Album Review: Swans – The Seer

Label: Young God
Catalog No: YG45

Okay, I’ve been dwelling on this review for the past few days now, trying to come up with the best way to describe this album. After sleepless nights listening to its entirety and a harrowing encounter with a possessed grizzly bear, I am finally forcing myself to commit my experience into words. No one said it would be an easy process but when an album burrows deep inside you and begins distilling intensely fermented sensations from your memory, a floodgate needs to be opened.

The resurrection of Swans has been a complete cellular rebirth, fusing sonic particles together into a powerful aural structure. The Seer is their latest foray into unexplored terrain, an expedition ripe with danger and torment. It is a reflection on the past 30 years and what has happened to our world, our society and our music. Most of us organisms have done some form of evolving in that time, progressing from a protective womb to a menacing iron cage. Our minds and souls may have a sense of matured freedom but our bodies are still imprisoned in the dog pound we call modern society, banging our heads against cosmetic counters and drive-thru windows. Michael Gira has given us another raw escape from materialistic woe, locking us in the panic room until we reach the ultimate revelation.

This 2 hour opus commences with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low contributing to “Lunacy”, a sullen fervor that commands your brain cells into action. The cells awaken from their menial tasks and go over to the window to see the first stirrings of a synaptic revolution. This slides into “Mother of the World”, a piercing amber alert for our Mother Nature who has been missing in action lately while her planet gets destroyed. The stage is now set for a primal cleansing of the spirit.

Meanwhile, apocalyptic drumming descends into an onslaught of percussive abuse, howls of primal noise drone in tune with crashing guitars as the title track explodes on the horizon. This track is a half hour long droning jam, an ever-changing assault of noise and atmosphere. This culminates with Gira mumbling “I’ve seen it all” constantly throughout the song. You get the feeling that he has invaded your subconscious and has begun telling you the secrets of the world. All you can do is listen, wide-eyed and frightened, as you swim in the fluid tank buried under a layer of smoldering earth. The secrets bestowed upon you are not for your earthly body’s knowledge; the truth can be too hard to understand sometimes.

The initial dismay lessens as “The Seer Returns”, whose slow orchestral tremblings leave you drowning in misery. All the pent up emotions that brimmed to the surface during “The Seer” become art supplies for Gira. He paints our raw fallacies all over your body, exposing all your negative disgraces for the world to see. Overwhelmed by shame and disgust, you start to emerge from your protective synthetic cocoon that was woven from fake silk sold on clearance during Bargain Days. The real you finally begins to show itself and Gira acknowledges it, telling you that “you have arrived”.

What can best be described as the intermission is broken down into two parts. The first is a freeform battle of noise and echoes of murmuring voices. They keep you suspended in a desperate state but can’t harm you. They may still invoke fear but the level of intense hopelessness is nothing you can’t handle this far into your journey. The second part is in a slow and dark folk style. It is reminiscent of older Swans and is a nice break from the earth shattering intensities you recently experienced. This is merely the end of disc 1.

Disc 2 starts out softly. Karen O lends her sultry voice to the beautiful Ambient ballad “Song for a Warrior”. It is a very uplifting song meant to restore our positive energies. At the very end we are told to “use your sword, use your voice, and destroy”. This stirs up a mild twinge of outrage as we realize the decrepitude of our world. It shows us that we are each a warrior and need to fight for what we believe in. This gives us preparation for the despairs that lie ahead. “Avatar” is a portrayal of our enemy. The figurehead puppet master who secretly controls us behind a misleading facade. The song is like a march into a battlefield, bayonet in hand, waiting for your nemesis to appear. The whole time he is staring down at you throwing conceited statements of ownership in your face. A fierce battle ensues with epic guitar drones and a downpour of mechanical noise explosions.

You persevere through all hardship and prove victorious. Standing alone in a docile rainshower staring down at your slain adversary, a swan song begins to flicker. “A Piece of the Sky” is a transcending beam of light lifting you out of the darkness and onto a cliff overlooking a cloudy sunrise. More and more light slowly emerges from the horizon, washing away the pain and anguish. Every trying event has been a stone step in the murky swamp, leading a path towards the clearing. The edge of the swamp comes into view. Sunlight graciously pours over your face and provides a revitalizing warmth. The sky itself seems to sing. Bells echo from the distant hills. Serenity flows through every pore. The path leads around a glistening pond and twists around through the hills.

Past the hills you encounter “The Apostate”. A daunting visage of twisted mirror images reverberating back and forth for all eternity. It is the ultimate punishment for his crime. You sit down and have a drink with him. A traumatic story unfolds as this traitor expels his deeds and misgivings. The saga of sedition lasted hours and many drinks were consumed. After a while, the man seated before you morphs into the distinct face of your former nemesis. A delirium takes hold and you begin to question reality, wondering if you ever did find a way out of the swamp. Drums pounding, guitars screaming from all directions. The man across the table is most definitely the ultimate enemy. But how can you be sure? You start screaming “You’re not in my mind, get out”. He keeps taunting you and a heated exchange of words gets tossed about until you finally exterminate him from your mind. You become blessed. The horrors of the past can no longer harm you. All tests have been passed. It all fades away in a massacre of damp drums and a faint scream. Never to harm you again.

For being one of the most hellish rollercoaster rides ever it is a sublime masterpiece. I have never heard such beautifully frightful music before. This is a truly unique recording and will no doubt strike different chords with different people. Some people don’t like to hear the truth and will run away upon hearing such a compelling display of it. Only those who are strong enough to understand the way things really are can fully appreciate The Seer. Michael Gira is a modern day sage giving us a window into other dimensions. He has once again been our trusted guide through the depths of our catastrophic existence.

Rating: 5 Stars
Standout Track: A Piece of the Sky

http://younggodrecords.com/home/658457004524-the-seer-cd

Review: Guided by Voices – Let’s Go Eat the Factory

The latest in a series of reformed bands, Guided by Voices return to their roots. Still hanging onto their garage echoes and short but sweet pop tunes, they give us another overwhelming array of songs that go by too quick. Like all their previous albums, there are songs that I just don’t understand and probably should have been omitted and then ones you wish would last just a little longer.

The lineup from their heyday has reconvened with just a few more wrinkles and nothing to show for it. Robert Pollard’s aging voice is about the only thing that has changed for these guys over the past 20 years. There are a lot more slow and morose ballads but they all end up sounding the same. The jumpy rhythms are still present. The crazy guitar sounds and overall weirdness stills pours sweet indie goodness down your throat. The album as a whole is an inconsistent bowl of lumpy mashed potatoes that’s only good with lots of salt and butter. There are a few great songs that are still worth hearing but it takes a lot of weeding through lumps.

Any vintage indie hipster or 90s indie connoisseur will love the similarities to their classic albums like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes but there is no progression. They merely picked up where they left off but unfortunately the world moved on. There is no more need for their thoughtful feel good jaunts. Our musical brains need a different kind of nourishment now and these guys might any tricks up their sleeve.

Rating: 3 Stars
Standout Track: Doughnut for a Snowman

http://www.npr.org/2011/12/18/143507341/first-listen-guided-by-voices-lets-go-eat-the-factory

Review: dEUS – Keep You Close

Alternative rock still thrives. One of the greatest and most ignored bands in the genre has been the Belgian rockers dEUS. Starting out with an artsy style crammed with unique lyrics and crazy instrumentation they have evolved into a mature band. Some of their early fans do not approve of the direction they have gone on their last few albums, but I think they are progressing like any great band does.

Keep You Close continues the alt-rock stylings of Vantage Point but it’s a little more toned down. With each successive album they have settled into their own niche in rock music just a little bit more. There is a mild dark aspect to this album with guitars cascading from light and airy to crunching sonic bends of sound. Tom Barman, the only original band member left, has honed his raspy vocals and made them his own. He has always had a very unique voice and now he is using that to the band’s advantage. dEUS has always been an entirely original ensemble and they continue to prove that. Though their styles do not stand out as much these days they bring in different aspects and sounds to make each album their own.

dEUS has proven to the world that they are worthy of regard alongside the great bands of recent history. For some unknown reason they never will be. Even though they have an amazing sound, solid songs and stand out of a crowd, they have always been on the fringe of popularity. This is totally fine as total fame would probably ruin their individuality. I encourage everyone to give a song or album of theirs a listen and you will be pleased by what you hear. dEUS are a fantastic band and if they keep progressing with each release as they always have they will be around for many years and will continue to establish new landmarks in the giant pulsating head of music.

Rating: 4.5 stars
Standout track: Easy

http://www.deus.be
http://soundcloud.com/deusbe

Review: PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

I have always enjoyed PJ Harvey’s raw musical stylings and voice. Her lyrics would demonstrate human emotions in all their splendor and horror and her voice was strong enough to plow through all the heartache and sufferings of this world. She would make everything alright.

On Let England Shake, she has gone political. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially with the current state of things in this world. All the lyrics have something to do with England’s dire situations but they can be applied to any nation. With this change in songwriting comes a change in her style. She has abandoned her raw, gritty tones for something much more melancholy. Her voice is still as amazing as ever but now it is even more beautiful. Her songs are still dark and morbid like before but she has morphed her music to better represent the subject matter. Instead of working up the listener into an angered frenzy about past lovers she is now stirring up our hearts into an angered frenzy about what this world has turned into.

Let England Shake is a patriot’s lament about the country they are proud to call home. It takes a lot to completely wipe away a person’s pride for their nation, but that doesn’t mean they are completely happy. PJ Harvey has taken on the role of a modern-day Martin Luther of sorts, posting 12 theses on the door of 10 Downing Street, saying, “We are not happy and here’s a few reasons why.”

Standout Track: England
Rating: 4.5 stars

http://www.npr.org/2011/02/06/133495228/first-listen-pj-harvey-let-england-shake
http://www.pjharvey.net/home.asp