Lead singer Michael Gira is in a loincloth and bellows into a microphone as if he’s trying to perform a self-exorcism. As he’s ripping the demons out, the noise is so deafening that audience members are passing out and spontaneously defecating on themselves. You are in the world of the Swans. The Seer, the longest album the Swans have ever made, clocks in at a chippy two hours and sweeps through every sound this crazed group has ever tried to produce. The no-wave terror of their early albums, the melodic post-punk chapter and the gothic folk of their early 2000s' incarnation are all present and accounted for and more. Whatever the style The Seer is all raw sound, religious chants and phoenix rising from the ashes pop gigantism. As a Youtube commentator wrote about “The Avatar,” one of the tracks on The Seer: “Seeing Swans live leaves the body broken but the mind uplifted. It's a truly punishing experience, and I don't mean that in a pejorative way. The body is dead, but the mind alive."
You might ask why this album appeals to me, a moderately “normal,” healthy, twenty-something-year-old who doesn’t actively seek out bodily punishment and tests of my physical limits? I mean, I usually laugh when people defecate on themselves at concerts and call 911 when they pass out. Maybe I should do the reverse? And yet I want the Swans and I want them because they make art. Art should be revelatory and freeing and The Seer’s thunderous noise, end-of-the-world harmonies, and the repetitive, cult-like mantra of Gira repeating “IseeitallIseeitallIseeitall” is just that—art, real art, a precious commodity these days. I don’t want to be sedated and appeased. I want to be alive and unlike so many other so-called avant-garde bands and performance artists, the Swans demand that you be alive. This isn’t surface shock—oh, she’s poured goat’s blood on her head—but the shock that you have a mind and a body and that they’re capable of fully responding to the world.
|We're stuck in a large world|
On the Swans’ "Lunacy," a cavern of guitar dissonance and the line “You hide beneath your monkey skin” gives way to a choir of male and female voices singing, “Your childhood is over” with a sadness befitting a funeral. There’s nothing demanding about the moment, but it makes you confront what should be obvious if your find yourself listening to the Swans or at one of their concerts—“Your childhood is over” and it’s a good thing, too. You’re forced to be an adult and confront your demons, which turns out is a kind of twisted pleasure in its own way, and also lets you exult in the secret taboos you thought only you liked. It’s both a community and a call to individual action. This isn’t the artist as fascist God, but the artist as travel guide to the soul and is reminiscent of Dante and William Blake and their commitment to the complete life.
In the late '80s, the Swan’s no-wave sound, an underground genre that emerged in defiance of the commercial slick and gloss of new wave, was deemed aggressive and violent in nature. The Swans' attack has never been just an attack on the mainstream, but at the fringes as well; they rebel against art that is controlled by the carefully polished perfection of the studios as well as the empty irony of hipster aesthetics. Neither position is tenable for Gira and his band mates, because neither position has anything to do with art. It’s just taste making and whether it’s designed for the masses (the studios) or an antiseptic, curatorial version of cool (the hipsters), the Swans have always been way outside those dynamics. The Swans' eighties albums, Filth, released in 1983, and Holy Money, in 1986, dealt with the themes of sexualdomination/submission and turned listeners on with demented industrial dance beats and Gira’s manic, distorted vocals. It was an attempt to grasp the most basic of experiences and not simply be part of the scene.
|There is no right way to bark|
In a similar fashion, The Seer doesn’t skirt around the sexually explicit or grotesque. On the song “A Piece of the Sky” Gira nonchalantly sings, “The sun fucks the dawn,” and on ”Mother of the World” he pants like a wolf on the brink of orgasm. Yes, the sun could simply rise, but isn’t there something great in following the Swans' logic and envisioning it writhing in sexual ecstasy? Like D.H. Lawrence before them, Michael Gira and Co. are all about extreme states of being and understanding the world by confronting it. The Seer is profanely visionary, with the truth of the exposed body, complete with its sexual fluids and desires, given as much emphasis as the mind. And in the end, doesn’t the mind always have to deal with the vagaries of the body.
Just when you think you have The Seer figured out, the subject and feel will change completely mid-song. A musical wasteland of discordant noise will be replaced by the sounds of glockenspiel, church bells, and dulcimer. Monks will chant religious hymns backed by a swell of droning guitar and manipulated viola. A track with as much dark country twang as a Townes Van Zandt song will be oddly wedded to the sound of bagpipe. Pop star Karen O will make a guest appearance, singing in her delicate, wavering voice about a flower unfolding behind the mirror of your eyes, forcing you to question all your previous ideas about The Seer and its seeming profanity. What’s clear is that the Swans aren’t wedded to a single aesthetic, but are open to anything that is expressive of human need. When Gira sings, “In petroleum plumes / there’s a floating slice of moon,” it’s not a poetic image, but realism. Gira is trying to convey the overwhelming nature of reality, the way beauty and ugliness can be entwined, how good and evil, light and dark are always locked in a wrestling match. With concerns like that it’s not surprising that The Seer is over two hours long. I’m surprised it isn’t longer.
At this late moment in their career, you can sense the Swans using all the musical skills and maturity they’ve acquired over the years in an attempt to transcend the very means they use to express themselves. It is as if they are trying to go beyond music. Even the large sampling of guest artists on the record, from Ben Frost to members of the alternative rock band Mercury Rev, add to the majestic, grandiose nature of the album. Musicians who have gained mainstream popularity, such as Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, seemed to recognize the significance of The Seer and wanted to jump on the prophetic bandwagon in an attempt to regain some of their indie cred. The simple fact that the Swans, hailed as underground gods, added big names to The Seer, reaffirms their status as a band that doesn’t care what others think about them. They literally take on everything. I’m sure they could even find a place for Celine Dion if she wanted to jump on board.
Sure, it can be an ordeal to listen to the album, with all its loops and layers. As one reviewer said, trying to explain every sound and twist in the album’s road would be as exhausting as trying to explain the plot of a Terrence Malick movie. Sometimes, though, it’s more fun to be kicked awake, or in the Swans' case, “splayed upon a silver gate with both arms broken, pointed east and west,” than stupefied by supposed art that doesn’t question anything. The Seer attempts to capture both the agony and the ecstasy, and the crossover of the two.
The Swans are probably too unpretentious to refer to themselves as artistic revolutionaries, but we critics are free to use that description. They see beyond what is socially acceptable and push our notion of what is. They demand that there be a space for things to get out of control, and pave the way for the so called “wrong” in culture, whether it be what we’ve been told is the wrong emotion, wrong animal instinct, or wrong definition of reality. It’s the type of belief that both the mainstream and the avant-garde have jettisoned. You don’t need to dance around a fire while listening to The Seer to get something out of it; try listening to it while washing the dishes or folding clothes -- the more mundane the better -- and you’ll still get a visceral, gut reaction to it, an instinctual response to what the Swans want you to see and experience. Although, I feel I should remind you that it might be advantageous to be near a toilet.
P.S. to you dear Readers: The Seer has been met with acclaim, scoring an average of 87 on Metacritic, and coming in at #22 on the Independent Albums chart. Apparently people aren’t afraid -- they even seem to want -- The Seer’s primal revelations.
©CCA Arts Review and Zoe Brezsny
©CCA Arts Review and Zoe Brezsny