I looked over the press info for The Seer and asked myself a question. Do I or don’t I like Swans? It can matter, liking or not liking a band regardless of the quality of their music. Michael Gira, whatever the ideas and conceptions for his resolutely uncompromising band are, obviously doesn’t want to be liked. Retaining the confrontational Punk era stance his contemporaries in Sonic Youth developed beyond in the late 80s, Gira has steadfastly refused to make the kind of concessions to the media and indeed his audience that would have taken his music perhaps not completely into but certainly sufficiently near the mainstream for a wider public to at least become aware of Swans presence. Instead, Gira has kept it pretty much under wraps, occasionally of the plain sort. Swans remain just as much of a challenge to music listeners as they were in 1981, a band to scare your friends with.
At over two hours in length, The Seer won’t do much to alter any preconceptions anyone already has of Swans. What it’s designed to do is establish Gira as a significant modern composer, on a par with Steve Reich, Philip Glass, perhaps even John Cage although this probably won’t happen in Gira’s lifetime. Quoted as describing The Seer as ‘thirty years in the making, the summation of Swans entire recorded output to date’ Gira has thrown just about everything up to and including the kitchen sink into his latest release, and while the results are inevitably of variable quality it’s impossible to deny that here, finally, Gira has fully consummated his single minded visions and created a body of music which perhaps finally realises his original conception of what Swans are and how we should perceive them. Strong stuff, that’s for sure, but Gira demands our appreciation in ways that other musicians (and indeed artists, film makers and novelists) just don’t even consider, at least not usually and certainly not fully throughout decade spanning careers.
Beginning with “Lunacy”, its discordant intro swaying haphazardly into life, the track emerges as less of a Post Rock exercise and more of a proper introduction to what I should describe as the probable concept of The Seer as its choral vocal intones ‘innocent, in no sense / lunacy / lunacy’ and then slides into a deceptively low key guitar backdrop for the vocal, with Swans repetition of the phrase ‘your childhood is over’ revealing the operatic ambitions that underpin the actual structure of the album. “Mother Of The World” is more familiarly Swans, a repeated guitar and drum motif that’s sudenly almost completely undermined by the tonelessly nasal sounding wordless vocal emanating from (I assume it’s) Gira’s throat. There’s nothing quite like trashing your own instruments after you’ve paid for them, and I felt my brows furrow as I reflected that, regardless of the musicality Swans create throughout the remainder of the track – and they do create a contradictorily powerful yet poised mix of phrased guitar and virulent percussion, that Gira’s presence is and is to remain the most important to the point where he might just walk out of the studio in a fit of musicianly pique regardless of what any of the rest of the band are doing. Next track ‘The Wolf’ seems set to reestablish the balance that Swans are seemingly about to lose spectacularly, until it annoyingly cuts out at a time of 1.35 minutes, a quite deliberately provocative gaffe on Gira’s part.
Right here, I decided that no, I don’t really like Michael Gira very much. I’m not supposed to and Gira’s determination to alienate even his most committed adherents starts to actually work (at least for me) around this point. The fact that the next track is one of the most remarkable and convincingly performed modern symphonies – there’s no other word for it – that I’ve heard for a very long time – is unfortunately compromised by what’s preceded it. The album’s title track and over thirty minutes in length, “The Seer” is a display of Gira’s compositional abilities that few if any of his contemporaries could match, starting with its atonal flute introduction that gives way to programmed drums and builds towards a mesmerically performed crescendo of overpowering guitar noise, as Gira intones ‘I see it all’ repeatedly. It is stunning in its realisation and, while we could’ve done without its irritating preamble, it’s a colossal, maniacal work of barely controlled vitriol and near overwhelming powers. Swans can take it easy from here on in, whatever Michael Gira had to prove is probably now finally laid to rest with this quite phenomenal display of the skill and sheer courage of Swans at their most able.
It goes on though, and not always as effectively as the albums title track. It does in fact sound like two separate albums, The Seer, one of them a discordant artnoise fest and the other a more measured, folk based exercise in composition. It would, beyond question, have benefited from having around at least a third of its length edited and “Song For A Warrior”, an acoustic ballad sung by guest vocalist Karen O is, like the rest of the album, a slightly uncomfortable mixture of styles, part lullaby and part sleaze bar torch ballad. Gira is doubtlessly pleased with the results of his experimentations but the final impression The Seer left me with is that of a sprawling, lacking in cohesion and over indulgent album that fails as often as it succeeds but anyway, Michael Gira doesn’t like me or you, fools that we are to even acknowledge his presence let alone listen to or buy his music. Swans are perhaps one of the greatest novelty acts ever, and while their contrived notions of credibility seem quite outdated today, at least some of their music retains the ability to jolt us out of our comfort zones.