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The Seer

Swans, The Seer,  3xLP or 2xCD, Young God Records, 2012 —

Swans, throughout their thirty year history, have always been good enough not to make me wish I was listening to something else, nor remind even me that something else exists.  If when playing The Seer, with its long boiling rises and reductions, a sniff of Aidan Baker or Burning Star Core comes into the room, it is not because Swans are catching up with the times, it is because the times are finally catching up with Swans.

Michael Gira describes his latest work as “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” And while it is easy to agree with this statement in terms of aesthetic and philosophic imagination, I wonder if Gira foreshortens the potential of this monstrously beautiful record by saying so. Rather than finding the underwater head-pound pace of Cop and Filth a refusal to part with a trademark sound, or searching among long cold tracks for the lushness and color of mid-period Swans, the experience has become what so many mature artistic and literary works fail to achieve: a base element, the extreme opposite of parody.

There are walls of sound and there are sound walls; the former is an AM radio gimmick, the latter invites a deceptive complexity (many more artists go, and have always gone, into the making of a Swans record than at first are apparent) and control over time. Swans have always sounded so distinctly inside and outside of time – inside in the sense of Gira’s Wagnerian control over space, and outside for having the sense to disregard any scene with which they might interact. And if The Seer feels argumentative in its full two hours, it also melts like a giant sugarcube beginning with the third listen. And yes, there is a moment or two of poor poetry, but sometimes lapses and mistakes only help to personalize artistic fission.

Song For A Warrior

On this album and its immediate predecessor, Swans have opened to diverse instrumentation, a more communal approach, and re-opened (since the parting of ways with Jarboe) the use of the human voice as something more than an instrument. Holism (in the sense coined by Smuts) may be a certain way to hallmark evolved art in general, but the particulars of individuals chosen for a setting is an art, or magic of happenstance, unto itself. Gira selects his guests and studio musicians carefully to play specific, sometimes great, sometimes momentary, roles. Like the best moments of big band free jazz, the first four free minutes of ‘The Seer’ (the thirty-two minute title track) and then the next, more formal seven minutes, spark like an induction coil over the heads of the musicians. The whole is musically, if philosophically, cohesive—so much so I find myself letting the tracks pass one into another unnoted—and conceptually absorbing. Who or what is ‘The Seer’? Is this the landscape through his eyes, or his inner life seen backwards into his gaze?—a gaze both violent and literary, like Rimbaud and Conrad—men who saw it all and were left with only their pens to exact it.


Would you find it strange that I consider The Seer a liturgical album? Not in the sense of preserving a tradition through authority and coded dogmatic exercises, but a letting go of the self into anonymity, using for oneself the language—like the novels of Melville, both biblical and modern—of self-transcendence.  Mind, this is still a rock album, with rock instrumentation and post-punk motion, less cannily American than My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, but also with personal lyrical depths I cannot see as either standard descriptive poetry, or worse, confessional second person, or worst, a polishing of the mirror of expectation. Swans is an art aimed at itself, an inward driving that in so doing spreads its cold warmth and dark light outward—something achievable only in art. But it has always, perhaps unbelievably, been this way with Swans, even in the utterly debasing early tracks, such as ‘Raping a Slave.’ Gira is and remains an artist rooted in himself, not in ‘the people’—it is better that way, ironically, for posterity. Every Swans record seems the definitive statement—the wholesale reduction of polar opposites into base elements—reverse alchemy?—until the next one.

Madness, transcendence, God, redemption, beatification, and being. All these themes are carried, in their 18th and 19th century eloquence, into Modernity—where they become sickness, death, need, extimacy, desire, and power. Where are the answers but beyond the body? How do we get beyond the body? Like this. I think we’ve moved beyond mere catharsis now. The Seer faces all these things alone, yet the shadow of the father over the son is still as dark as it was thick in every passage of Kafka. Without need for surrealism, this is a form of psychedelia whose rejection of idealism is as ugly as Altamont and whose embrace of those least humorous moments of Schopenhauer, filtered through the even less humorous 1970s New York conceptual art, resurrects what I think it a kind of long lost idealism, by barging past Burroughs and his ‘perhaps all pleasure is only relief’, past masochistic self-congratulations, to a beatification only found, and spread, by doing this. Infinity never sounded so small. I don’t quite understand it all myself. Someday someone will.

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