When Swans released their album The Seer in 2012, it was cause for celebration on several counts. For one thing, no one had ever expected them to return after they disbanded in 1997, so their comeback two years prior was alarming to say the least. But The Seer also marked an incredible 30 years of Swans’ projects (minus the 13 that Michael Gira, the group’s driving force, took off to pursue different directions with his band Angels of Light). Not that you would have noticed the anniversary; unlike other bands of their generation, Swans never seemed interested in creating neat, marketable milestones. Conjuring infinity in their music, they have little need for calendars, encomia and statuettes. As long as they’re touring or putting out records, Swans simply are. And whenever they’re not, their records feel just as eternal.
Many have passed through the band over the years, but Swans are, for all intents and purposes, Michael Gira. (And while Swans are not Angels of Light, Angels of Light are also Gira, as are all the other projects in which he has involved himself over the years; he is an all-consuming, overpowering presence, a King Midas who turns matter not to gold, but black holes.)
In the beginning, they circled, uneasily, within New York’s No Wave scene, sharing bills (and occasionally members) with bands like Sonic Youth and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. But Gira was never a joiner, not even of a nihilistic scene like No Wave. He had already passed through his hippie phase, run away from home, hitchhiked across Europe and, still a teenager, ended up in an Israeli prison for selling hash. He discovered punk rock in Los Angeles, played in a few bands and published a zine, No. By the time he assembled Swans on New York’s crumbling Lower East Side, where he spent his days working construction and demolition jobs, his only interest was in translating physical violence and moral collapse into overwhelming waves of sound, the kind of percussive assault that made Sonic Youth sound like softies, in comparison.
Through the years, Gira tempered his vision with acoustic elements, daring to balance brutality with astonishing beauty. He never softened, however: Even at its quietest, Gira’s music shakes like a death rattle, implacable and all-encompassing. That glimpse of sublimity underlies every one of his records, which helps to explain how Gira and his bands created a body of work that rivals that of any other artist of the past 30 years in its intensity and integrity.
Early Years/New Brutality
After discovering punk rock in Los Angeles, Michael Gira played briefly in a local band, the Little Cripples, before moving to New York and teaming up with his friend Rick Oller to form Metal Envelope, which became Circus Mort. With Gira singing and Oller playing guitar, the band was rounded out by the brothers Dan and Josh Braun, later of the Del Byzanteens, on bass and keyboards; future Swans drummer Jonathan Kane joined before they recorded their lone release, a 12-inch EP released in 1982. It sounds nothing like Swans, with echoes of surf rock, milky organs, period flange effects and a herky-jerky sense of groove indebted to the Contortions and Wire – the very epitome of the era's "angular," Cubist guitar rock. (Here Kane proves himself a remarkably dexterous drummer, far more fleet of wrist than on any of Swans' turbulent early recordings.) Gira's lyrical preoccupations already gravitate towards chants and sneering imperative commands ("Curse you, curse you, curse you"), but his delivery, alternating between shouts and whispers, is far more conventional for the time. The band was "not a very consequential enterprise," Gira admitted in a 2010 interview. "We made an EP. It was kinda new wave or something. In any case, it wasn't very good."
Swans came out of the same Lower East Side cauldron that birthed No Wave, but the band's negativism was more complicated. In place of No Wave's arty abstraction and arch intellectualism, Swans favored brute physicality and visceral, blood-and-guts essence: pounding repetition, savage tunelessness, feedback bubbling like lava, or bile. As Michael Gira told the East Village Eye in 1983, "The best rock 'n' roll for me is like a big enemaâ€¦Our music should be as physical and unavoidable as possibleâ€¦I like anything that seems to nullify the sense of beingâ€¦or nullify consciousness."
To that end, lyrics that might have come off as sloganeering in the hands of another singer became more like mantras, turning power dynamics into something sublime, a kind of transubstantiation in violence. Gira's lyrics flipped seamlessly between abuser and abused, master and slave – "Big strong boss/ Break my back/ Blood runs black/ Cut my throat/ Kill me snake/ Do what I say/ You're the boss" – while Harry Crosby's bass bulged like the neck veins on the cop who's about to beat you with his nightstick, and Norman Westberg's guitar and Roli Mosimann's drums exploded with the force of a migraine.
But the band's multifarious refusal also extended to the formalist Puritanism of American hardcore, with its distrust of any kind of artifice; subtle tape effects accentuated the alien qualities of the band's profoundly un-musical sound. And where hardcore bent double into the wind, Swans slowed down, showing that a dirge-like stomp could be even more powerful than hardcore's breakneck pace – stranger, uglier, even more messed up.
Released in 2000, this double-CD edition combines the band's debut LP, 1983's Filth, with 1991's Body to Body, Job to Job, "a collection of 16-track recordings, previously unavailable 24 track studio recordings, live cassette recordings, and sound loops from the years 1982-1985"; it's rounded out with 24 minutes of a live performance from the Kitchen. Taken together, it's the locus horribilis of the entire Swans project.
It's hard to believe, but 1984's Cop and Young God are even uglier than Filth-era Swans. Norman Westberg's riffs had become more atonal, gesturing only glancingly at conventional key signatures — for a totally anachronistic comparison, imagine DJ Screw remixing Greg Ginn's guitar solos — and with slow glissandi drooping like dying flowers on the vine. "Half Life" boasts the same pitched-down low end and bracing squeals of feedback that New Orleans's Eyehategod would popularize as "sludge metal" nearly a decade later — and yet, incredibly, Eyehategod sound positively quick-stepping when compared to Swans' dying-elephant gait. And Michael Gira, rising (or perhaps descending) to the music's orgasmic nihilism, lets loose with even more blood-curdling growls and roars, luxuriating in debasement with songs like "Your Property": "I give you money/ You're superior/ I don't exist/ You control me/ You're corrupt/ You deform me/ You own me/ You own me."
But Young God also finds the band experimenting with a newfound sense of space, with ringing, wide-open guitars blasting through the walls of Cop's dank, claustrophobic torture chamber and paving the way for the totally unexpected shift that would follow with 1986's Greed and Holy Money. (This 1999 compendium includes all four records along with selected songs from the related singles "Time is Money (Bastard)" and "A Screw.") On the drum-free "Fool," Gira wraps himself in opulent piano like some kind of Mars in furs; "Money is Flesh" and "A Screw" adopt the mechanical rhythms and synthesizers of European industrial music, while "Nobody" mirrors liturgically-inspired chants with what sounds like a harmonica's low wail — an early intimation of what Gira will later develop as his own brand of Southern gothic.
Jarboe, a Swans super-fan who moved to New York with the sole purpose of getting close to the group, had joined the band by this point, and she prostates herself on songs like "You Need Me" ("I'm sorry/ I'm sorry/ I won't do it again/ I'm sorry/ I'm sorry/ I love you more than myself"). Her vulnerable presence is the first sign of a softening Swans: Not so much singing as sighing, she taps a previously unexplored vein of tenderness that would soon explode across Children of God and the almost maudlin The Burning World, with its Mapplethorpe photo of a calla lily on the cover.
Before that transition was complete, however, Swans would record one of the most terrifyingly beautiful songs in their entire career: "A Hanging," from Holy Money. The rhythm section beats out a turgid, tribal rhythm that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Sonic Youth's Confusion is Sex, with the bass and guitar ringing like church bells; Jarboe's multi-tracked voice rises in a pained devotional chant, and Gira addresses himself directly to his creator, promising, "Dear God in heaven, I'll hang for you," proving as skillful a chronicler of hell on earth as Hieronymus Bosch.
Faith, Failure, Redemption, Finality
Up until 1987, the last place in the world you might have expected to hear an acoustic guitar was on a Swans album. But with Children of God, the band augmented its brute physicality with a "New Mind," as the opening track put it, and a new palette to match. ("I will be there/ With my eyes wide open/ I will be there/ I will be ready/ To receive/ The new mind.") From the cover alone, with its puce-and-fuchsia color scheme, its swirls and crosses, you could guess that Swans had entered a new phase, and the album's first three tracks made that abundantly clear. "New Mind" sounded more or less like the Swans of yore — more cleanly produced, perhaps, but still displaying the same doomy riffs, the same war-dance drums, the same call-and-response vocals — but the "In My Garden" came from a different universe entirely, with a high-necked bass melody inspired by Joy Division, limpid pianos reminiscent of Harold Budd, and a wraithlike Jarboe intoning, "In my garden/ We'll never die." "Our Love Lies" completed their transmutation with strummed acoustic guitars and tambourine and Michael Gira not just growling but singing, his baritone sinking to the lower limit of his register like a body weighted by stones. The rest of the album alternates between slow-motion head-bangers, like "Our Love Lies" and "Like a Drug," and deathly folk songs judiciously touched up with synthesizers and effects, like "Blood and Honey" and "You're Not Real, Girl." On the hypnotic title song, Jarboe's ecstatic mantra ("We are children/ Children of God") swirls above see-sawing guitars and stark, metallic drum beats; there's little doubt that, whatever their previously nihilistic outlook, Swans finally see the light of redemption, however fleetingly.
A few months before Children of God, Gira and Jarboe explored even more gentle textures on a pair of albums recorded under the name of Skin. Jarboe's voice carried Blood, Women, Roses, while Gira assumed center stage on Shame, Humility, Revenge, but both albums shared the same downy textures, forsaking Swans' usual sturm und drang in favor of strings, acoustic guitars, hushed synthesizers, and echoing electronic drums — a mixture that could almost have been mistaken for This Mortal Coil. Both records were repackaged in 1988 as the double LP, The World of Skin, and 14 songs were selected for 1997's Children of God / World of Skin reissue.
The period covered by 1999's Various Failures: 1988-1992 is a curious one in Swans' history. On the one hand, not only was Michael Gira preoccupied with failure as a lyrical theme, but it also seemed to dog the band's efforts to realize the expansive vision first articulated on Children of God. For the first and only time, Swans signed to a major label for 1992's The Burning World, produced by Bill Laswell – a haunting, heavily acoustic album notable, in particular, for the unremittingly bleak "God Damn the Sun" and a shockingly pretty cover, fronted by Jarboe, of Steve Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home." But the record sold poorly, and the band was soon dropped; the experience soured Gira on the entire endeavor. "That record makes me cringe," he told an interviewer in 1995; "Often, I wish I'd never made it."
The next few years were beset with problems with their subsequent labels, Rough Trade and Sky Records; nevertheless, Swans seemed incredibly energized in this period, recording a pair of back-to-back albums – 1991's White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and 1992's Love of Life – that channeled the band's assaultive force and full-spectrum dynamics into an overwhelming wall of sound that fused acoustic and electric, tenderness and violence, agony and ecstasy. In 1990, Gira and Jarboe also revisited their Skin project (now called the World of Skin) with Ten Songs or Another World, a more stripped-down and acoustic approach to similar ideas; of particular note is a haunting cover of Nick Drake's "Black Eyed Dog."
For 1999's Various Failures, Gira cherry-picked the best of all four records and their attendant singles. The double-disc collection may not do justice to the four albums, all of which are stronger than Gira seems to remember – particularly White Light and Love of Life, which fused feathery acoustic and electric guitars, bells, thunderbolt drums, Jarboe's angelic vocals and Gira's soul-scouring scowl into a sound that feels like the sky being ripped open by serrated rainbows.
After White Light and Love of Life, Swans had found their groove, and The Great Annihilator, their ninth studio album, promises more of the same — only grander, more sumptuous, more enthralling. You have to marvel over the fact that a band this intense, with its share of label difficulties, could turn out nine albums (not counting EPs and side projects) in a dozen years — and could keep subtly reinventing itself without losing its core. In many ways, the way The Great Annihilator wraps up Swans' history and strengths into one totalizing package presages 2012's The Seer, a similarly all-encompassing work. Part of the quintessential Swans-ness of the album probably stems from the fact that, after a period of shifting personnel, the band refocused on a core lineup including longtime members Algis Kizys (bass), Ted Parsons (drums), and Norman Westberg (electric guitar), who imbue the album with its sinewy, muscular movement. Guitarists Clinton Steele and Bill Rieflin round out the group's rippling waves of guitars, with both Rieflin and Michael Gira using 12-string acoustics to ignite the furthest corners of the spectrum, where they shimmer like fireworks.
While they occasionally take a step back into softer, gentler material in the spirit of Children of God's more reflective moments ("Blood Promise," "Warm," "Mother's Milk"), the thrust of the album is generally full-on; what's remarkable is how they summon a sound so forceful without ever sounding hard, or even particularly loud — at least, not in the way that years of over-compressed rock recordings have conditioned us to think of volume. They can still be savage — "Alcohol the Seed" tears at its monotone chords and tight snare rolls like a dog shakes a rag — but even at their most ferocious, they sound buoyed by feathers and porous as a sponge.
From the howling winds that accompany "In" to the ragged acoustic blues of the closing live take of "I Am the Sun," the word that seems to sum up the whole album is "elemental." It seems only fitting that Gira spent the three months of the album's recording sessions living in a mosquito-infested tent inside the Chicago studio. It's as though he was wringing out his blood on tape to ensure that the bugs didn't suck it from him first.
Soundtracks for the Blind, released in 1996, was meant to be the Swans' final album, and it was, until Michael Gira revived the band for 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. It represented a curious sort of coda to the band's career, however, stepping away from the full-band maelstrom of the previous records and delving into the collage methods of Brian Eno and Teo Macero.
The album gathers together new sessions featuring Gira and Jarboe's Great Annihilator tourmates (Iggy Pop drummer Larry Mullins, American Music Club guitarist Vudi, and bassist/guitarist Joe Goldring) along with 15 years of band recordings, tapes, found sounds — including eerie spoken-word passages culled from the private collection of Jarboe's late father, an FBI agent — and more, all "reassembled, looped, mangled, and in many cases overdubbed upon to create new pieces of music," as Gira explained. Twelve years later, the perennially dissatisfied musician recalled, "There was SO MUCH material to deal with, to sift through (whole trunks full of decomposing, moldy cassettes and discs with samples and sounds), and the task of making it into something coherent was at times debilitating. Really like climbing up a mountain of sand. I don't remember why I set this goal for myself, to somehow incorporate such a ridiculously disparate amount of material. I think maybe it was so I could justify throwing all that crap into the local dump, which is what I did when I finished the album."
It's easy to understand Gira's frustration: The double-CD album, 142 minutes long, is truly epic, and it covers a staggering amount of stylistic ground, from lysergic musique concrete to metal-tinged goth and foreboding death folk. In many ways, it's as representative of the Swans' master vision as The Great Annihilator, but in reverse: Where that album was a summation, Soundtracks for the Blind captures the band's definitive unraveling, one strand at time, into a messy pile on the floor.
Rising from the Ashes: Angels of Light
Rising from the ashes of Swans, Angels of Light emerged in 1999 and would occupy Michael Gira for the next decade, both in the studio and on the stage. Featuring many former Swans collaborators — Bill Rieflin, Phil Puleo, Larry Mullins, Christoph Hahn — the band represented a continuation of Gira's interest in acoustic music and American folk idioms. At the same time, the sound they conjured — and "conjured" seems to be the only word to describe music so full, so deceptively complex, that unrolls so effortlessly — was unlike anything else at the time. (The closest comparison to Angels of Light's rippling, spectral wash might be Jim O'Rourke's Eureka, from the same year, right down to Gira's similar fusion of hillbilly rounds, Reichian arpeggios, and Van Dyke Parks-inspired harmonic overflow.) They were not a "roots" band, certainly not retro, and never as self-consciously outré as the strain of music that eventually became dubbed "freak folk," but there were overlaps with that loose scene — just consider the fact that Gira signed freak-folk flag bearer Devendra Banhart to his own Young God Records.
New Mother came together with the assistance of 19 musicians, but in comparison to the Body Lovers, which felt like a solo project with assistance from others, Angels of Light's debut album sounds like the output of a cohesive unit. What's amazing is that a band front-loaded with percussionists (Larry Mullins, Thor Harris, Phil Puleo) could turn out so feathery and soft; in fact, there are few traces of rock drumming on the album, which instead bristles with mallet instruments, bells, and cymbals. Gira is the calm at the center of the storm, and sometimes vice versa — particularly in the album's latter half, where the music collapses like a deflating balloon around his lone frame, which rages quietly in every direction.
He adds honest-to-goodness singing to his repertoire of vocal styles, along with his usual growling, muttering, and creaky Sprechstimme, often sounding like a rustier Scott Walker or a more detached Mark Lanegan. Lyrically, he seems like he's allowing the stripped-down music to lead him to a rapprochement with his past, as with an unusually frank confession to his late father: "Thank God you never saw the person I've become."
Two years after Angels of Light's debut, Michael Gira and his new group returned with How I Loved You, a collection of love songs — yes, love songs — that began as sketches for voice and guitar and gradually developed into the huge, full-ensemble pieces that they are. (Some songs, like "My Suicide," mimic that process of becoming in their arrangements, beginning as skeletal, unadorned meditations and gradually growing into full-band rave-ups.) What felt shaky on the Angels' debut is here swollen; what felt spindly is sleeker, sturdier, brimming with power and heartbroken pathos. Much of that surely has to do with the solidifying dynamics of the group, which again features Christoph Hahn, Larry Mullins, Thor Harris and Birgit-Cassis Staudt; "Our combined sensibilities feel very natural at this point," said Gira at the time, "which I guess comes from having played most of the songs live a lot." Bassist Dana Schechter, a member of the Angels' touring lineup at the time, also appears on the record; a more surprising addition is Kid Congo Powers (of the Gun Club, the Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), who plays electric guitar on "My True Body" and "New York Girls." If there's any single player who stands out, however, it's Hahn, whose lap steel guitar extends throughout the album like a glowing filament.
The Angels of Light were never polite, but their first two albums were nevertheless marked by restraint. Not so number three, a wild, flailing monster that pursues its folk interests deep into the ragged heart of what Robert Christgau called the "old, weird America." From the outset, the organs and guitars of "Palisades" suggest a subtly more psychedelic dimension, and that shimmering dissonance grows across the St. Vitus dance of "All Souls' Rising" and the harried call-and-response of "Nations." Banjos strum, harmonicas wail, and fiddles saw chillingly through the meat and bones of the music; it is among the most unhinged of all Michael Gira's records.
Upon its release, Gira, sounding too wound-up for niceties like punctuation, recalled, "It started innocently enough with the intent of being a simple collection of well-written songs performed by the musicians who played them live for the last few years with the addition of a few acoustic songs lightly colored. Instead as things often seem to go around here I ended up saturating every available molecule of the recording tape with sound then hacked cut poured sonic fertilizer/salt on the resultant wounds and it finally metastasized into this raging/weeping BEAST which in the end succeeded in slowly biting off my head leaving this album behind as evidence." Somewhat paradoxically, then, the album also shows the Angels of Light fully in their comfort zone – nesting in the root notes like fat sparrows before whipping up to ringing open fifths as though feeding from the eaves, then darting back to shelter once more.
The ever-restless Michael Gira switched things up once again with the fourth Angels of Light record, replacing most of the now-familiar lineup with the members of another band, Akron/Family, whose debut album he had co-produced. He adopted a new constraint for the project, too: no drums. The results, set free from that percussive anchor, are more ragged and even more expansive, in their own way — not pushing against the sky, but running roughshod over cracked ground in thin rivulets of banjo and dulcimer and the kind of wild, erratic vocal harmonies you might hear in an old-time revival meeting. Even the lyrics are more worldly: "Michael's White Hands" presents Michael Jackson as a vengeful god and a symbol of America's undoing, while "Destroyer" channels Gira's longstanding apocalyptic obsessions into a thinly veiled 9/11 frame. Brimming with choruses, yelps, and even, on "Purple Creek," the sound of crickets, it's a campfire album — but one for the days after the cities have burned down, when "We'll walk freely through the mountains and the trees/ And we'll breathe deep again where the air is pure and clean / And we will drink freely from the milk of our revenge."
Upon returning from an extended tour together, Michael Gira's Angels of Light and Akron/Family — actually one and the same band, at this point – took to the studio and banged out this album in just nine days. Listeners unfamiliar with Akron/Family's own music will quickly realize that the band is a very different kind of beast when not backing Gira; their portion of the record mulls over a spidery, ruminative chord progression of the sort you'd be unlikely to hear from Angels of Light; the next song, "Moment," begins with an unbridled explosion of free-improv noise freakout whose energy is the antithesis of Gira's brand of controlled chaos. Like a vagabond Grizzly Bear on uppers, they dedicate their half of the record to an exuberant strain of psych-rock, what Gira called "Beatles meets Beefheart backwoods midnight incantation." On Gira's side, he picks up the old-timey baton for uncharacteristically rootsy songs like "I Pity the Poor Immigrant," a country-blues number in which he assumes the mantle of Woody Guthrie — however unlikely that might sound. The best of his batch might be "Mother/Father," a ragged mantra for whooping, multi-part vocal harmonies and dangerously syncopated toms.
Gira's final album with Angels of Light started out simply, with Gira and Akron/Family laying down bare-bones arrangements on drums, guitar, piano, and voluminous backing vocals, and Gira bellowing his heart out, by now fully comfortable in his role as a kind of unholy barroom bandleader. He's unafraid to go hard here – "My Brother's Man" is a white-knuckled post-punk blues reminiscent (save the harmonica) of Swans' hypnotic churn – but he also sounds uncharacteristically relaxed: Just listen to his easy drawl on "Star Chaser," a lanky victory lap of a closing tune. (He's spent the album bridging the gap between the soil and the stars, and yet here he sounds like he's barely broken a sweat.)
As we've learned by now, though, Gira doesn't really do simple. Feeling like the songs sounded "thin and tentative," he roped in a dozen of his usual cohorts – including lap-steel guitarist Christoph Hahn, the multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin, and various friends bearing violin, trombone, and hammer dulcimer – to beef up the music. What's striking, then, is how different the album sounds from any of Angels of Light's previous recordings, marrying the group's rootsy meanderings to a drone-focused intensity not heard since The Great Annihilator. In retrospect, a change was coming; Gira's internal pendulum was swinging back towards his most primal instincts.
And then they returned. Even given the decade's fetish for punk and post-punk reunions, few ever thought that Swans would lumber the earth's surface again, once they snuffed out the flame in 1997. And yet they came back.
The opening "No Words/No Thoughts" begins the only appropriate way they could kick off such a monumental return, with three and a half minutes of feedback, tremolo, pick-slide jibber-jabber, and a sound that might be an electric saw slicing through the sides of the band's coffin; finally, in slowly building open fifths and pealing bells, the band assumes its full shape, tearing into a monotone rave-up as focused as anything in their history, beating a single chord into a million bloody colors while Gira chants, "Long may he live/ Long may his children drift through the wind/ To think is a sin/ To think is a sin." Gira rarely dips into the realm of the meta, but it's hard not to read his ode to hollow men as a cry of victory, having turned nothing inside out and produced this unimaginable vastness.
Gira turned to long-time collaborators for the reconstituted lineup, including Norman Westberg, Christoph Hahn, Phil Puleo, and Thor Harris, along with newcomer Chris Pravdica, on bass. (That core lineup would remain the same for 2012's The Seer and the live album We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head.) The well-tempered intimacy of the crew undoubtedly contributed to the deeply intuitive force behind the record, in which guitars, bass, and drums seem to roll in relentless, ceaseless waves. Given that the musicians were scattered across the world, Gira sent them basic demos and then assembled the band in New York for intensive sessions that might be described as crash courses in the material, recording one track per day across a week of 12-hour sessions. "Once they'd reached a peak, having hashed the songs over (and over) and reconfigured them from their original demo form into something unique to the group," recalls Gira, "the engineer hit record." The album is steeped in the most muscular kind of immediacy, particularly on surging post-punk anthems like "My Birth," "Inside Madeline," and "Eden Prison," but never at the expense of the American-primitive psychedelia that marked Angels of Light's work; on "You Fucking People Make Me Sick," that tendency rears its fire-haloed head in dizzying explosions of mandolin, piano, and funereal horns, while Devendra Banhart and Gira's three-year-old daughter Saoirse articulate the song's vision of love and terror.
There's a lot to absorb on The Seer, Swans' triumphant 2012 follow-up to their 2010 return: two hours of music, including two 20-minute songs and another, the title track, that stretches more than 30. But even so soon after the album's release, it's not hard to recognize it as one of the finest in the band's entire career, quite possibly Michael Gira's crowning achievement to date. Making good on his assertion that the reborn Swans would be no mere revival act, The Seer doesn't just push forward; it does so while rolling up everything that ever made Swans great into a single, all-encompassing package. It feels totalizing, like every Swans album ever made played all at once; it feels like something you could actually live inside – and, given both its length and the way it almost compels you into repeat listens, it sort of is.
It's as varied an album as any in the band's catalog; "Song for a Warrior," featuring the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, is a quiet, acoustic, country lament; "93 Ave. B Blues" connects Gira's fascination with Southern blues to the most searing kind of No Wave skronk; "The Seer" brings together bagpipes, Sunn O)))-caliber heavy metal drone, and the swarming buzz of Glenn Branca's brutalist electric-guitar symphonies. There's lap steel and contrabassoon and jaw harp; Jarboe returns for appearances on "Mother of the World" and "The Wolf," and Low's Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk lend their own voices to "Lunacy." Even the laptop-enabled noise musician Ben Frost is on board, contributing "fire sounds (synthetic and acoustic)."
For all its sweeping, crashing grandeur, The Seer is also a profoundly intimate album: You don't marvel at it from distance, you become a part of it, thanks to chanted invocations like those of opener "Lunacy," or the writhing, full-body chug of "Mother of the World," which sucks you in like a riptide. The album is one long, extended trance, refracted internally into infinity dimensions.
Does Michael Gira ever sleep? In 1995, having wrapped up The Great Annihilator (and toured in support of it), and about to embark upon the sprawling, soul-draining collage project Soundtracks for the Blind, he somehow found time to release Drainland, a solo album featuring contributions from Jarboe and Bill Rieflin, recorded mostly at the latter's Seattle home. (Reflecting Gira's fondness for dichotomy, Jarboe released her own solo album, Sacrificial Cake, as a companion piece.) Without Swans' gale-force rhythm section behind him, Drainland is a quieter, more intimate record, characterized by hypnotically strummed guitars, chiming bells and eerie swirls of synthesizer and sound effects; singing and muttering through what sounds like a permanently fixed grimace, Gira sounds not so much restrained as numb. It's a bitter and at times bilious album, an unsparing self-portrait of the artist as an ugly man: In the very first song, a tape recording captures Jarboe confronting Gira over his growing alcoholism, and his spontaneous, slurred counterattack is far more unsettling than any of his customary invocations of hellfire and damnation.
In 1998, with Swans officially over, Michael Gira set about attempting to find a new way forward. Before throwing himself into his next band, Angels of Light, he adopted a new solo alias, the Body Lovers, for an all-instrumental collection of home recordings, Number One of Three. (In 1999, it was followed, in true Gira style, by a complementary release from his alter ego the Body Haters; both are included here, along with a previously unreleased Body Haters track.) Of course, also in true Gira fashion, the definition of "solo" is a loose one. Pan Sonic, Deathprod, James Plotkin, Ultra Vivid Scene's Kurt Ralske, Jarboe, and various former Swans all contribute sounds and ideas, which Gira mixes into brooding drones and stark, acoustic meditations. Of all his albums, it's the closest he ever came to pure ambient music, and in terms of sonic experimentation, it's one of his most adventurous releases.
One of the quietest albums in Michael Gira's catalog, What We Did is a collaboration with Windsor for the Derby's Dan Matz; the pair recorded the record at Matz's home, in pieces, over the course of two years. It sounds like it; their acoustic guitars and voices are swathed in the natural reverb of wooden-floored living rooms, and the hushed quality of the recording gives the impression of songs recorded fleetingly at night, trying not to wake the neighbors. For once, Gira plays second fiddle, figuratively speaking — it's Matz's voice that tends to dominate, soft and wavering, with Gira's cracked baritone trailing like a shadow. But you can certainly hear Gira's fingerprints on the shape of the songs, which play skeletal chord progressions above stolid pedal tones. And for all their unplugged nakedness, there's a wealth of sound – organ, piano, harmonica, banjo, toy percussion, even the occasional drum machine – hidden deep within its folds.
If it's an audience with Michael Gira himself you seek, this is the record. Taken from limited-edition CDs sold to the band's super-fans, the proceeds of which helped fund the recording of studio albums by Swans and Angels of Light, these songs are nothing but Gira and his guitar, recorded at home with a single stereo microphone. "Just a casual performance in my office at home," he has explained, noting that many of the songs were recorded immediately after writing them (and originally intended as demos for his collaborators to learn from). Stark and unadorned, they make for quietly harrowing listening, and they really come alive when compared to their eventual realizations by Swans and Angels of Light; listening to the fleshed-out songs and then Gira's demos feels like tracking a river back to its source high above the tree line, where water courses unbounded over jagged shale.