While what I was most excited about, musically, during the first half of 2012 was the explosion of youth getting into traditional Americana, what I’m most excited about in the second half is Michael Gira’s Swans reemerging as a legitimately significant meme in indie culture. The art rock outfit, emerging from the ashes of No Wave, released their twelfth studio album, The Seer, this August to rave reviews from the most particular of critics. Pitchfork gave the album a 9/10 and proclaimed “For 30 years Swans have challenged the boundaries between beauty and ugliness, music and noise, catharsis and abuse. To borrow a verb from their own violent, polarized world, The Seer is the album that transcends them.” Even the far more popular Spin gave the album an 8/10, calling it “A planet-eating Galactus of an album.”
The Seer is Swans’ second studio album since the project was resurrected. While 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky was essentially the bleakest country album ever recorded, The Seer is quite a bit harder to pin down… impossible, in fact. The two-hour, two-disc (3-LP), 11-song collection is a culmination of all of the sounds Gira has dedicated his life to exploring (and abusing). The album plays a bit like a Burrough/Gysin cut-up of Swans’ back catalogue… The territory isn’t exactly new, but the art is … and it’s far from chronological. There is, however, something very epically narrative about The Seer. Listening to it, you can’t help but imagine there are visuals courtesy of Guy Maddin (or Satan) that you are missing out on.
On The Seer, Michael Gira seems to approach Swans like more of a concept or aesthetic than a band. Although it very clearly rings of his horrific and beautiful sonic visions, he gives way to not only the other six band members, but countless special guests, including members of Low, Akron/Family, Big Blood, and former Swan, Jarboe. He would seem to give Swans to fate, allowing it to be mutilated by these loving (? That doesn’t seem right) outsiders.
So what are the highlights of The Seer? It’s honestly hard to, as it’s a painfully cohesive psychedelic nightmare (Is that an oxymoron?) “The Seer Returns” stands out, boasting an avante-garde and Apocalyptic hip-hop swagger not unlike Thomas Vec/Tobacco. While a bit unexpected, it shouldn’t be; it maintains the same blatant disregard for genre or history that is at the core of Swans’ latest. “93 Ave. B Blues” is another standout track, playing a bit like the drug-addled, half-sung/half-spoken-word musings that play in the head of a 1970’s Lou Reed or Iggy Pop as they say, “Good morning,” to the world from their favorite gutter. However, the track which most stands out (by far) is “Song for a Warrior.” The track, a traditional southern ballad, boasts lead vocals from none-other-than Karen O. The song is Ms. O’s best contribution to the world of music since Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut EP dropped in 2001. But, more importantly, it signifies the span of Swans’ influence, which is vast enough to have directly influences the likes of artists like the YYYs, who have appropriate this inspiration and turned it into something that could almost be regarded as popular… something I don’t think most of us would have assumed possible.
Although I think every band would like to believe this sentiment to be true of themselves, Swans are truly a band that need to be experienced live to even begin to be understood. Swans are currently on tour and will be in Philadelphia this Saturday night, October 13th, at Union Transfer. The last time the band was in town was just over two years ago, where they took the stage of the Trocadero Theater for their first show in thirteen years. The venue was filled with several hundred aliens… of a vast variety (Metalhead, Rivetheads, Punks, Goths, etc.) In an attempt to characterize the evening, and Swans itself, I had this to say:
“Swans are not a band to be ‘enjoyed’ in the traditional sense. Like the Marquis de Sade, they are here to break down all that we know of their medium and prophesize our approaching demise. Hearing Gira and his horrifically beautiful Swans in concert may be the closest one can reach to hearing the world’s end.”