Never ones to shy away from experimentation, the reformed Swans return with a 2 hour long album of haunting, majestic sounds from the strange mind of Michael Gira. The Seer is a towering accomplishment from a band with a long and rich history, which makes 2010′s excellent My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky seem almost a footnote in comparison.
Gira has stated that The Seer is ‘the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined’, and indeed, the nihilistic cacophony of the early Swans records, the more sombre acoustic-based sound of Gira’s ‘Drainland’ album and Angels of Light project, as well as the spirit of unrestrained experimentalism that runs throughout all of the above, are detectable on the 11 songs that comprise this album. Opener ‘Lunacy’ initially recalls the glory days of Sonic Youth, who of course emerged from beneath Swans’ wings in the New York No-Wave scene of the early 80s. Soon, the almost biblical chanting of the vocal melody appears and the song becomes something else entirely, eventually plateauing into a bittersweet acoustic dirge, with the vocals repeating ‘Your childhood is over’ seemingly endlessly.
The first and last three tracks on the album inevitably function as a buttress to the enormity of the 32 minute long title track, an incredible work of art in its own right. ‘The Seer’ is an unrelentingly bleak excursion into repetition, giving way after twenty odd minutes of increasingly powerful vamping on a single chord to a baleful harmonica solo, backed up by hazy pedal steel and shimmering strings, before finally transforming into something resembling traditional song structure around the 18 minute mark. The final phase of the tune is centred around a snake-like melody, symbolically located somewhere between the Middle East and the American Deep South, accompanied by a fittingly cryptic vocal from Gira. Make no mistake, this is not something you put on in the background while you’re doing the dishes. This is music that requires concentration and effort. Not to imply that listening to a Swans record is a joyless experience, but one that requires you to immerse yourself fully in it to reap its full reward.
The lead off track on disc two is ‘Song For A Warrior’, featuring Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs on lead vocals, a gorgeous country ballad which comes across like a severely stoned Carter Family. Two tracks later comes ‘A Piece of the Sky’, undoubtedly the highlight of the record, an achingly beautiful piece of music and surely one of the best songs of Swans’ career. Building from nine minutes of elongated drones centred around former Swans member Jarboe’s vocals, frenzied hammered dulcimer playing, and fire sounds courtesy of Ben Frost, the song bursts into life, sounding almost jaunty in comparison to what has come before. The final four minutes are simply breathtaking, with swooning background vocals courtesy of the members of Akron/Family accompanying the soft chiming of the vibraphone and hammered dulcimer as Gira delivers some of the most sublimely enigmatic lyrics of his career wrapped up in a heartfelt vocal performance. Potential song of the year material and a perfect marriage of the harshness and beauty that make Swans the band they are. Rounding out the album is ‘ The Apostate’, another 20 minute-plus epic, leaning again towards the noisier side of things, with the band hammering away at the same doomy chord for most of its first half. For the second section, Gira channels Stooges-era Iggy as he yelps and shouts his way through another thundering dronescape, before the track finally cascades into a hail of chaotic tribal drumming, ushering the album to a close, but not before Gira manages to fit in a final pained howl.
‘The Seer’ is a rich, complex giant of an album, one that requires close attention and multiple listenings to unlock its many mysteries. Swans show again how a reformed band should operate; use the past as a building block rather than a crutch, and continue to innovate and move forward.
– Ivan Deasy