Swans were one of the most original acts of the early '80s. Formed in New York City, they created grim, ominous throb that suggested industrial music at its most minimalist and fatigued, the entire structure on the verge of inward collapse. Early on, concert volume approached levels that could drown out a jet's takeoff. It was a sweat lodge of sound, a modulated mantra of mind-bending drone. Swans were an experience.
It was unrelenting, and honestly a little frightening — particularly to hear singer Michael Gira intone, "Nobody rapes you like a cop with a club," on the track "Cop," a decade before anyone ever heard of Abner Louima.
"I suppose it was unrelenting, but it was never meant to be scary," says Gira from the road, where he's supporting The Seer, their second album since reuniting the band in 2010. "It eschewed regular rock or pop chord structures and dealt mostly with sound. It was liberating to think you could make an emotional piece of music without having to revert to three-chord punk rock or other kinds of tropes."
"It seemed to lessen the experience, so we would, for instance, just stay on one chord because to change seemed kind of false," Gira chuckles. "We would just wring the blood out of one rhythm. And, of course, it would develop variations within it and lots of nuance. You'd discover all the sounds from that chord and that rhythm."
By the late '80s, Swans had tempered their noisy reputation and elevated female singer Jarboe's role, softening the band's brutality and intensity. Swans were among the bands — inlcuding friends Sonic Youth — who received major-label deals in the late '80s as label execs searched for Nirvana. The subsequent Bill Laswell-produced 1988 album, The Burning World, didn't meet anyone's expectations, and they were dropped. Swans released three more eclectic albums — blending greater accessibility, melody, and dynamics — through the mid-'90s, but they went largely unnoticed.
Gira broke up Swans in 1997. He busied himself with six albums by the indicatively brighter, more melodic project Angels of Light, wrote fiction, and operated his label, Young God. The label launched the careers of experimental artists Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family. But with downloading eviscerating any future that might have been and a new creative fire burning, Gira disinterred Swans. He'd written a batch of songs that didn't work until he conceived of them in context of Swans' dire majesty and tribal thrum.
"It was a portal to new possibilities, as opposed to staying in one place," he says. "I wanted to challenge myself and also experience the joy of being in the swirl of noise Swans could make."
In many ways, 2010's return, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, seems to pick up where Swans left off. It's still intense and hypnotic but informed by the greater melody and pop sophistication of Angels of Light. It balances conventional pop (shadowy cabaret folk "Reeling the Liars In") with noisy paeans (nine-minute opener "No Words/No Thoughts") and tracks like "Inside Madeline," whose intense yet mesmerizing kaleidoscopic rumble culminates in a rootsy swooning melody.
The band's new two-disc set, The Seer, amplifies that aesthetic, while moving further in both directions. The spare 90-second acoustic song "The Wolf" passes unadorned into the violently lo-fi and dark folk trill of "The Daughter Brings the Water," which sounds like something Roger Waters might frighten his children with. On the other extreme, Swans forge an apocalyptic groove worthy of Francis Ford Coppola on the nearly 10-minute tour de force, "Mother of the World."
"It's like building a house. I have a plan, but the blueprint changes constantly," Gira says, laughing. "As soon as you hear something — actually record it, for me anyway — it leads to something else and usually it surprises me. In fact, I'm happiest when I'm surprised and I throw my plans away. Then I just kind of grapple with the mud on the wall and try to make a painting with it. It's kind of an experiential process. It's not an intellectual one at all. I'm just making shapes that appeal to me."