Swans were an alienating, divisive sonic death squad in their early years, punishing audiences with brutally slow tempos and internal-organ-shifting volume; their songs were like being repeatedly struck in the head with a brick as an insane man bellowed in your ear. Naturally, few people enjoyed this sort of thing. As the 1980s dragged on, the group softened its approach, going Goth (sorta) on albums like Children of God and The Burning World and then embracing acoustic instruments, folky arrangements and tape loop compositions on their final efforts before disbanding in the mid-1990s, with only a few diehards mourning the loss.
But a few years ago, founder Michael Gira reactivated the group, and the outpouring of affection that’s greeted recent shows and albums has been somewhat baffling to those of us (and, if interviews are any indication, this includes Gira) who remember how few people liked, or even cared about, the group the first time around. The first studio effort by Swans 2.0, My Father Will Guide Us Up a Rope to the Sky, was relatively concise and occasionally felt like an odds-and-ends compilation, but was still a really good record. The Seer (buy it from Amazon) is another matter. The scattered feel is still there, and there are a number of guest musicians, most notably Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who takes lead vocals on “Song for a Warrior.” But at two discs and almost exactly two hours of music, it’s way too much to take in all at once, and ultimately doesn’t feel like an album to be returned to frequently—more like an experience to be endured so you can say you did.
Admittedly, it starts off very well indeed. The Seer‘s first track, “Lunacy,” begins with a guitar figure like Jonathan Richman‘s “She Cracked” played at half speed, but is soon overtaken by the clanging chords of Sonic Youth circa 1986, if they had Manowar‘s amplification budget. The vocals are a male-female chant that sounds like something unearthed from the hymn-book of a defunct ’70s cult like the Process Church of the Final Judgment or the Holy Family. It’s an amazingly creepy, affecting song, one of the best things Swans have ever done. Later in the album, the aforementioned “Song for a Warrior” is another highlight—Karen O‘s vocals are cracking and fragile, almost girlish, and the sparse arrangement is quite beautiful.
It’s the epics that sink this album. Three songs on The Seer—the title track, “A Piece of the Sky” and “The Apostate”—are extremely long. “The Seer” passes the 32-minute mark; “A Piece of the Sky” runs 19:10; and “The Apostate,” the album’s final track, is 23 minutes long. Gira has stated in recent interviews that he’s interested in creating immersive, cathartic experiences with Swans music, and that great length can be a tool to achieve that end. This tactic is hardly unique to him, of course. Gustav Mahler wrote ass-numbingly long symphonies, and Keiji Haino‘s Fushitsusha would let individual songs within their epic, improvised live performances go for close to an hour, if not longer, at times. Swans‘ epics have more in common with Mahler than Fushitsusha; they have grandiosity on their side, massing guitars and drums to overwhelm the listener with huge crashing waves of sound as elements come in and out. For example, at the 14-minute mark of “The Seer,” a hypnotic, gigantic chord reminiscent of doom metal is struck repeatedly, dozens of times, even as it’s gradually augmented by bells and bursts of searing guitar noise. Around the 20-minute mark, a harmonica straight out of Once Upon a Time in the West emerges. But none of this hugeness seems to get anyone anywhere, least of all the listener. There’s a difference between piling up a million bricks, and building a cathedral. And with the exception of “The Apostate,” which offers layered guitar feedback and some truly ass-kicking drumming, the album offers more brick-piling than cathedral-building.
The Seer is impressive…once. But even at their most primitive and brutarian, the old Swans always had real songs. This new version has pieces, and that’s not what I come to them for, so I don’t honestly think I’ll be revisiting this album as often as I revisit Cop or Greed or Children of God or White Light from the Mouth of Infinity…or even My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. I get the feeling the near-universal rapture greeting the band’s return has gone to Michael Gira‘s head a little bit, convincing him he can—and should—do anything it occurs to him to do. That’s too bad. A little restraint is a good thing.