Interview: Swans crafts “total experience” on double album The Seer

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Swans: The SeerSwans: The Seer (Young God, 8/28/12)

“The Apostate” (edit)

Swans: “The Apostate” (edit)

The Seer, the new double album that follows Swans’ productive 2010 reunion and studio return, is a space in which to wander in furious mediation — as songwriter Michael Gira puts it, a “total experience.” Dense without losing immediacy, the album stretches over two hours of constantly shifting aural landscapes. This is a work to be enjoyed second by second, losing your mind to its deceptive repetitions.

“A lot of our songs are single chords, so you have to really develop the nuance,” Gira explains, hinting at the complex tonality of the album. Working within these boundaries, Swans sculpts the resonance of each sound into a complex and beautiful musical architecture. Overtones and sub-harmonics work subtle changes in a living soundscape that takes shape on the edges of each song.

In composing, Gira says that he “thought of people rather than instruments,” leading to a number of guest musicians that include Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low; Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton, and Dana Janssen of Akron/Family; Caleb Mulkerin and Colleen Kinsella of Big Blood; Sean Mackowiak (Grasshopper) of Mercury Rev; and Ben Frost, whose ambient sound work provides the introduction to “A Piece of the Sky.”

“A Piece of the Sky” also features a collage of ex-member Jarboe’s “pure vocal tones,” something that Gira says he feels blessed to be able to include in the music again. As for Sparhawk and Parker of Low, who toured with Swans during the 1990s, Gira admits that he couldn’t resist the opportunity to use their harmonies on the album’s first song, “Lunacy.” “They sound like prairie gospel, really incredibly beautiful,” he notes. Their singing adds a haunting depth and a dynamic interplay between harmony and dissonance that continues throughout the work.

A pop singer, on the other hand, is an unlikely companion to the lineup, but memories of Willie Nelson brought Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs to the band when Gira heard her rendition of “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” “Her voice has a compassionate earthy quality…when she’s not screaming,” Gira says.

Even more notably, however, three tracks — “The Seer,” “A Piece of the Sky,” and “The Apostate” — have epic durations, eclipsing 74 minutes when combined. They are, simply, a realm unto themselves. Because Gira prefers to work by instinct and “let mistakes happen,” to create a “thread that leads to something new,” he has created progressive movements of sound, traveling through ideas that gather around Thor Harris and Phil Puelo’s steadfast percussion.

Condensing melodic and rhythmic hints, the shorter songs serve to highlight and develop themes that are found in the longer pieces. The vibrant, interchanging sounds of “The Seer” coalesce in the haunting two-step of “The Seer Returns,” and “93 Ave. B Blues” comes on like a Tibetan Bon exorcism ritual, horns and chanting wails purging the psyche of unwanted influences. Throughout the double album, the music moves between evocation and exorcism, as melodies create visions that are reassembled and broken down through walls of rhythm and discordance.

In his press notes, Gira states that The Seer is just “one frame in a reel” and that the band’s fall tours already contain a number of new, unrecorded pieces. As a result, concertgoers will continue to experience Swans as a living entity — one whose newest work already is a luminescent highlight in its extensive and diverse discography.

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