CLAIRAUDIENCE: The Seer by Swans

By Pieter Uys

All previous incarnations of Swans find an echo on this ambitious work built around three long pieces: The Seer, A Piece of the Sky and The Apostate. Additional instruments that enrich the sound include accordion, bells, clarinet, hammer dulcimer, orchestral bells, vibraphone and “hand-made violin thing.”

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As early as Children of God, and through White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (The Most Unfortunate Lie) and Die Tür ist Zu (Ligeti’s Breath/Hilflos Kind) it was clear that Michael Gira is as much a modern classical as rock composer.

Evidence of the orchestral appears already on the opening track Lunacy where chiming rhythms and mantric vocals characterize the first part until an abrupt shift in tempo, instrumentation and vocals transform the lunacy into something else entirely.

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These shifts continue on Mother of the World with its three movements. An edgy repetitive instrumental intro with vocalising towards the end is followed by a brief interlude of gasping and stuttering vocals introducing an orchestral segment. The song concludes on a mid-tempo pop-rock note with traditional singing.

The centrepiece, The Seer, reminded me of the 1998 Body Lovers project called Mumber One of Three , a 73-minute excursion through alternately soothing, spooky, soulful, depressing, uplifting & inspiring soundscapes. Industrial passages alternate with swirling symphonic textures but often a particular movement incorporates widely disparate elements like mechanical drones that give way to traditional instruments that fade in turn for solo segments.

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The Seer has even more: bagpipes, chimes, chants, choral voices, harmonica, horns, glockenspiel, gongs, feedback, fractured vocals, harsh industrial beats, polyphonic drones, percussion, ragas, guitar squalls and electronic noise. “I see it all” is Gira’s intermittent vocal contribution throughout most of this maelstrom. About halfway through, the other sounds retreat somewhat as a crashing drum pattern takes its stark turn until it is silenced by the mournful wails of what may be the aforementioned “hand-made violin thing” and other sax-sounding instruments. At about minute 28, Gira starts singing on the final part that resembles The Angels of Light.

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The voice collages that Jarboe contributes to The Seer Returns resemble those on Dark Consort, her collaborative work with Cedric Victor. This track has a looped marching beat behind Gira’s repetitive sometimes sung, sometimes chanted vocals.

The ghost of Arnold Schönberg haunts 93rd Ave Blues with high pitched squeals, squeaks, crashes and mumbled disembodied voices. This is Arnold resurrected from the time of his early descent into the dodecatonal, e.g. Sechs Lieder Opus III. This psychotic chamber music ultimately fragments into cacophony until a forceful drone displaces it to end the piece on a saner note.

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Hark! Angels of Light reappear to grace the short mid-tempo piece The Daughter Brings The Water. Another, stranger angel inhabits Song For a Warrior. It is Swans’ anima emerging in a fragile, tuneful ballad with lead vocal by Karen O. Its conventional structure brings only brief relief as the weary delivery and oblique lyrics have the same eerie effect as Jarboe’s spooky contributions of yonder.

Bells and percussion sandwich Gira’s observations of the performer as medium on Avatar with its moments of frenzied intensity. This intensity reaches further heights on The Apostate, a majestic tour de force of surging, propulsive rock with howling and swirling guitars, crashing cymbals, hypnotic bass riffs, thudding drums and vocal ululations that may leave one feeling simultaneously brutalized and elated.

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The consuming fire of Piece of the Sky gives way to Jarboe’s mesmerising multitracked choral vocals shifting from soprano to contralto and deeper as Gira’s voice joins in, over a sustained drone occasionally infused by isolated moans. Then a buoyant dance of stringed instruments erupts, followed by undulating Popol Vuh-like textures. The track finally morphs into a melodic folk song with captivating lyrics.

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Talking of lyrics, they take a back seat on The Seer just like they did on Soundtracks For The Blind. The music is the message which speaks in tones of many hues. Both the brutal and the sublime disturbs in its intensity. Something haunts the elegiac and the exultant, the funereal and the ferocious in equal measure. That is the magic of Swans. It was spread thin on the 2010 album My Father... but it’s back in force on The Seer.

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