Recently, while browsing through new albums on a website of music reviews, I came across a void of black from which some sort of Wookie/bobcat crossbreed was grinning at me. It had dirty, human teeth and was missing its eyeballs. Creepy, I thought. The album cover had no text, but below the painting was some info: The Seer by Swans. I had never heard of Swans before. I did not know if they were new or old, and I did not know what type of music they played. I was ready to pass it up and keep scrolling through the site, but something about the album cover made me curious to hear what Swans had to say. Being the upstanding citizen that I am, I immediately pirated the album online ran to the nearest Best Buy and purchased the album. Little did I know that I had just purchased a ticket for one of the most bewildering and astonishing albums in my recent experience. And what a deep pleasure it turned out to be.
Admittedly, at first listen, The Seer was too much to handle. Though not a metal album, it has a similar ferocity that threatens to chomp off your ears. The songs are long, ranging from six to thirty minutes. I skipped over much of the album my first listen, but in the way that some good albums have to first grow on the listener, so did The Seer. After putting it out of mind for a few weeks, I gave it another shot.
The album begins with the song “Lunacy,” which starts with an energetic and repetitious guitar pulse, but soon falls into a downward-spiraling, out-of-tune piano melody. A deep and ominous vocal murmur gets louder and louder until the guitar and drums erupt into a cataclysm of fireworks – each more ear-shattering than the previous. The layers start to fade away and it’s back to the repeating guitar as a harmonic choir begins to sing. The choir’s tone is foreboding, their verses cryptic. This isn’t just a song – it’s a hymn. I started to wonder if Swans was some apocalyptic cult trying to conjure up the Rapture as the line “Your childhood is over” repeated again and again.
Up next is “Mother of the World.” An angst-ridden guitar pounds away a simple up-down rhythm. It sounds like a faster version of the “Jaws” theme played in reverse. The drums follow right along with the guitar on this one, following the guitar’s every step, and adding their own steps every so often. My first thought was, This sounds kind of punk-y, like Sonic Youth. Someone begins breathing at the same pace as the guitar. This goes on for three minutes, and then a spooky organ layer is added on, followed by some nonsensical “whee-ooing” by lead singer Michael Gira. At five minutes, all the layers drop except for the breathing, but just when you think Jaws has lost your scent, all the layers jump out of the water and bite you in the face. “IN AND OUT AND IN AND OUT AGAIN!” The song then takes a slow ninety-degree turn, and I thought, This sounds nothing like Sonic Youth. It mutates into an eerie yet enticing lounge tune with a haunting piano, acoustic guitar and drums.
The album goes off into even stranger territory. The next song, “The World,” is a peaceful campfire song comprised of faint guitar and low-pitched singing. It is a welcome calm before the mother-of-all-storms — the title track, “The Seer.” I don’t even know where to begin in describing this thirty-two minute hurricane. So I won’t. What I will say, though, is that if this album is seen as a series of storms, this is the Big Kahuna that transforms the face of the Earth. It is an amazing listen.
At this point my mind is weary and my ears have traversed a vast landscape of sounds. The song progression of the album is like a confusing road map, and right when I think I can navigate the route on my own, I end up in the wrong town. I continued on though, because the ride is thrilling.
One of my favorite songs on the album is the second to last, “A Piece of the Sky.” This twenty-minute ballad is the most uplifting song on the album. It begins with a roaring fire, rain and thunder, but eventually the cloudy atmosphere of the album floats away. All that is left are blue skies. Organs and ethereal female vocals, followed by violins and other stringed instruments, converge slowly into the catchiest bass line ever heard as Gira asks over and over, “Are you in there?”
The song is about searching for a higher state of being. Is this higher state “in a thought we just lost,” “in the now that is not,” “in the drunk and the dazed,” “in the taste of her lips,” or “on a mountain stripped bare”? We may never know. It is truly an astounding track and could have worked perfectly as the final note, but Gira had other plans. He dips right back into the hurricane with “The Apostate,” just to let the listener know that the chaos of Swans is not over.
Looking at the band’s history, it seems the chaos will not be over any time soon. Although the lineup has shifted many times, Swans have been around since 1982, with mastermind, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira being the focal point. Gira, whose artistic pursuits go far beyond fitting into a genre, cycles through band members because he likes to experiment with different sounds and instruments. His musical interests are in a constant state of flux and his albums reflect that. Even the band’s name describes the mercurial sound Gira tries to achieve in his music. “Swans are majestic, beautiful-looking creatures,” he says in an interview, “with really ugly temperaments” (FaceCulture 2012). I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Watching the interview, I am amazed to see how unquestionably happy Gira seems to be for someone who has created so much musical chaos. He has a look in his eyes like he knows some hilarious secret about the meaning of life. He wears a giant cowboy hat and speaks with matter-of-fact honesty about his life. Swans are a dark, heavy band, and as Gira has gotten older, some of Swans music has gotten softer, but the intensity is still there on The Seer.
Art-Punkers, Goth-heads, Cultish freaks – call Swans whatever you want, because it clearly won’t matter to them. As exemplified by the album The Seer, Michael Gira’s music is a pure form of creativity. Its intention is not to please. It is created by the artist for the artist, to achieve a higher state of being. The pleasing nature of the music is a by-product of this.
The Seer is deep and complex. You will not get these songs stuck in your head. But you may find it hard to get the memory of the album out of your head. The sound of the album changes many times and the tone of the lyrics does as well. Those who need to label what they are listening to may shy away from a band like Swans. They are what they are, and, as far as far as frontman Michael Gira is concerned, you can take them or leave them.
“Angels of Light Interview – Michael Gira,” Youtube video series, posted by “FaceCulture,” July 3, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sQ_EZXqxHo.