Things You Might Have Missed 2012: Swans – The Seer

There is a special emphasis in music when musicians play it. No, not the kind of people who use the sonic alphabet to express themselves – there’s too many of those useless, selfish sorts around – but the gentle, raw and elegantly primordial specimen who is happy to be a tool for their own inspiration.

Music is not an entity, but an ambition: it lives because we do, but we still can’t reach it. Instead Michael Gira is one of the elected few who get as close as possible to the purity of art while remaining loyal to the tragically humane.

According to the man himself, it took Swans 30 years to write the album: three long decades to finalise the path of contemporary music into rock and give the likes of Steve Reich and Stockhausen a proper locus within popular music. It is true: krautrock and the most daring strains of pop have already attempted to absorb avant-garde into their sound, but never in this way. There is no brainy reference to modern composition or resorting to ridiculous overtone frequencies just for the sake of it, simply because contemporary music is not the subject of the research, but it does play an active role in defining the album.

The Seer is defined by its minimal approach to music. The core of the title-track, for example, is a mantric sequence of, well, two chords going on for, well, 32 minutes. But, whoever thinks in terms of quantity should skip the whole Swans discography altogether and look for something else, because the substance of The Seer has got a specific weight that is measured in dynamic terms, in relation with its legacy and not as a manufactured product for mass consumption. “Lunacy”, “93 Ave. B Blues” or the epic crescendo in “Avatar” have simply nothing to do with modern music but, at the same time, future productions will inevitably come to terms with The Seer in more than just one way.

The Seer is deprived of that sense of apparent normality, which was proper of its predecessor, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope To the Sky. That album introduced a new band to the world: one that was toying with new ideas and visions while trying to develop a credible follow-up to the marvellously sketchy Soundtrack For The Blind. Noises, drones and repetitions are elegantly mixed in tracks apparently as far apart as “Mother Of The World” and “A Piece Of The Sky” which share a psychedelic take on music albeit from completely different angles. “Song For A Warrior” shows a third way to music: one that restrains the violent fits of a band devoted to deconstruction, and lets the feelings flow into what becomes the most accessible track Gira and co. have ever written. The fact that it is sung by the usually unpredictable Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) adds a healthy dose of wise madness to the mixture.

The Seer challenges the monochromatism of mainstream music by offering a spectre of possibilities and colours to the business. The result is an album with a number of apparent contradictions, that somehow ends up building a mastodontic [hey, he’s making up words, but I can’t use “samey”??? Bogus!Steel Druhm] and dramatic masterpiece. Two hours worth of music and the record could start again straight away. Because every single note on this album seems to dilute the sound and its space. Because art doesn’t get much pure than this.

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