The end result of Swan's recent The Seer is a place where Gira’s demons, sages, and baffled, bruised mortals do the jig of life alongside the dance macabre, and the gentleness of John the Baptist rides upon the rage of Jehovah.
On August 28th, The Seer was released. If that sounds like the fulfilment of a prophecy meant to mark the start of Armageddon, it’s because a new Swans album, like the apocalypse itself, is an event which weds terror and jubilation. Swans’ records, like their legendarily pummelling live performances, are not exercises in art-as-usual; they have the power to move you to completely reconsider your opinions of what rock music’s mission might be. Long-time leader, Michael Gira states he is uninterested in using the studio to capture the sound of “people in a room.” Swans’ task on record is the creation of cinematic universes, soundtracks that function as their own films.
These aural movies mix the maledict and the transcendent, the longings of the gut and our more angelic ambitions. We in the West have tried to divide mind and body, to cleft spirit from flesh. Swans sup from both streams, extracting equally from life’s grime and glory to alchemize these into music which bonds barbarism to beatitude. The world (the thing! to Shakespeare; nothing to Plato) demands of us that we live in a tug of war between desire and divinity. Swans, like all artists who accept that seediness and saintliness emerge from similar parts of the soul take the muck man inhabits and make it new.
Theologian Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the omega point, the peak of maximum complexity to which the universe ascends; The Seer is, as Gira and myriad reviewers (including this one) have pointed out the summation of 30 years of Swans’ music. I would add that it is also its current omega point: the consummation of the disparate styles Swans have mastered, the horizon at which they meet and mingle. The end result: a place where Gira’s demons, sages, and baffled, bruised mortals do the jig of life alongside the dance macabre, and the gentleness of John the Baptist rides upon the rage of Jehovah.
Swans began in the grubby innards of No Wave era NYC when these hadn’t yet been scrubbed of the slime that lined them. The first few Swans full-lengths Filth, Cop, Greed, and Holy Money (along with EPs like Swans and Young God) pursue an aesthetic which Gira has described as one of self-evisceration. Those documents together form a minimalist’s portrait of the subterranean self. What we humans work hard to keep locked away from natural light in our basements, brothels, prisons, and bedrooms emerges newly energized by Swans’ electricity and power. Swans’ method mirrored the subjects they mined. Gira declaimed from our culture’s underbelly, embodying it without judgment. His words, cast to the ill-defended ether in primal chants and pronouncements, embodied archetypes of suffering, dominance, relationships of abuse both consensual and coercive. The brutal din supporting them was not just basic, not merely the usual formulae borrowed from the punk or metal lexica, but the sound of spleen itself, stirred up by Swans in the damp depths where noise at its least inviting subsists, hiding out hermetically like a beast at the bottom of the sea.
With 1987’s Children of God we get a gust of revitalizing wind. Now nature’s breath blew through the sewers and bunkers the early Swans sound seems to have arisen from. Jarboe, the band’s female component went from a sparingly deployed weapon to Gira’s lieutenant, bringing to the fore her deep classically trained voice and putting it to unorthodox use for the band’s perverse ends. Gira’s baritone met its match in Jarboe’s infinitely flexible singing style. That and her song-writing talent, capable of creating beauty bordering on the heavenly and frequently plumbing the pastoral contributed to Children of God’s filmic feel, its diversity of character. Yet raw power, the likes of which we’d never heard since the Stooges’ heyday (a touchstone for all periods of Swans and Gira in general), was still on display in songs like “New Mind” and “Sex, God, Sex”. Children of God is the prelude which makes The Seer’s stunning climax possible. With it Swans sought to construct sonic worlds broad enough to house both the extremes of human behaviour was capable of and of the artistic expression which seeks to redeems our crooked race.
While Swans came to encompass wider worlds, they never abandoned the elemental. Vulnerability and song-craft became part of the palette without diluting the searing severity of earlier years. Like any animal, Swans evolved, moulted, and grew new feathers, which bristled alongside the old, but continued to be mangy and intractable.
1989’s Burning World came and was promptly disowned by all parties. Bill Laswell may be a genius but his ornate production job could never have been helpful to Swans, who have never been preoccupied with extraneous adornment. With the advent of the '90s, Swans’ palette broadened. Their love affair with melody deepened to such a degree that the newfound connection seemed to have gotten downright conjugal. The post-Burning LPs, White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, Love of Life, and The Great Annihilator, were no longer explicitly conduits of man’s depravity. Now Swans focused their efforts on reconciling corruption with brightness. Moments of pitchy bleakness became rare, but Swans learned to disturb their newfound radiance by adjoining their songs to segues and ambient loops often featuring found sounds, which seemed to recreate the eeriest regions of our inner geographies.
Sometimes they conjoined the two approaches, as in Love of Life’s untouchable “Her", with uncanny, unsettling, usually gripping results. Swans found surreptitious ways of expressing the horror they’d earlier brandished with the forthrightness of a warrior exhibiting his fallen enemy’s scalp. Whereas Swans had previously employed repetition to help incarnate the squalor lurking behind civilization’s flimsy veneer, they could redirect their technique to mystical ends. Now Swans’ songs shared freely in the shamanic. They harnessed and released a fresh, no less fundamental energy, whose power could be tantric rather than torturous. Swans’ death marches now advanced to an ultimate reality beyond the pyres that previously lit their way.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Gira has made clear he is happiest as a musician when he’s perched upon uncertainty. Swans have paradoxically built their dwelling on that precarious limbo, never settling on somewhere solid, always roving like nomad hunters eager to find their next quarry. Their performances exemplify this restlessness. Like Wire before them, they have perpetually resisted the expectations for predictability our consumer culture has heaped on artist and listener alike. Swans’ songs, when performed on stage, usually deviate so much from their studio avatars as to become entirely different creatures, monstrous in length, and always matchless in intensity. The live Swans experience, as Gira has pointed out, is meant to cut through the body of everyone assembled for the experience, to penetrate each congregant’s concealed and trembling core, to lead the willing and the unwilling alike to what Gira and many Swans-survivors affirm is transcendence. As both Dante and anybody who’s been to a Swans show can attest to, rarely does one experience heaven without spending a spell in purgatory.
Before The Seer, Swans had already reached something like an omega point with 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind. This LP was to be Swans’ terminus. It was the final bow that simultaneously ushered in Gira’s starker turn with his project, Angels of Light. Soundtracks was a leviathan assembled from many mismatched limbs. It attempted to amass everything: discharges of savagery and sensuality (“Yum-Yab Killer”, “Hypogirl”), widescreen epics (“Helpless Child”, “The Sound”, “The Final Sacrifice”), mystical atmospheric pieces (“Minus Something”, “I Was a Prisoner Inside Your Skull”, “The Beautiful Days”, “I Love You This Much”, “How They Suffer”), moments subdued (“Red Velvet Wound”) and crude (“Volcano”), and apocalyptic incantations which hybridize Swans’ entire stylistic history (“YRP”, “Animus”, “All Lined Up”).
Soundtracks sought to tether seemingly incompatible approaches, to frankenstein a likeness of Swans’ lifespan out of seemingly ill-fitting bits drawn from their past and present. Listening to Soundtracks can be exhausting, like watching every Béla Tarr film in chronological order over one wet weekend. It can tax your emotions and your ears, but it must be acknowledged that it provides the perfect ouroboros to end a 15-year career. Swans devoured themselves and regurgitated their entrails as Soundtracks. The band that began with self-evisceration ended by baring its bowels once more, in an act of public seppuku that showed off their guts, which had grown knotted and gnarled, and an inner nature nastier and more nuanced than it had been during Swans’ earliest stabs at continual catharsis.
One can see why Swans would break up after a project which Gira himself has described as overwhelming. What was the point for a band like Swans to go on after it had exhausted its aims, emptied itself of organs and anima? Angels of Light ascended to occupy their place as Gira’s primary artistic outlet for about a decade, then, in 2010, he exhumed the buried Swans, denouncing the idea of a reunion, and claiming to have revived the moniker because the medium suited the music he desired to make. That this was no mere nostalgia act was proven by 2010’s album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, a fusion of the folksier primitivism of his Angels and the sweep and thunder of Swans.
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter The Seer
Now, two years and a tour later we have The Seer. What justifies its existence? In a sense it is as sprawling as Soundtracks, in another, it is entirely more focused, honed in on Swans’ strengths like an expert boxer on those of his opponent.
A vital difference between Soundtracks and the latest Swans document is that the former is a mausoleum, a defiant exclamation point at the end of a death sentence, while The Seer is the work of a band, which lives and breathes and is set on advancing. For this album, Swans borrow from their past like a soldier plundering the knapsack of a dead companion, drawing from it sustenance and munitions, while never stopping to look back, as if the band’s continued existence depended on moving forward.
Never has the distance between Swans’ soundscapes and their songs been more dramatic. The longest of the more “traditional” songs on the LP, “Lunacy” and “The Seer Returns” last about six minutes each, which might sound like a lot until you consider that they are eclipsed in both impact and duration by the very unconventional epic pieces which take up more than ninety minutes of the two hour album.
“Lunacy", which features Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low, sharing the lead in a quasi-choral way with Gira, displays the “soulful” quality of those two artists, which Swans’ leader, and so many of Low’s fans (including myself) admire. It is a perfect opener for the album as it encapsulates the world we’re about to enter: one where unconcealed ugliness and cryptic beauty share the same bed. “Song for a Warrior”, the only song on the LP I’d call delicate, was written by Gira for his daughter. Sung by Karen O, whom Gira chose because she is capable of expressing maternal gentleness, is country music severed from any of the genre’s clichés, unfettered by any hint of tired Americana.
The real highlights on the album are the aforementioned experimental pieces, like “The Seer”, “Avatar”, “A Piece of the Sky”, and “The Apostate”, which mingle noisy moments, chanting both incantatory and demonic, long sustained cacophonous drones, caterwauling guitars, and numerous miscellaneous bric-a-brac, including a hammer dulcimer (!), handled by the versatile and bafflingly inventive twosome of Thor Harris and honorary Swan, Bill Rieflin.
These pieces fulfil the promise of Soundtracks’ attempt to mongrelize the band’s approaches to birth something holistic and new, allowing them to cohabit within the walls of a single track. “A Piece of the Sky”, for example, spends half its life as a drone wrought by instruments instead of tape loops before it slowly empties into an ascending whirlpool of cosmic noise. It then shifts into a steady rock groove and finally morphs into a psychedelic cowpoke tune complete with a choir of overdubbed voices provided by none other than Jarboe (no longer a permanent Swan, but yes, an occasional contributor), which undergird Gira’s very affecting vocal performance. On the other hand, “The Apostate", which underwent numerous live transformations before it achieved its current form, glues together some of the most uninviting aspects of Swans’ music. It blends the ethereality of their more disembodied ambient inclinations, a ritualistic, pitilessly galvanic rhythm, and Gira’s most ferocious death-grunts and howls to produce something untidily cohesive and, yes, transcendent.
Each alpha has its omega, every realm its Ragnarök, but few artists have a Seer in them, and for that we must distinguish Swans. In these apocalyptic times, art like theirs, which does not deny our destructive inclinations, but seeks to bathe in them to then break through to something restorative, is more crucial than art that eases our escape to a finely fashioned refuge, a Parnassus set apart from reality’s mess. Art for the advent of the apocalypse is that which can carry the beauty and crookedness of the word like twin cross upon its shoulders to the imaginary point where Emmaus merges with Calvary. Swans have been paving their way to this perilous place for 30 years and now, with The Seer, we can safely say they’ve found it and drawn their dark muses there. Let’s hope Swans and the spirits who stimulate and possess them linger near this cursed/blessed spot for at least a few more outings.