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The Seer Guides Us to Be Kind: Ten Great Songs by Swans 2.0

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

5 - 1

 
5. “No Words/No Thoughts”
(My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, 2010)


At one point, Gira expressed discontent in cutting down Rope to the Sky opener “No Words/No Thoughts” to its nine-and-a-half minute runtime. The live CD/DVD We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head attests that this song can more than fill 20 minutes, but to my ears the album version is fine on its own terms. As the song begins the sound of bells is heard, an ominous introduction to the cascading strums of guitar that make up the bulk of the track’s first half. In the second half things take to the pace of a gallop, with staccato bass notes setting in place a driving rhythm that is matched by Phil Puleo’s measured hits of the snare. After a tense buildup, the music gives out entirely, leaving only Gira’s voice, which delivers Rope to the Sky’s best lyrics: “Long may he live / Long may he live / Long may his children drift through the wind”. Then, a moment of sheer genius: “Long may his world never begin”. At that point, the music picks back up, even more aggressively than before, coming to a powerful conclusion as all the instruments halt on a loudly hit note. The irony is obvious, for with “No Words/No Thoughts” a whole new world began, and impressively at that.


 
4. “Lunacy”
(The Seer, 2012)


Gira may have titled his 2010 solo release I Am Not Insane, but as The Seer’s opening tome “Lunacy” attests, there have got to be instances where he flirts with the darker side of sanity. This six-minute dark hymn climaxes with a haunting chant, in which Swans are joined by members of Low: “Lunacy! Lunacy! Lunacy!” This goes on for just long enough to cause discomfort, at which point the song recedes into a chilling coda: “Your childhood is over”, Gira announces, with a degree of nonchalance that sets an especially bleak stage for the remainder of The Seer. That 2012 double-disc opus was described by Gira as a culmination of all the music he had made for the previous 30 years. The urgency behind the dark chants of “Lunacy” makes it clear that The Seer is a serious affair of the first order. Echoes of “Lunacy!” still ring long after “The Apostate” closes out the exhausting hour and a half that preceded it.


 
3. “Jim”
(My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, 2010)


“Jim” began as a demo played by Gira on acoustic guitar, as part of the I Am Not Insane release. Better than any of the Gira solo demos that later become full-blooded Swans tunes, “Jim” is demonstrative of how a single germ of a groove played on one instrument can be given life in a band setting, particularly with a band with as strong a rapport as Swans. Pravdica, as he often is, takes front and center, with his catchy bass groove serving as the song’s driving engine. Puleo and jack-of-all-trades percussionist Thor Harris provide an appropriately understated, jazzy rhythmic background, which grows in intensity as the song reaches is tumultuous midpoint. “Let’s string up the man / At the top of the stairs”, Gira suggests menacingly, “Let’s piss on the sea / That’s burning down there!” It’s never made clear who Jim is, but as Gira describes him, he comes off as a sort of bizarre, mythopoetic figure: “Ride your beautiful bitch / To the ultimate sin!” Gira commands. At six minutes and 46 seconds, “Jim” is as close as Swans 2.0 will get to writing something able to fit in the confines of a radio single, but this punches with just as much weight as their lengthier compositions.


 
2. “A Piece of the Sky”
(The Seer, 2012)


Unlike the majority of the epics that have come to define Swans 2.0, “A Piece of the Sky” doesn’t quite organically flow from section to section. It sounds quite obviously like several different ideas for a song merged into one kaleidoscopic, 19-minute epic. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s any less effective for doing so. In fact, in its collage of sounds that span electric, acoustic, and organic, it becomes one of the most interesting experiments Swans has ever crafted. Starting off with the crackling of a large fire (which, as The Seer’s liner notes point out, are real), the piece then segues into a slightly off-key choral passage. What follows this is one of the most beautiful things Swans has ever put to tape: a three-minute passage of chimes and bells weaving in and out of each other, forming a dazzling latticework of notes. That section abruptly ends, after which the band plays a catchy instrumental passage that sounds startlingly like post-rock. As if all of this weren’t breathtaking enough, “A Piece of the Sky” concludes with a four-minute section that Gira calls “a hymn to our creator”. With vague yet entrancing lyrics like “There’s some wires we can’t unwind / Around the ankles of the blind”, Gira rounds out this mélange of an epic in a way that can, oddly enough, only be described as charming.


 
1. “Screenshot”
(To Be Kind, 2014)


“Screenshot” takes the title for being the most aptly named song of the music Swans 2.0 has been making up to this point. Gira often utilizes the word “cinematic” in describing the group’s music, which makes it fitting to say that “Screenshot” really is a single shot take on what it is that makes Swans so compelling. An ominous, slithering bassline begins it all, with the remaining instruments joining in methodically, one after another, building a marvelous tension that is enhanced by Gira’s ritualistic singing: “No pain, no death, no suffering”. The emphasis on the word “No” throughout the song—something the limited edition cover to Rope to the Sky hinted at—gives the feeling that Swans are aiming for a kind of musical nirvana, where nothing but sound exists. Even though Gira at one point says “No time”, “Screenshot’s” superlative climax find him shouting “Here! Now!” The defining trait of Swans 2.0 is an emphasis on those two very things, which indicates that time itself might be a paradox for the group. Here and now are the goals, but so too is the obliteration of those concepts. In wrestling that perplexing contradiction with its unrelenting rhythm, “Screenshot” represents the strongest material that Swans have put out in their reconstitution.

Tagged as: list this | swans
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