Review Summary: Swans unleash a new brand of hell on Earth: a feverish, post-apocalyptic beast that took thirty years to craft.
For those of us that consume music like it’s water, there’s not much that can genuinely come as a surprise. That’s why when something this odd yet totally, ingeniously original comes along, it’s a cause for celebration. Swans’ twelfth studio album, The Seer
, is akin to a nightmare that you just can’t shake; it rattles you to the core and even though you can tell you’re dreaming, you just can’t manage to lift yourself back into consciousness. Its all-consuming depth spans two discs and two hours of dark, plodding drone structures with unpredictable twists that lend it an eerie tumbling-down-the-rabbit-hole feel. In other words, there’s no part of The Seer
that you’ll see coming. New listeners will likely be blindsided by its massive scope and horrifically repetitive passages that, to be frank, are an acquired taste. For longtime Swans fans however, this is what you have been waiting for: a magnum opus signifying everything that the band has been and everything that it likely ever will be.
According to Swans’ front man Michael Gira, The Seer
took thirty years to make. He stated, “It's the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I've ever made, been involved in, or imagined.” For those who haven’t been following the band’s career, they released their first album in 1983, took a lengthy hiatus in 1997 that spanned thirteen years, returned to the scene with the critically acclaimed My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
in 2010, and now find themselves dropping their twelfth album in twenty nine years. That’s a lot
of influence weighing over one album, but Swans manage to pull it off brilliantly. The Seer
is as massive of a record as Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
, but it is decidedly less structured. Instead of building towards one climax after another, The Seer
opts for sudden, quick tempo changes. The way that ‘The Wolf’ transitions into the thirty-two minute title track is evidence of this, suddenly departing from hushed vocals to loud bagpipes that are just jarring enough to send a jolt up your spine. This kind of phenomenon occurs just as much (if not more) within individual tracks, so there’s really no room to get comfortable. The hopelessness that permeates the album’s air only adds to its sense of unrest and disharmony, especially within the record’s more brooding first half.
Speaking of halves, there is a distinct personality to each disc composing The Seer
. The first half summons images of a rapture, complete with the witch chants of ‘Lunacy’, the animalistic grunts that close out the massive ‘The Seer’, and the wheels of hell that ache and creak at every turn of ’93 Ave. B Blues.’ Perhaps the darkest track of the entire record comes in the form of ‘The Seer Returns’, a work that recalls the perverseness of Trent Reznor’s The Downward Spiral
whilst channeling dark lyrics like “behind the veil of silver scars, there is a special inverted star / He's a greasy beast, heaving in a field of sticky black mud.” Featuring a contagious rhythm that is driven by haunting backing vocals and a heavy industrial beat, it all fuses into one of the scariest sounding things that you will witness all year long. ‘Mother of the World’ is one of the strongest tracks on the album, providing a bridge between the loose cannon of an opener, ‘Lunacy’, and the more subdued ‘The Wolf.’ Clocking in at just over a minute and a half, ‘The Wolf’ (despite its peculiarly empty instrumental canvas) really pulls its weight, allowing the brooding vocals to set the scene for the album’s thirty two minute centerpiece like a calm before a storm. ‘The Daughter Brings The Water’ acts as an effective closing curtain for the first act, significantly slowing the tempo without sacrificing the foreboding, sinister vibe constructed throughout the first six tracks.
If the first disc represents a metaphorical dark side, then the second half is the light breaking through the clouds. Karen O.’s guest spot on ‘Song For A Warrior’ is ideally placed at the disc’s forefront, reviving the album’s energy by eliminating the ever-trudging glumness that seeped from every pore of disc one. Everything about ‘Song For A Warrior’ invites optimism – a rare quality within the vast one hundred and twenty minute scope of The Seer
. Lyrical passages such as “there is a growing golden light, flowered and folding behind the mirror of your eyes” and “some people say God is long dead, but I heard something inside you with my head to your chest” couldn’t have been more eloquently expressed, and for as convincingly evil as The Seer
’s first half was, the second half’s opener is a welcome arrival and a breath of fresh air. Much of the second half feels more like a call-to-arms than a peace rally, though, which serves strongly to its own benefit. In what could be seen as a clash of the titans, ‘Avatar’ and ‘A Piece of the Sky’ function perfectly together to form a stark contrast to the album’s initial gloominess. The former is a battle cry, complete with ringing bells, lyrics of “your life is in my hand”, and an epic, percussion-heavy outro that even employs a jet engine. The latter is more than twice the length of its predecessor, spanning nearly twenty minutes which includes all of the following: crackling fire, chilling hums, melancholy cello play, horns, a downbeat post-rock drum section reminiscent of the midsection of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘East Hastings’, and Gira’s most melodic vocal entry of “in a burning white ship / in the taste of her lips / in the blood of the swans / as the sun fucks the dawn...are you there?” All loose strings are tied together with the mind blowing ‘The Apostate’ – a masterfully crafted twenty three minute post-rock opus with peaks and valleys, ebb and flow, blood-curdling cries, and the type of heart-stopping dissonance that only Swans could concoct. It’s harsh raucousness leaves The Seer
as an open book – a question as to which disc prevailed in an epic conflict of good versus evil.
When the dust has settled, the listener is essentially left with no choice but to be affected. Even if there isn’t some kind of spiritual revelation, the sheer immensity of the album is likely to swallow you whole. There is so much to understand about The Seer
– from its smallest details to its grandest climaxes – that it couldn’t possibly be grasped after a mere few listens. Swans’ latest effort is an absolute juggernaut of ideas, containing everything from post-rock to alternative rock, dark ambience, stoner rock, industrial metal, and drone music. After so much time, it only make sense for bands to begin slowing down – maybe even to start reusing some of their own material in an attempt to create some type of all-encompassing work. Swans have managed to create that comprehensive, large-scale album without stumbling into the pitfalls of relying too heavily on their past. The Seer
is everything we could have hoped for – it is Swans, standing proudly and unabashedly at the top of their game after nearly thirty years. Don’t be surprised if everything else falls timidly under Swans’ massive shadow in 2012.