A Liminal Review: The Seer by Swans (August 15th, 2012)

“Lunacy! Lunacy! Lunacy!” The chant rises up out of the musical ashes of opening track ‘Lunacy’, the first of many supreme meltdowns that course through The Seer, the latest monolith of an album by the revived and reinvigorated Swans, following on from 2010′s critically-hailed My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. Unlike the legion of cynical rock band reunions currently polluting the festival scene, the return of Swans stems from the ongoing and visceral self-exploration of singer Michael Gira, a man so committed to gazing at his inner demons you have to worry for his health. The Seer is a case in point: at nearly two hours in duration, it stretches the boundaries of endurance, albeit in the most blissful way possible.

At the album’s heart lies the gruelling monster of a title track, a crushing 30-minute epic that initially has the feel of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse stomp, but, with Gira’s background in industrial noise and punk, ‘The Seer’ descends into dark and ominous depths, driven by a band so confident you’d think that these were the original Swans, with 30 years’ worth of time together to gel into such a humongous whole. I may have a preference for the early Filth-era material, just because it’s so mean and misanthropic, but in terms of cohesion and pure musical talent, this incarnation of Swans takes some beating, and few outfits in rock can match their intensity. ‘The Seer’ starts off in widescreen, with bagpipes, strings, horns and rattling percussion, a broad vista that evokes the wind-swept prairies of the Midwest, or, musically, the freeform intro to Van Der Graaf Generator’s ‘Arrow’. Swans have the cohesive madness of a free-jazz combo, and the feedback-enhanced furore of Crazy Horse, and, combined, these two disparate forms coalesce into a towering rock edifice as open as it is dense, gradually building skywards in the kind of patient layers usually associated with prog. Phil Puleo’s polyrhythmic drums motor forward, Klaus Schulze-like in their minimal energy, supported by the patient percussion of Thor Harris, as Gira menacingly intones the grim mantra “I see it all”. For all its darkness, ‘The Seer’ is psychedelic, with labyrinthine guitar solos swooping ceaselessly over the hypnotic rhythms, although, to cop a phrase from Gary Mundy or Matt Bower, this is bleak psychedelia, and when the piece bursts asunder in a shower of post-metal riffage, saturated solos and murderous gong noise, it’s like the heavens have opened and the four horsemen of the apocalypse have descended. Much is made of Gira’s fervent lyrics, but he is far less camp and more lyrically oblique than Woven Hand’s David Eugene Edwards or even Nick Cave, and he in fact forgoes lyrics for much of The Seer, allowing the music to breathe and flow with epic, brutal transcendence.

With such an incredible, righteous centrepiece (one that isn’t all storm and fury, by the way – when Gira launches into a mournful harmonica break towards the end, it’s surprisingly sparse, and emotionally moving), it would be easy to overlook the rest of The Seer, even though it’s two closing numbers are 20-minute-long epics that almost match the title track’s immensity. ‘Mother of the World’, the second track, is creepily melodic, careening forward on the motorik repetition of the drums (this is first and foremost a drum album, I feel, and Puleo and Harris deserve maximum praise for the way they combine precision and wildness) and a loping two-note riff and bassline. Gira really soars as a vocalist here, switching from unsettling heavy breathing to his trademark growl via a haunting yodel that his idol Howlin’ Wolf would be proud of. Again, the range of his talents is on display, with hints of blues and doom-laden folk simmering under the muscular noise-rock. The track’s momentum is implacable, even merciless, a kind of minimal propulsion that can canter along without dropping a beat or suddenly shift directions with any one of Gira’s compositional whims. Again, I can’t say it enough, from bassist Christopher Pravdica to the molten rhythm guitar of Norman Westberg, this is one of the most talented, adventurous bands in the world.

While the album’s length would initially appear to be a handicap, on the whole this is as concise and well-balanced album as you’ll hear, with potential post-’The Seer’ lull rescued by the final three tracks that sign things off with a bang. ‘Avatar’ is a nine-minute psych-out, all chiming bells and insistent polyrhythms, and possibly the most mesmerising Swans track in quite some time, with Gira’s multi-tracked vocals becoming a moody chorus behind sweeping guitar drones and synthesizer melodies, achieving elegiac status as he moans variations on “Your light is in my hand”. ‘A Piece of the Sky’, meanwhile, flows through different musical and emotional states over its nineteen-plus minutes, from crackling Macronympha-like harsh noise to soothing ambience to glistening, post-classical bliss and gnarly folk-rock. As ever, Gira’s iron grip on his vision is what keeps this impermanence from collapsing, with every shift and transformation a beautiful and/or overpowering complement to the passage before.

Whether achieved through intuition or meticulousness, this coherence and control (and I’ve seen Swans live – Gira runs a tight ship) culminate in ‘The Apostate’, the most perfect conclusion to an album I’ve heard in a long time. As a line of guitar feedback drifts and wails in the background, a gritty sub-melody is ground out on drums, bass and guitar, while Harris pounds angrily on cymbals. The mood is that of a funeral march set in the dark dystopia of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, until they suddenly freak out without warning (it makes me jump every time), tearing things to shreds in a tornado of saturation, rambunctious arrhythmic percussion and ear-scraping guitar noise. Every time it feels like they’re building to a crescendo, Swans just climb another level until you’re surrounded and filled at once by the music. Another shift and they are rushing forwards like a speeding train, every member keyed into the heart of the song with telepathic force. And we’re only halfway through. From there, ‘The Apostate’ shifts, swirls, collapses and explodes around your ears, with Gira screaming “Get out of my mind!”. Yes, I will always love Filth, but ‘The Apostate’ is so brutally beautiful, so persuasive in its aggressive grace, that it overwhelms every time.

The era of Swans-as-industrial-band has effectively been buried over the course of the two hours of The Seer (although Gira will contend that he broke away from that history decades ago, I can’t be the only nostalgic). Swans are, despite the 30 years of their existence, still on a journey, guided by Michael Gira’s ferocious dedication and need to push the limits of himself and his audience. To paraphrase another great unsatisfied rock genius, “Long may he roar.”

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