Swans not at their best; still powerful
Published: Thursday, September 13, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2012 00:09
Michael Gira claims that his entire legacy with the band Swans has culminated into their latest release, “The Seer.” Naturally, these sorts of things need to be taken with a grain of salt (The Red Hot Chili Peppers apparently thought that “Stadium Arcadium” was their best work,) but if I’m going to trust anybody, it’s going to the post-punk legend M. Gira.
So after giving “The Seer” a few listens, I’ve decided that Gira knows best. “The Seer” is a culmination. The assumption that typically follows is that “The Seer” is Swans’ best, or it is at least quintessential. But although it’s a solid release from what might be my all-time favorite band, there is one key element that the fans and critics are neglecting to take into account: the baggage.
In order to understand the exact content of their baggage, we require a minor retrospective. In 2010, Swans came off a 14-year hiatus to put out an album called “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.” It was clear at that point they were trying to recapture their pre-hiatus sound, oscillating between various eras of Swans and their off-season side project, “The Angels of Light.” In the case of “The Seer,” the band forces a new sense of cohesion by directly referencing elements of earlier Swans.
The clear equivalent to “The Seer” is their most modern masterpiece and their last studio release before the hiatus, “Soundtracks for the Blind” (1996.) Both are very long double albums (“The Seer” is a little under two hours, and “Soundtracks” is a little over two hours and twenty minutes) and both rely heavily on soundscaping and atmosphere, eschewing more traditional songwriting in favor of dark and violent mood pieces.
This is where we return to the subject of baggage. In 1996, “Soundtracks” was a truly revolutionary album, one without precedent. In 2012, “The Seer” not only has “Soundtracks” as its precedent, it also has the entire post-rock/dark ambient movement that “Soundtracks” helped spur. “The Seer” simply does not have the same weight to its sound.
“The Seer” is a difficult album to grapple with as a result. Although it pains me to say it, in many instances, it seems that Swans are trying too hard to sound like Swans. It’s not quite so natural anymore. There was a time in which Swans didn’t have to try to be anything, they just were. Their music tapped into something indescribable and entirely their own. Swans are one of the most evil-sounding bands out there, but there are parts of “The Seer” in which they seem like they’re trying a little too hard to come off as dark. (“Lunacy” and “The Wolf” are both tracks that come to mind in this regard, although I can give “Lunacy” a pass since Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low provided some guest vocals.) Admittedly, it’s more of a problem with the lyrics than the instrumental compositions, which remain superb, but I think Swans may have laid it on a bit too thick in places.
However, “The Seer” still strikes a few pretty convincing chords. As much as the album struggles with the band’s own sense of authenticity, this feels much more like a Swans album than their previous release, in which they were still coming off of “The Angels of Light” and ended up sounding a little too close for comfort at times. “The Seer,” though it is a weaker recapitulation in some regards, shows the band finding themselves once more. Even Jarboe, a long-time Swans member who was tragically absent on “My Father,” makes a few contributions.
Overall, “The Seer” is not quite the ultimate Swans experience everyone wants it to be. But at the end of the day, it’s still a powerful and uncompromising release from a band that, even 30+ years after their initial formation, still know how to really hammer it home.