells are beat at frantically against a droning hum recalling the distant honk at the end of King Crimson’s “Sailor’s Tale.” The bashing and screeching slowly fades away as the drone continues to hum and burble. A hushed, metallic industrial groove then appears, augmented by the light trill of what sounds like dulcimer, offering a shift in the piece. It is moments like these, these dichotomous swings and shifts into different moods that make the entire album. They appear between songs and within songs and often find an entrancing groove before making shocking shifts that both depend on the prior music and oppose it.
The title track is a half hour exploration in prolonged dynamics that can leave one entranced if one gives it a close listen. I have been lulled into dozing exhaustion while paying too close attention to it. “The Seer” is the epitome of a master manipulating a jam session to earn the moment when the singing finally appears, almost eight minutes into the piece. Gira’s singing only involves the quickly repeated phrase of “I see it all.” It seems to come out of the song’s looping, entrancing quality of pattering drums and rambling, sighing guitars. It builds and builds until the song sounds like something one might hear when trapped in a crashing wave before coming to an extended grinding halt featuring spastic, buzz-saw guitar work, waiting harmonica and various creaking instruments. It ends with Gira singing a nonsensical, almost tribal chant** on a grooving melody that feels long absent from existence.
In a song as sprawling as “the Seer,” it takes a genius well attuned to the natural vibrations of music to know how to hold back the singing and leave it as minimal as it appears during this ultra-long song of over 30 minutes. This is soulful music. Gira never over exerts his control over it. He is presenting us with a pure aural creature, something indeed to experience.
When “The Seer Returns” finally appears with proper lyrics and a more restrained, moody quality as drums, churning guitars and the looping howl of female voices (former Swans member Jarboe), a sort of re-birth has occurred. After the tumultuous, extended quality of “the Seer,” it almost feels as if language and civility has been re-born with the return of coherent words. But the imagery Gira spins in his lyrics are once again, signature Swans gloom and grim viscera: “… in a field of sticky black mud/I’m down here naked/There’s a hole in my chest/Both my arms are broken/Pointing east to west.” Then, not so much a palindrome, but a sort of circular surreal picture: “Your light pours into my mouth. My light pours out of my mouth. My light pours into your mouth.” The music marches along in an entrancing, luscious quality.
But, by now, odd shifts in the music should be expected, and the next one, “93 Ave. B Blues” offers a doozy. It opens with the screech of a clarinet and shares more DNA with free jazz than anything else in the Swans catalog. It features mostly squawking woodwinds, the layered howl of Gira and occasional explosions of sporadic percussion including pounded bass strings and screeching, buzzing guitars in a classic noise rock vein. In keeping with the free jazz principal, as it seems to go nowhere and everywhere at once. So when two of the most tranquil pieces of the album follow, they become well-earned respites.
Out of the reverberating feedback that closes “93 Ave. B Blues” comes the hushed, if still grim “The Daughter Brings the Water.” It’s spare and features flat pattering percussion, creepy reverberating guitar and even some decorative vibraphone. Veering the album into true gorgeous territory, however, meant bringing in Karen O to sing lead vocals. She offers a patient accompaniment to the slide guitar and delicate piano that make for the music of “Song for a Warrior.” Her voice quivers like the embodiment of fragility. After she sings “Some people say/God is long dead/But I heard something inside you/With my head to your chest,” the song swells in a cascade of chimes and bells and tremolo piano. It’s a song of optimism in the face of death, which is treated as a path to a cycle rather than something final. There is plenty room for hope in the music of the Swans, and this song may well inform all the so-called gloom of the album.
The great and key thing about the Seer is the beautiful lulls from intense noise and din Swans often achieve. Swans have always been fantastic at hushed moments contrasted with pummeling sounds, but the band has never received enough credit for that. One of my favorites song in their catalog is the luscious “Her” from 1992’s The Love of Life or the majestic “Other Side of the World,” also from that album (Though out of print and kind of expensive on the secondary market, the album is a good starting point). Those moments have always been key to the Swans aesthetic and there are plenty such moments on the Seer.
There are three more tracks to explore that close out the Seer, “Avatar,” which runs just shy of nine minutes, “A Piece of the Sky” (just over 19 minutes long) and “The Apostate,” which runs 23 minutes even. If the descriptions of the songs that precede these three intrigue enough, these three will not disappoint, as the cycle continues with them. I’ll restrain myself so as not to give away the ending of the Seer, but dynamics remain enthralling and entrancing moments abound featuring more of Gira’s voice and even Jarboe’s, as well as Akron/Family. In fact, the end of “A Piece of the Sky” is nothing short of gorgeous, heart-aching beauty, lead by Gira’s voice and vocals.
This is an art rock album if there ever was one. It’s as impressionistic as it is expressionistic, just as it is powerful and delicate. Without reservation, I would say this is the most awesome thing I’ve heard this year, if not one of the most powerful moments in my history of listening to music, and easily the best of Swans’ catalog … yet.
*I interviewed Gira recently, and he suggested the best way to listen to the Seer is without breaks, digitally. You can read my interview with Gira at the “County Grind” blog site. A longer profile on Gira, Swans and the Seer will appear in the print version of the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times” in early October, ahead of the band’s live performance at West Palm Beach’s Respectable Street Café (buy tickets).
** Gira said the end of “the Seer” is actually a slew of coded erotic phrases. “The words at the end of that whole piece are kind of a secret erotic message,” he told me via phone with a laugh. “There’s a lot of sexuality in that, but I don’t really say any specific words, but I think if you listen, you can glean what I’m talking about.” Indeed, when one listens loosely to it, one will hear phrases like, “My cock in your mouth” or “you sat on my mouth.” Meanwhile, a rhythmic, brief scratch on a violin’s strings seems to suggest ecstatic female moaning.