Friday, 7 September 2012

Review: Swans - The Seer

 Things have been incredibly hectic throughout my life right now. What with my desperate hunt for university accommodation always bringing up new hopes and failures and constant look out for calls and messages underway, there's never a dull moment. There's been highs in the process and lows in the process, but either way, whatever happens I'm off to university next week, where I get to experience receiving an education all over again in an entirely new context. But for now, I should slow things down by a fairly large amount and lay my weary head and listen to Swans.

 Now, if you haven't been living under a rock over the past thirty years, you might not have an idea of who Swans are. Don't feel ashamed. Those that are aware of them wouldn't be afraid to label them as the world's most inaccessible band. Their 1980 formation saw them go on to become pivotal figures within the short lived No Wave scene, an antithesis to the massive selling New Wave genre of the 1980's that was eclectic in it's nature but summoned up it's true identity by dwelling on a colder, more emotionless element in it's musicians work, often relying on atonal rhythms. It's with this musical notion that the Micheal Gira led sextet have recorded such opuses of bleakness as 1984's Cop and 1995's The Great Annihilator to much underground acclaim. Since their 2010 reformation, the band has remained as bleak, experimental and musically expansive as ever with proof effortlessly shown on their second post reformation effort, The Seer.

 You may as well find a comfortable seat for this double album, you're going to be here for some time and you're going to have some hell of an experience while doing so. The sense of dynamics that Swans provide can be spotted straight as the delicate melodies reminiscent of early Velvet Underground of Lunacy are cast by haunting backdrops built up of symphonic stalking and deathly drumbeats, but when the band launch into the full song and begin group harmonies, it is an intoxicating moment.

 This kind of ideal is repeated throughout the album, as the repetitious basslines of Mother of the World could translate as any blueprint punk rock song of the 1960's but with the addition of the more haunting element of Gira's paced up breathing to serve as a backdrop, it becomes a fully intense thing to listen to. And it's always these unsettling backdrops that lure listeners in in the first place, whether it's the wall of bagpipes and synthesizers that open the thirty two title track or the twisted lullaby vocal rhythms of The Daughter Brings the Water. But, amongst all this, there's much in the way of impressive musicianship to fest your ears upon. Especially when considering the title track that builds from a creeping post punk instrumental into a magnificent rumble of apocalyptic riffage that proves that Swans can be physically heavy as well as emotionally.

 The real delicacy of their musicianship comes out on the second disc however, opening with the gentle folk ballad Song for a Warrior, a song that with it's stirring female vocals accurately contrasts from the grimness of the first disc and serves as an effective set up for the more beautiful parts of the album. Beauty that can't be expressed any better than on the highly immersive A Piece of the Sky that allows listeners to pass through graceful melodies through grand and spacious atmospherics as Gira and Christoph Hahn's guitar work is simply dazzling. And with an echoey production, the sound simply flows like a shimmering lake. It's undoubtedly a musical work that captivates you without even trying.

 So, looking back on listening to an album like The Seer, you understand why the term "alternative" has existed in music since the 1980's and you realise that that  doesn't by any means stop the album from taking you to a new world and a different reality in it's course. Indeed, it's an album requiring a lot of patience, but if you put in that effort, you get a hell of a lot out of it. It's been thirty years now and it's not an intact lineup anymore, but Swans are still very much capable of doing things no bands would ever dare to do. And when you take dares, amazing things can happen. Suppose I should try and work out university accommodation again huh? Aberdeen property buyers never sleep.

Swans' The Seer is out now via Young God Records. The band will tour the UK in November with Sir Richard Bishop.

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