Swans SwansThe Seer
Two years ago, the legendary Swans returned, after 13 years of silence, and “My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky” turned out to be one of the most dangerous sonic artefacts of the time. The veteran New Yorkers, with an enviable and unique curriculum vitae in experimental rock dating back to the early 80s, decided to change part of their sound, do the right thing and - in exchange for that sacrifice (especially for their hardcore fans) - shape an album of which the main value lies in the risk they're taking. It was like a leap of faith. Their choice to place the listener in an uncomfortable place and start over (a creative reset, so to speak) with the same attitude Michael Gira has always had, which is something more than simply copying a sound, was the right one. Listening to that album was a physical experience, a vibration between wild excitement and pain. “The Seer” is the continuation of that triumphant return (not counting the double live album “We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head”), and they aren't taking any prisoners: another double CD with new material, of sharp tracks that squirt out of the speakers, tearing up the air, scratching your skin, leaving you in a state of deep shock. Many of the tracks go past the 15-minute mark ( “The Apostate” reaches 23; “The Seer” even 32), as a declaration of intent: Swans demand concentrated and undivided attention, because you're actually not listening to a record, you're attending rite of passage.
Before reforming Swans, Michael Gira had stayed in touch with the complex side of music, with an intoxicated folk project called Angels Of Light. Although he temporarily abandoned it with “My Father Will Guide Me…”, it is back with a vengeance on several key moments on “The Seer”, when the instrumental narrative becomes insistently repetitive. The first fifteen minutes of the title track, for example, driven like a mantra by rolling percussion, plain guitars and vocal drones, which sounds like a spell to invoke the devil, until everything stops and another 15 minutes of slowness, space, and more terror kick in, like the Swans' version of doom metal and folk noir. That is possibly the most defining moment on “The Seer”: visceral, aggressive, tremendous, and, most of all, vital. The work is a living and breathing being, sustaining an idea of force and discomfort, but not following just one pattern. On “The Seer Returns”, which seems to be a reprise of the half hour of insanity that preceded it, Gira choses a path in the opposite direction. It’s a kind of blues, volcanic, sharp, which in a way takes away the feeling of danger, but opens the door to another kind of tension - like the noisy dissonance, with moaning and screaming guitars, of “93 Ave. B Blues” (blues it is not, by the way), and the faux-beatific miniatures of “The Daughter Brings The Water”, which is based on a chant, like the one on “The Wolf”.
Michael Gira isn't alone (on “Song For A Warrior”, surprisingly enough, we hear Karen O, one of the people on the guest list, which further includes Ben Frost, much more than just an influence this time, for the most abrasive moments of these 21st century Swans), but he's still directing the project as if his vision were the only one: panoptic and deranged. The second CD is a continued variation of the temperature on “The Seer”: “Song For A Warrior” is a ballad, and “Avatar” a noisy crescendo, moments of calm before things go ugly again with the icy drones ending in the doom folk of “A Piece Of The Sky” (19 minutes, no less). Then there is the final, lethal injection of “The Apostate”; the hatches sustaining the chaos, dissonance and evil break, disturbing the senses as cruelly as possible.
Of course, you have to look the creature showing its teeth on the sleeve of “The Seer” in the eyes, and enter its two hours of sonic storm without fear. To fast-forward a track, skip it, or turn it off, is to be defeated by one of the albums that set the levels of risk (at least in 'rock') in 2012. Swans don't make it easy on you, and they don't want any sonic tourists nosing around on the arid (and sometimes unknown) territory of their second assault in their renovated and updated version. In fact, they demand a full listen, uninterrupted, because it's only after the continued exposure to their sound that you can leave this particular hell with the feeling of having witnessed something exceptional. Each piece leads to the next, without ever finding a climax, because all is climax. A cancerous climax that consumes you, destroys you, and brings you to your knees.