Despite the music's sometimes-ominous quality, there are moments of bliss to be found. "On this record, there's so many different atmospheres and dynamics," he says, "but I suppose one salient aspect is the kind of total overwhelming sound that we achieve sometimes, which I think is a very positive thing. I love it. But there's lots of nuance in it. Everything needs everything else in order to allow it to shine. I think the loud parts don't sound as big without the quiet parts, and I think the quiet parts sound even more poign-ant because of the other things."
The Seer is a listening journey, capturing other dimensions and landscapes of raw emotion, sex, and religion with a surreal cinematic quality. For instance, opening with the patter of rain, "A Piece of the Sky" explores sustained builds of noise for most of its 19 minutes. Layers of an exhaling chorus of female voices, à la Philip Glass' "Music With Changing Parts," become blissful bells, groaning electric guitars, and perky banjo on a languid seesaw rhythm.
The wordless chorus is provided by once-regular Swans member -- she of the golden voice -- Jarboe. Though Jarboe contributes as a guest on The Seer, Swans' only constant has been Gira. He decided to retire the band in 1997 after a farewell tour to explore more reserved but still elegant tunes via his project Angels of Light. But in 2009, the ghost of Swans beckoned. "I wanted to experience the sounds that Swans was capable of, and to do that, it didn't seem right to call it Angels of Light," he explains. "It'd been so long since I worked in the way Swans worked that it seemed fresh, and it's given me a new life, in a way."
The latest version of the band includes longtime guitarist Norman Westberg, Swans regular Christoph Hahn on lap steel and electric guitar, percussionists Phil Puleo and Thor Harris, and bassist Christopher Pravdica.
Gira has high praise for his cohorts. He explains that the music comes from a chain of sonic explorations. Songs off The Seer started as improvisations the band often explored in front of live audiences on its tour last year. Four began as instrumentals, some of which lasted longer than 20 minutes live. For Swans, performing is a process of discovery, not an attempt to manipulate something with instruments.
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos (indieethos.com) if not in New Times.