Young God, YG45, £18.00
Swans have never been an easy band to listen to – visceral, brutal, angry, using strange instrumentation and a sound that veers from minimalist to bass heavy overload – keyboards and percussion pounded into the ground in an infernal loop contrasted with moments of crystalline beauty. But they have always struck me as honest, original and brimful of ideas communicated with such skill that the listener is left in no doubt about the raw power of evil, the fragility of sanity and the necessity for redemption. I saw them live once over twenty years ago. It was a gig whose intensity was emotionally wrenching, draining and exhilarating.
When nothing came forth from Swans following 1996’s ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’ and the main trio of Gira, Westberg and Jarboe got deeply into a variety of individual projects it seemed that this was the end for one of the defining bands of the No Wave genre. Then in 2010 there was news of an album release ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky’. Gira and Westberg were working as Swans again and it was great to hear them. ‘My Father…’ was definitely a Swans album – in line with ‘White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity’ and ‘Love Of Life’ – but it was only partially satisfying. For me Swans best work involves Jarboe – albums such as ‘Children of God’ (I’m also particularly partial to Gira and Jarboe’s side project ‘Skin’) – because she offers a necessary feminine counterpoint to the articulate macho forcefulness of Gira. Not that Jarboe is a simpering woman – she is cut from the same skin as Lydia Lunch and Diamanda Galas – what she adds is not the sweetness of the cute but the blood of the birth canal, a fusion of Boudicca, Kali and the Madonna Lactans.
With 2012’s double-disc set, ‘The Seer’, Jarboe is back and the music is all the stronger for her. Not that she has any lead role, Michael Gira is still in the place of command, but her womanliness infuses the project with a jewel-like luminescence. Indeed, Jarboe is only heard in backing vocals, yet the force of the feminine comes to the fore through others, notably special guest Karen O (from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) on ‘Song for a Warrior’.
‘The Seer’ is a great Swans album. Gira continues to thrust his hands deep inside the dark places of the earth, pull out the gore and the festering detritus, and yet leave us shivering not simply with chilled fascination but also with a dangerous sliver of redemptive hope. Musically these tracks are typically fully worked out Swans creations – more akin to symphonic movements than definable songs – sounds heavy and harsh looped over and over to create layers of minimalist drone. Upon this infernal or eternal repetition backing vocals and chiming percussion add a more hopeful and human dimension out of which Gira’s monotone voice continues to lay bare the mess of existence. Some pieces conform to an almost conventional song length, others, such as the 32 minute long title track, are more like tone poems. That track, ‘The Seer’ is the climactic heart of the album, but it is almost wordless aside from some Can-like obscure vocalisation at the end reminiscent of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz sound poems. Elsewhere the lyrics are more mantras than fully coherent songs, a flowering of suggestive images that scatter darkness and light in equal proportions. As ever with Swans there is a sense of the divine that is never far from the unequivocal evocations of the darkest things we can do to each other and the earth. Sometimes that divine spark is a light to give hope, sometimes it is the splinter in the throat of the sacrifice but Gira never seems to want to leave us wallowing in depravity. Even at its darkest he hints at a creative future. ‘The Seer’ is a distinctive and powerful album – give it time to sift the darkness and light in your own soul and release your own force of creation.