You’d be forgiven for balking at frontman Michael Gira’s quasi-facetious claim that Swans’ current effort, The Seer, is “the culmination” of every previous album in his oeuvre. Yet you’d be an ass for allowing such hyperbole to sour you on this resplendent 119-minute beast. While the record lacks the cohesive punch of 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky—the veteran group’s maiden voyage after a 13-year dormancy—it compensates by tackling rapturous extremes with an almost playful looseness.
The album’s press release trumpets unobtrusive guest appearances by Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O and former Swans chanteuse Jarboe, but the real coup is the music’s unexpected fluidity and Technicolor expansiveness. Sotto voce growling and panting plus cross-contaminated percussion turn the patented locksteps of “The Apostate” and “Mother of the World” into thundering, Brobdingnagian bump-and-grinds; by contrast, several shorter tracks are among the gentlest in Gira’s repertoire.
All of this, though, pales compared with Swans’ awe-inspiring live sets. For two straight hours, double drummers bash at bells and gongs, and Christoph Hahn’s lap-steel guitar screams like Lucifer’s nagging wife. Gira, a strapping gent pushing 60, might gaze heavenward, fondle himself and roar deliriously about transcendental light or Lady Gaga invading his mind and genitals. Ingested at top volume in a sweltering venue, a more potent combo of substance and spectacle, volatility and charisma, provocation and entertainment would be hard to imagine.—Jordan N. Mamone