srijeda, 29. kolovoza 2012.

Swans - The Seer

Swans - The Seer

Kad bi nebo bilo metalno mlijeko, rajski milkšejk radili bi strojem za zavarivanje.

It’s a beautiful thing to witness a band rising from its own ashes. In a time when washed-up musicians can command an absurd paycheck for going through the motions of a reunion tour, Swans’ return feels like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. Instead of reforming for All Tomorrow’s Parties to play Children of God and fading back into the abyss, Swans are marching into the future with a limit-transcending force scarcely matched by any band currently plateauing into its prime. There is no stronger evidence for this force than The Seer, which will emerge as one of Michael Gira and Swans’ definitive statements. Its expansion of the borders of their back catalog is so vast that it renders much of the old records nigh unrecognizable, and yet it also in a sense completes of all of Swans’ previous work, the end result of Gira’s constant refinement of the sounds and ideas that compose the group’s foundation. The Seer is a massive statement, and it’s clear from interviews that Gira can barely contain his own excitement about Swans’ new direction.
All that scope does not come without a cost. Gira states that The Seer is the result of 30 years of work and that it drove him broke in the process, and yet he still claims it’s unfinished (perhaps the distillation process will continue over their next tour). Its 119 minutes will exhaust even the most prepared listener: not only is the vast majority of that running time an electrifying, pounding assault, its repetitious patterns stretch each song to a tension just at the edge of tolerability. The album’s themes are as heavy as they get: ecstasy, power, love, family, the body, madness, war, god. Three of its eleven songs push 20 minutes, with the title track clocking in at over 32. Barring “The Daughter Brings the Water” and “Song for a Warrior” (which are welcome breaks), The Seer’s difficulty finds no equal in Swans’ canon. It’s the Moby Dick to Gira’s Ahab (and Melville); I wouldn’t be surprised to find a gold doubloon nailed to the dashboard of Swans’ tour vehicle.
“Despite what you might have heard or presumed, my quest is to spread light and joy through the world,” Gira states in a note for the album’s press material. That’s a hard fucking battle. To find ecstasy, let alone to spread it, requires the release of extreme pressures. The Seer reads like an exploration of divine madness. Or rather, it reads as if the album’s conception, arrangement, and recording all derived from a state of ecstatic mania and so epitomize it, providing an extended window into a mind in the grips of a vast power but limited by its own human frailty. I’m referring here not to a mental illness, but to an altered state. This is apparent already in the first track, “Lunacy,” where for a large part of the song Gira and Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker chant “lun-a-cy, lun-a-cy, lun-a-cy…” repeatedly, as if conjuring the moon to descend from the heavens to fill their innocent souls with knowledge.
Chanting recurs in “The Seer,” this time by Gira alone: “I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all…” The image of the all-seeing eye comes to mind. Atop an unfinished pyramid, this eye becomes a symbol of the gradual movement of human endeavor towards the omniscience of god. But here we sense that The Seer (i.e., the character) has skipped a few steps. Transgression into the divine and forbidden knowledge has a high price. The Seer is not chanting to invoke omniscience, but to come to grips with having seen too much. This is not merely a lyrical motif; at the beginning, swells of noise punctuated by a chorus of dulcimers ring like the ticking of the world’s most fucked-up clock, as if time is fracturing and superimposing on itself, all the while the tension building with layers of bass, drums, and guitar. During many moments on the album, one gets the sense that everything could suddenly collapse into utter chaos, but it’s all miraculously held together for a time by the strained control of the musicians. The most common method of control that manifests here is a sort of mantric repetition, which at once suspends and prolongs ecstasy, as in erotic action and prayer. But in struggling against that ecstatic force, the divine light sometimes reveals to The Seer the vastness of its power, crushing it into oblivion.
The midpoint of “The Seer” is the first indication that breakdown of order is coming, but it isn’t until “93 Ave B Blues” arrives when order entirely devolves into chaos. Swans have been dipping their toes into the pool of noise ever since the project began, but this is the first time that they truly dive in, even approaching free-jazz territory. And this is only a taste of the chaos to come in the latter part of the album. While “A Piece of the Sky’s” first 10 minutes could hold its own with any epic drone track, perhaps the newest and most powerful sound arrives in the final song, “The Apostate.” Here, the madness is complete. As the culmination of a culmination, “The Apostate” goes everywhere you ever wished Swans would go. For a reference point, the closest they’ve ever come to it was on last year’s live cut of “No Words/No Thoughts” from We Rose From Your Bed with the Sky in Our Heads (it has more raw power than the version on My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky). From a swarm of EBow’d guitar swells, the song builds into a lumbering behemoth of a bass line, piling on layer upon layer of noise and bursts of percussion. It arrives, finally, at an almost tribal dance beat, the vocals transforming into pre-linguistic animal sounds.
To return to Gira’s mission: The Seer’s dark ecstasy precipitates a kind of joy in its listeners. In subjecting yourself to it, you absorb some of its manic glory, “[fed] through [its] power lines,” as Gira would have it on “The Wolf.” Its depth and emotional force reach a level that has become exceedingly scarce. I could spend more paragraphs discussing the issues this album raises: the return of Jarboe, however brief; the fact that Karen O. mostly complements this record on “Song for a Warrior;” Gira’s shifting relationships with God, fatherhood, and mortality; the dense instrumentation and host of collaborators; the ethical and metaphysical underpinnings of each track. But that would belabor the point: The Seer delivers on its promise. It’s an exhausting and maddening document, but one can’t help but emerge from it filled with a renewed radiance. Gira can now soldier forward on his quest, this battle won.- Matthew Phillips

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. - Mike Powell
As a music dork, two of the most transcendent, quasi-religious experiences you can have are going to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Neurosis live. And after I saw Neurosis a few years ago, something occurred to me: The two shows are pretty much negative mirror images of each other. Both bands are full of grizzled bruisers who play in the dark, slowly building up to massive and crushing climaxes before ebbing into another long astral-contemplation bit of ambiance. Both use film projections as a crucial component to their live show. Both leave behind any ideas of song-form. And both have flown under the radar for a long, long time, but they still pack people in on the rare occasions that they play shows. But from the one Godspeed show I saw nearly a decade ago, the one image that remains burned into my head is the word “hope” flickering on the screen behind them, as the show finished. When I saw Neurosis, a different image lingered: Wolves running toward the camera, the gritty black-and-white film stock doing nothing to hide the malevolent glint in their eyes. Both of those shows were about transcendence, but one moved toward happy and hard-earned bliss, the other toward soul-saturating dread. And I’ve come to think of the new Swans album The Seer as something similar: The heart-eating, spirit-crushing, apocalyptic flipside to the 1999 Boredoms masterpiece Vision Creation Newsun.
Bear with me a minute here. Boredoms had been around more than a decade by the time they got around to making Vision Creation Newsun, moving gradually from booger-flecked broken-pop explosions to astral psychedelia. And that album was the moment that their latter-day sound stretched to its dizzy drum-circle natural conclusion and transformed itself into an altar to the very concept of love. It’s a deliriously beautiful piece of work, one that rushes into a headlong blur of joy. The songs don’t have titles, just shapes, and they all melt into one holistic composition anyway. It’s an album for spinning around in grassy fields and staring at the sky. Boredoms have stuck around since then, but unless we’re counting 2004′s two-song Seadrum/House Of Sun, they haven’t released a proper studio album since then. They don’t need to. They already got it right.
The Seer, for its part, has similar ideas about structure. The massive two-hour monolith of an album hangs together perfectly, but it refuses to contort itself to suit anyone’s idea of an album. One song stretches out past half an hour, and a couple of others come pretty close. Songs will go full-on noise-drone for 10 minutes at a time before suddenly becoming monastic incantations, or death-country lullabies. You can’t just throw it on while you’re cruising the internet; you need to carve out the time to sit and listen it, to let it dominate your soul. But rather than the wordless summery bliss of Vision Creation Newsun, Swans have given us a massive slab of all-consuming hate and disgust. It’s an album made for spending time in dark and dank basements, staring holes in the wall, holding your hand above a candle flame, imagining the death of the world. It’s heavy stuff.
“Heavy stuff” is, of course, pretty much what Swans have been doing since their early ’80s inception, as they moved from soul-grating proto-industrial clangor to classical-infused dramatic creep. When he got a new version of the band together after more than a decade off, bandleader Michael Gira wrote that he never intended Swans to get back together but that he missed something about it: The ecstasy of doing these shows, of summoning those vast walls of noise. And in the interviews he’s been doing lately around this new album, he’s talked about The Seer as the final culmination of everything he’s done with the band, the one where he applied every last production idea he’d picked up over the year. And god knows, this thing is bursting with sounds, bells and choirs and feedback and martial drum-roil. He released a live album just to benefit the recording sessions behind this one, and he put all the money he raised to great use, pulling symphonies of darkness into every track.
But Gira is also a deeply instinctive bandleader, one who knows just how much all-consuming pummel the listener can take before the band needs to pull back for a quick dose of beauty. “Song For The Warrior,” a gorgeously slow and sad ballad with a tremulous Karen O lead vocal, is probably my single favorite thing here: An eye-of-the-storm break to breathe before the fury returns. And Gira himself is also a vocalist of tremendous presence and charisma, a barrel-chested moaner whose intonations conjure pure religious fear. After seeing Angels Of Light, the band he led during Swans’ absence, absolutely obliterate a small Baltimore club some years ago, it occurred to me that Gira might be the closest living vocal peer to Johnny Cash, a voice that seems to emanate from a dark forgotten time. And on The Seer, he masses that voice, uses it to pant or mutter or howl, in multitracked choir, at the moon. He’s someone who could pull you into a black place with nothing more than that voice an an acoustic guitar, but on The Seer, he’s assembled armies of the damned, and arranged a piece of music that brings a very dark version of the transcendence he always talks about seeking. If you’re willing to give yourself over to The Seer, it’s one of the greatest musical achievements in recent memory. It’s not an easy album to mentally process, but it’s one that leaves a deep mark. - Tom Breihan

Michael Gira: 'The Seer took 30 years to make. It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album, as well as any other music I’ve ever made…'
Swans are a band that attracts superlatives. I’m not going to argue for Swans as the best, or the heaviest, the loudest, or the most evil band in the world (as has been done), but I am offering them up as the one band that makes the best case for extreme music as a profound experience, and one that transcends mimesis or expression. That’s to say: they don’t sing about emotions; they obliterate them; they are the sensation they seek to create. There’s a sense that Michael Gira might well have seen further than most. True, Swans can seem primitive, or musically un-evolved, and that was (once) the point. Early Swans lyrics dealt in abstracts and archetypes of power; slaves and masters; figures more monochrome and thuggish than anything on massively indebted later records like The Downward Spiral, that made contemporaries like Sonic Youth or The Birthday Party sound positively commercial.
In the early Nineties, Swans more or less invented Crescendo-Rock-As-We-Know-It, and the dramatic peaks of Soundtracks for the Blind (1996) or Swans Are Dead (1998) anticipate the best of Mogwai, GYBE! or Sigur Ros. I say 'crescendo rock' because the experimental Soundtracks... came five minutes too late to be mentioned in Simon Reynolds’ 1994 essay on post-rock, and this two hour collage of found-sounds and sinister drone-scapes doesn’t always get the credit it deserves (for the sake of ease, let's call them post-rock from now on). What those later bands added was often training in composition, as well as influences from classical minimalism (Reich, Glass, Cardew, Part), but Michael Gira had always been more interested in learning-on-the-job how best to terrorize an audience. Obviously, there’s no need to pick a preference among post-rock bands, and it’s futile to argue for authenticity over musicianship, but Gira’s own rhetoric raises the question of what we expect from music, and whether there’s a reason his music seems to exude more dread (and beauty) than technically superior bands.
So, what does 30 years of experience sound like? Put the artist back in the picture, and you start to see why Swans are Swans: that these sounds could only have been arrived at by someone with a particular sensibility, and a particular mission you can’t fake. After his parents’ divorce, a couple of years of almost daily acid-trips, a stint in prison, and then in a factory, the young Michael Gira had run away to Israel – all before he was 15. A year or so after his disappearance, he was tracked down working as a miner. Brought back to the States, he was enrolled in an arts college where he met Kim Gordon and, through her, became an integral part of NYC’s music scene, shortly after the No Wave had broken. An early line up of Swans even recruited Thurston Moore from Glenn Branca’s Guitar Army. The reason we’re still listening to a band who set out to sound so un-evolved (see, for instance, Filth from 1982) is because of how far Swans did evolve, and how deliberate that initial devolution had been: starting from percussion-heavy industrial; moving to a higher species of post-rock that encompassed (but wasn’t limited to) crescendo-rock; and then a version of alt country for most of the Noughties (as Angels of Light) that allowed Gira to play unironically spiritual songs, and occasionally create a cacophony like the good ol’days.
And so we come to 2012. The Seer is the culmination of Gira’s 30-year-journey; his finest two hours, if you will. Superficially, it sounds like a compendium of post-rock moves, but that’s a good thing, not a sign of dilettantism, and there’s much more going on. Twelve year after GYBE’s Levez vos Skinny Fists… (the easiest comparison for most readers), and 16 years on from Soundtracks…, this isn’t actually a difficult album. Most of the tracks will satisfy listeners who came to post-rock via Hollywood movies. There is, however, a case to be made for the more difficult passages on the album, and by turning the spotlight on some of Gira’s influences, showing how much this does constitute a departure. Take the middle movement of 30-minute long title track 'The Seer'. From four to 13 minutes, you’ve got a conventional post-rock number, albeit with a terrifically sinister vocal that rises from a diabolical slither to something more ominous ("iveseenitall-iveseenitall-iveseenitall-I’VE SEEN IT ALL-I’VE SEEN IT ALL"). For five minutes the slow drums portend a devastating second climax but it never arrives, leaving you to wonder what decision was made (or not made) here. On a second or third listen – because you WILL come back to this two hour album in its entirety – the realization dawns that Gira is as interested in shaping space (or silence) as he is in sculpting noise. The percussion, provided by Thor Harris, towers like 40-foot pillars in front of a temple from whose dark portal something promises to emerge.
Yes, Swans have been here before, and so have other psychedelic voyagers, but rarely with so much musical legacy freighted into every single bar. Much of The Seer is composed of six to ten minute blocks of relentless repetition, but what’s repeated is played so tightly, and arranged so exquisitely that within individual tracks, you might hear echoes of The Residents’ 'ethnographic forgeries', or Sun City Girls (whose own Sir Richard is touring with Swans). There’s a lot of Can and, in a couple of places, a honking and grunting Captain Beefheart.(If this sounds silly, well, sometimes it is, but pseudo-hippies Animal Collective would soil themselves, and scurry back to whichever kindergarten they get their samples from.)
Arguably, this is a development, and a new target for younger bands to aim at. One of the crucial ingredients that defined Swans as a seminal post-rock band was their exploration of non-rhythmic loops to create soundscapes with a sense of constriction; not that there is no development at all, but the development is cerebral, interior, subjective, depending on the experience of listening over time, rather than harmonic and melodic relations with other elements of the composition.
All of which makes this a surprisingly brisk two hours. Nor is it all avant-garde. 'Song for a Warrior' (sung by Karen O) is one of the most straightforward pieces Gira has ever written, and it’s beautiful. The lyric also feels earned; after all, a musician-as-warrior metaphor would be lazy and crass coming from 90 per cent of people, no matter how many decades they’ve been touring, but I refer you back to Gira’s biography. Approaching 60, he knows the clock is ticking with regards to performing with an intensity that would be true to Swans. He’s writing his own elegy and he seems grimly happy about heading toward some kind of rest. Like Gira’s former musical foil, Jarboe (who symbolically if mutedly pops up on backing vocals a couple of times), Karen O does a fine job of sounding like the anima to such a musical titan, a mythical mother figure whose embrace is also death.
And so one battle – Swans’ 15-year battle against the sensibilities of effete audiences that was supposed to have ended in the Nineties – seems to be coming to an end, allowing Gira to concentrate on the beautiful as much as the sublime. I want to describe 'A Piece of the Sky' as the loveliest thing that Swans have ever committed to record, if only to put ‘loveliest’ in the same sentence as the name of a band synonymous with punishing musical excesses. For its first ten minutes, it’s a close cousin of Eno’s immaculate 'The Dance, parts 1 & 2', before cross-fading into a slow-building guitar-led post-rock number haunted by a faint xylophone part.
Did I mention a guest-spot from (old friends of the band) Alan and Mimi of Low? Or that ‘Avatar’ may be the most thrilling song they’ve ever written, even before you notice the lyrics about performance-as-possession? Actually, the best thing about this album is that Gira’s cried wolf so many times about having said all he has to say, there’s bound to be another 70 minute opus (at least) in six months. Here’s to another 30 years of Swans.- Alexander Tudor

Swans: The Seer / We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Head

If reunions are about looking back, about rehashing the past, then Michael Gira’s reformation of Swans is no reunion. It’s become clear during their incessant touring, and the band’s last album, 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, that this isn’t the same Swans that clattered and snarled their way through the ‘80s and into the mid-‘90s. Swans is ever pushing forward, and they sound now like an expansive, rattling expansion of Michael Gira’s country-death-blues work in Angels of Light. Swans isn’t necessarily leaving the past behind, of course, but the band does feel like both synthesis and reinvention, taking sounds from Gira’s (and the other players’) musical past and building on that wide-open foundation.
In 2012, they have offered not one but two epic, double-album releases, that show just how much they are expanding and how much fruitful new ground they’ve broken. The first, We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Head, documents the band’s touring in 2010 and 2011, and it serves as a sort of hinge in Swans’ history. It recaptures old tunes, but reshapes them to fit the new mold of the band, and moves forward into blistering and huge, nearly formless, material that would eventually end up on the band’s new record, The Seer (more on this in a moment).
We Rose From Your Bed may be a live album, but it’s much more investigative and surprising than most live offerings. Gira is, as always, the howling commanding presence at the front of the fray. But it’s that fray that carries these performances. The live set starts, smartly, with “No Words, No Thoughts”, a huge, repetition of sound that kicked off My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. The song itself is a hinge of sorts in the band’s history, providing both a link to and a shift from the previous Swans incantation from 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind. Here it eases us into the largely experimental world of the shows represented on this disc. Everything here is writ large, stretched beyond even their huge studio versions. What makes this album so satisfying, and utterly fascinating on repeat listens, is how it manages to cohere as a whole while still shocking with its shifts. New versions of older songs, like “Beautiful Child” or “Yr Property” sound perfectly—that is to say, oddly but beautifully—in step with newer stuff like the rollicking stomp of “Jim”. The new material here, that ended up on The Seer, gives us a chance to hear the band grow into these songs. As they feel out “The Seer (Intro)/I Crawled” over its 30 minute run time, you’ll likely find yourself as transfixed by its seemingly endless groan and roll as the players themselves are. It’s a song, like the 17-minute “The Apostate”, that thumps out a slow, grinding pulse for an impossibly long time before ever quite forming into a song.
And yet, in all its sometimes self-indulgent experiments and space, in all its overly patient exploration, We Rose From Your Bed still keeps your attention. It should seem arch—and the bellowing of older tunes like “Sex God Sex” is exciting but still doesn’t quite fit—but it never does. The band feels like they are honestly trying to find new ground, trying to connect to the crowd through shared experience. They don’t know where they’re going sometimes here, and you—and the crowds here—are along for that ride. If it feels aimless, that’s because it is. Or rather, because the destination isn’t laid out for you yet. This live set proves there’s plenty of invention to be found in playing the same songs over and over again, and that you don’t always need a map to find where you’re going.
If the live album revels in its grinding spectacle, The Seer attempts a more polished but no less open grandiosity. Gira claims the album “took 30 years to make” and that it is “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made.” In its wandering, excellent way, The Seer does indeed reshape that past, although it doesn’t deal as deeply in it as the live record. Instead The Seer pushes forward in all directions: into the deathly choir of “Lunacy”, into the tense angles of “Mother of the World”, into the voice-only balladry of “The Wolf”, and so on. These represent the more contained moments on the record, the songs that unfold as you imagine songs should. They are still large in their effect, like the striking beauty of the Karen O-sung “Song For a Warrior”, but their structures won’t shock or overpower you. Other songs here, though, show that the length of those live takes was no fluke.
The title track clocks in at 32 minutes—and the next six-minute song is called “The Seer Returns”—and it will transfix you. Yes it is, by some definition steeped in pop expectations, too long. So is “A Piece of the Sky” at 19 minutes, and “The Apostate”, blown up here to 23 minutes. But “too long” is part of the point here. The Seer is the most daring rock record this year—or in several years—because it makes anyone else’s forays into expansion seem diminutive. That’s not to say it is good because it is long—like the live album, it clocks in at two hours—because it is a lot to listen too, a set of songs and sounds that can feel overwhelming.
But The Seer is meant to overwhelm. Somewhere in its utter hugeness, it breaks down barriers between listener and music, between sound and reaction to that sound. This kind of meshing, of both sense and perspective, is deeply embedded in the album. While that title, The Seer, may feel overly religious, it may have more to do with simply the person doing the seeing, the one from which perspective derives. In “The Seer”, Gira’s voice proclaims “I see it all” over and over again. And, of course, he doesn’t, but he seeks to, as does this music. It searches for borders that aren’t there. It’s not looking to be entirely free, it’s searching for its limits. So when we get to “The Seer Returns” and there’s an exchange (“Your life pours into my mouth / My light pours out of my mouth / My life pours into your mouth”) we see that this perspective can’t be isolated. That some exchange—of spirit, of idea, of sound—must happen to find what the Seer here is looking for. It’s a call, in its impressionistic way, to community, in particular through music. Note the shift in senses, from “see[ing] it all” to things pouring into and out of “my mouth” and “your mouth”. It’s intimacy, communication, and even faint spirituality.
The Seer—and its perhaps unintentional companion We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun In Our Head—is a brave record, one that at times threatens to lose its hold on you, but in the end one that manages to be self indulgent without being self serving. The seer, in the end, appears to be you, and what you find in these records will tell you something of what it’s about, what Swans is about, what Michael Gira is about. You may not put words to what you find, but you’ll feel it because you’ll hear it. Because sometimes they’re the same thing.- Matthew Fiander

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