So today Swans arrive in Florida for three dates before continuing on with its world tour. Starting with a show at the Social in Orlando (Buy tickets), the band will move closer to my area tomorrow, at West Palm Beach’s Respectable Street Café (buy tickets). You can expect a review of that show the next morning on the music blog for the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times.” Just follow the “County Grind” blog through the image below:

In the meantime, most of my coverage for Swans (besides an extensive, indulgent album review for the band’s new album The Seer on Independent Ethos) has been for the “New Times.” I spoke to its founder and frontman Michael Gira back in July:

First interview, on The Seer:

Swans’ Michael Gira on The Seer, Released Today: “Once It’s Done, It Just Sounds Like Dead Matter to Me”

Second interview ahead of show:
Long preview: “Swans’ Michael Gira: ‘At the Best Moments, Music Plays You and Not the Opposite.'”

Shorter version that appeared in print: “Swans’ Michael Gira on Ecstatic Feelings, The Seer, and Being ‘All in the Sound’”

There’s also a third Q&A coming on influences and Gira’s love of the sound of children’s voices contrasted with the infamous dark din Swans have been known to create.

Update: here’s that third interview: Swans’ Michael Gira on the Value of Dynamics

Swans is one of the few bands I discovered during my college years, in the early 1990s, that I still have an affection for today. It’s a rare thing when a band that actually started in the early 1980s can so fiercely maintain a relevance in today’s alternative music scene. Gira does this with little desire to look back on anything, as he revealed in our conversations chronicled above. There are very few artists who can maintain such creative vitality during the length of time he has maintained Swans without selling the music short by succumbing to popular trends.

If you want to know what to expect of this show (though he told me this in July, and things may have changed since), Gira says, “It’s going to be a few things from the Seer, and three new pieces. I’m not gonna call them songs because they’re 20 minutes each. And one old Swans song, which is called ‘Coward.’ But that’s going to be arranged a little differently than the original.”

Here’s the vintage version of “Coward” (though Gira seems scary, he’s really going into places few dare: the Jungian Shadow personified):

Do not take that at all as a primer on Swans, as Gira notes in the quote above, the song has changed over the course of nearly 30 years since that was recorded. Here’s a recent official live video:

Finally, Gira also knows the darkness can be hushed and gorgeous. Here’s a great example from the brilliant 1992 album White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, “Love Will Save You:”

The final US tour dates include:

10/16 – Orlando, FL @ The Social
10/17 – West Palm Beach, FL @ TBA
10/18 – Tallahassee, FL @ Club Downunder
10/19 – Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
10/23 – St. Louis, MO @ Firebird
10/24 – Chicago, IL @ Cabaret Metro

However the tour continues without pause to Europe with these dates:
10/25 – Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
10/26 – Montreal, QC @ La Tulipe
11/01 – Reykjavik, IC @ Airways
11/15 – London, UK @ Koko
11/16 – Glasgow, UK @ The Arches
11/17 – Manchster, UK @ Sound Control
11/19 – Paris, FR @ Le Trabendo
11/20 – Nijmegen, NL @ Doornroosje
11/21 – Haarlem, NL @ Patronaat
11/22 – Hamburg, DE @ Kampnagel
11/23 – Copenhagen, DK @ Det Kgl. Danske Konservatories
11/24 – Prague, CZ @ Lucenra Music Bar
11/28 – Vienna, AT @ Arena Big Hall
11/30 – Bologna, IT @ Locomotiv
12/02 – Kortrijk, BE @ De Kreun
12/03 – Bern, CH @ Reitschule Gross Halle
12/04 – Lausanne, CH @ Les Docks

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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.

Hans Morgenstern

Notes:

*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.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

We’re coping with the loss of one of the best guitarists the Miami-area local scene has ever been blessed to have. Dan Hosker passed away on Saturday while in hospice care (Read my friend Tony Landa’s post on how he ended up there). He was 46. I wrote a little tribute to him on the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times” blog. Read that by jumping through the “County Grind” blog logo below:

I had written about his band, the Holy Terrors a couple years ago (Haunted by the Holy Terrors). For me, they stole the night from Interpol during an after-show gig that featured Interpol’s drummer Sam Fogarino returning to his South Florida roots in the Terrors.

Though he was barely known outside of South Florida, Hosker brought something special to the music world. He had a genuine love of playing and exploring the sonic possibilities of guitar. He was an important part of the touring version of the legendary experimental noise band Harry Pussy with Bill Orcutt and Adris Hoyos in the mid-nineties while maintaining his devotion to the Terrors, an alt-punk band he formed with former New Englander Rob Elba. His last project involved him playing banjo in the country roots outfit Boise Bob and His Backyard Band. In between there were experimental outfits, post-rock and garage bands.

The photo above comes from a still image of a cable access television show I used to host on local Miami music. He really humored me that night, but we were all nervous. Watch the whole awkward thing below, beginning with the Terrors performing “Turn” off their debut full-length album Lolitaville):

Dan Hosker, you and your guitar will be missed.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)