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Swans: The Seer review, plus Mini-Interviews with Michael Gira (on Lady Gaga!) and Jarboe

Swans The Seer
2 September 2012

Nietzsche referred to the Christian God as “the maximum God attained so far;” following a similar logic, The Seer is the maximum Swans record.

Swans founder Michael Gira refers to the album as a “culmination of every previous Swans album, as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined;” hearing the album, this statement makes perfect sense. If Swans’ statement of return, 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, still had one foot in the world of Angels of Light and the aesthetic of Young God recording artists like Davendra Banhart and Akron/Family, with Gira only beginning to find his way back into the “whirlpool of sledgehammers” that is Swans, the 2CD/ 3LP The Seer suggests he has arrived there, taken stock, and – after touring the most intense live show this writer has seen in his 30+ year history of attending concerts – has returned to the studio determined to write a masterpiece that serves as a climax to Swans’ journey thus far.

If this is indeed Gira’s purpose, he succeeds admirably. The Seer is a magnificently ambitious rock record which serves equally well as a culmination of 20th century music, as filtered through Gira’s peculiar muse. There are moments where one thinks of American minimalism – both the shimmering reiteration of Steve Reich and the immersive, glowing drone of Tony Conrad. Elsewhere, the album evokes the epochal, out-there noise of “Masonic Inborn,” off one of the final albums of Albert Ayler; and more obviously (but less frequently) no wave and post-rock and other less mainstream subgenres (I confess that particular touches here and there even brought to mind Iron Butterfly and Black Sabbath, but this probably says more about my own perversity than Swans’ music, which has precious little room for kitsch or kidstuff, which is what most rock appears by comparison). Indeed, there’s even an invocation of some of the more Middle-Eastern-inflected musical gestures that appear on the Paul Bowles-inspired The Burning World, beginning with the sweeping instrumentation that asserts itself a couple of minutes into the first track, “Lunacy.” The lyrics for that song are particularly evocative, too, aiming more for the heart than the viscera (the most haunting phrase on the album is perhaps “your childhood is over,” repeated a sufficient number of times, in tones of pain-bought wisdom, that you can’t but apply it to yourself). Hammer dulcimer, an important part of Swans’ richly percussive live show, is used to great effect on several tracks by Phil Puleo and Thor Harris; there are chanted, multilayered vocals and breath effects that range from the barely-perceivable to the downright scary, with vocal guests including Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (who sings the countrified “Song for a Warrior”), Al and Mimi of Low, and even Gira’s former life-partner and long-time collaborator Jarboe, who was conspicuously absent last album (Gira said at that time that he thought bringing her back, in context, would be “demeaning” to both of them, but clearly finds her presence appropriate now; for more on Jarboe, see the print portion of my Big Takeover interview with Gira, in issue 68). Jarboe’s contributions are not as sizeable here as they are on Soundtracks for the Blind or Swans are Dead, the two Swans albums to which The Seer is perhaps closest in spirit, but are nonetheless still substantial and welcome. She was asked to contribute to two songs, she explained by email: “Michael asked me to sing backing vocals on one song (“The Seer Returns”) with his own vocal. He wanted a lazy, slurred-type delivery and so that is what I delivered. He also asked me to sing what was to be an introduction to another song (the 19-minute “A Piece of the Sky”). He wanted multi-tracked vocals of different tonalities and harmony. I recorded around 20 or 40 tracks to be merged in the final production.” Jarboe is happy to be on the record: “I’d love to contribute in any way I can to Swans,” she writes (more on her own concert itinerary below).

Not everyone will be up to the challenges posed by The Seer; in particular, the jaggedly repetitive introduction to “Mother of the World” might scare off a few musical tenderfeet, as might the title track, which extends its journey over a 32-minute expanse, and builds to a shattering climax two thirds of the way through, but then seems unwilling to let you lie there, spent and satiated, continuing to insistently pound itself into you like a deranged and demanding lover, either oblivious to, or unwilling to accept, the fact that the orgasm has already happened. Still, for people who have had limited exposure to Swans, or have been put off by some of the more Spartan early recordings, The Seer is a great place to begin, assuming they at the least have an appetite for powerful, sincere, and aesthetically and emotionally complex experiences (adjectives fail me, here, but all of these definitely apply).

All in all, I felt exactly one (slight) disappointment with this disc: I had assumed, hearing “The Apostate” live in Vancouver last year – a song that for obvious reasons gets described as “the Lady Gaga song” in many Youtube clips of live Swans performances – that Michael Gira was calling Lady Gaga out, directing what seemed total, unforgiving rage at the triviality of the contemporary pop landscape into a scathing attack on her, commanding her to get out of the singer’s head. While interpreting the song thus seemed to suggest a bizarre amount of esteem for the musician – because you have to at least acknowledge someone is part of the same church as you before you go about accusing them of apostasy – it certainly fit how I feel about Lady Gaga’s music, and much else that passes for “hit music” (or whatever the fuck you call it), these days. Alas, not only is any clear reference to Lady Gaga removed from the vocal in the studio version of the song (otherwise recognizable as the tune I heard in Vancouver), but it turns out I was perhaps projecting far too much of my own disdain for pop into Gira’s project; his savagery towards her was apparently all in my own bent head. Gira writes me that “I definitely was NOT attacking Lady Gaga, for God’s sake. I just didn’t have any lyrics finished for the song yet, and she seemed interesting, so I thought I’d invoke her demon spirit and I liked the way her name sounded. She’s obviously a master magician. Once I got lyrics, I removed her name, since to use her name is too topical and won’t hold up on record in five years or so…”

Actually, I abundantly agree – because people will be listening to The Seer long after Lady Gaga is completely forgotten! – but I’m a bit sad to find I had so misinterpreted Gira’s intentions. Ah well – to borrow a phrase Jarboe used in her email to me, some things are in the “ear of the beholder.” It’s still a damned good song!

Swans are presently touring The Seer across North America, beginning in Vancouver on September 6th. Jarboe, meanwhile, will be in Europe in the fall, then touring with Nachtmystium in November in the USA. She has recorded her second Idemnity CD and will be returning to the studio to commence work on the third in December. My best to both Jarboe and Michael Gira; I’m very glad to see her included in this project. Check out the online portion of last year’s Michael Gira interview elsewhere on this website, and if you haven’t seen Swans live, folks, sincerely: do not miss this opportunity. This is a band for the ages.

Live photo of Swans at Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre, 2011, by Femke van Delft. Thanks, Fem.

Swans by Femke van Delft