Review Summary: There's some inspired and rewarding material here if you're willing to wade through mind-numbing repetition and questionable songwriting choices.
One thing about The Seer
is indisputable: this album is massive. Sprawling across 120 minutes and two discs, this behemoth is a radio DJ’s nightmare and a prog junkie’s dream. The songs range from a minute and a half to over half an hour, telling nigh-indecipherable tales of anguish and uprising, foresight and doom. Swans claim that The Seer
is the culmination of 30 years of work, and the sheer scale of the album lives up to such a claim. And yet when it’s all said and done, the question remains: how much is too much?
Great concept albums transcend their components. Each song becomes stronger from the influence of those around it. Post-metal band Isis’ crowning albums Oceanic
are full of mini-epics that peak and trough, carrying you with them and eventually lifting you up (“Grinning Mouths”) or punching you in the gut (“Carry”). Put together, however, they create a greater whole that redefines your world as you listen. You’re letting the ocean crush out your last breath; you’re in the Panopticon and a thousand pairs of eyes are slowly corroding your soul. There’s a certain visceral momentum that builds, a climb towards the summit, and each piece brings you closer.
Swans have all the pieces here – they just don’t often string them together in a cohesive, convincing manner. The opening chants of “Lunacy” induce goosebumps, but by the time the title is repeated exactly the same way fifteen times, its power has degenerated into a guessing game as to when something new will happen. Twenty times now. Still waiting…twenty-five…thirty times, and finally, mercifully, the band breaks into a new verse. Repetition is a tactic that, when used tastefully, can create incredible tension and paranoia, which is what I assume Swans are going for. GY!BE are astoundingly repetitive, but the end-of-the-world dread that saturates F#A#
keeps you on the edge of your seat, with perhaps the exception of “Slow Moving Trains.” Even then, such atonal droning serves as a juxtaposition to the song around it, making the hopeful tones of “The Cowboy” seem even more heroic. Here, “A Piece of the Sky” begins with almost ten minutes of noise, ranging from static to delay-ridden bells that sound like John Cage on coke in a wind chime shop. Perhaps I just don’t “get” drone music, but there comes a point where incessant repetition begins to turn into audial Novocain.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a thirty-two minute song – French prog visionaries Magma had four even longer ones, complete with their own language and mythology. Where “The Seer” veers wildly off-course, however, is its unbearably long middle section, composed of the exact same chord pounded for eight straight minutes, accented by various degrees of detuned guitar noises and random percussion. Feel free to spend eight minutes on the same chord, but for the love of god, do something besides torture a harmonica for another six minutes once it’s over. The Seer
is chock full of such arbitrary turns, with long expanses of music that have little to no dynamic variation. It’s infuriating, really, to spend such a long time waiting for Swans to say something
, figuratively speaking, only to be rewarded with lunatic ravings and spoken-word pieces that, against all logic, still sound out of tune.
Still, there are several redeeming qualities among the hyperextended drones. The musicians in Swans are often creative with their playing, particularly with the percussion and atmosphere, the latter of which is composed of just about every instrument you can think of – accordion, dulcimer, piano, mandolin, clarinet, horns, steel cello (what?), violin, bassoon…the list goes on. “Mother of the World” benefits from the successive entrance of several of these, building for a few minutes in foreboding fashion until the entrance of nauseating caterwauling that passes for vocals during much of the first half of the song. A synthesized organ carries a lull in the track before another crescendo of acoustic guitar and thumping bass, leading to a finale of more off-key singing, though this time in a charming Bob Dylan-esque way. Speaking of which, the lyrics! If there’s anything about this album that is truly outstanding, it’s the crazed ranting in the lyric booklet. Take this example, from “A Piece of the Sky”:
“In a burning white ship / In the taste of her lips / In the blood of the swans / As the sun fucks the dawn
In the mud of a lake / In the drunk and the dazed / Are you there?
In the now that is not / On a ladder to god / On a mountain stripped bare / With your hand in my hair
Behind the face of the sky / on a disappearing line / Are you there?”
The line, “Are you there?” is repeated at the end of every stanza, and serves to tie together all the delirious, romantically desolate images in the song. There’s a story in there somewhere, but it’s contorted like a mirage, just out of grasp. It makes for very compelling songwriting, since the music is left to complete the puzzle in a deliciously abstract way. Unfortunately, you have to wade through some muddy ideas and unfulfilled musical promises to get there.
In the end, The Seer
is a wildly imaginative album that tries everything and sometimes succeeds. If it were cut in half, perhaps the brightest ideas would be able to shine through instead of being drowned by an hour of music that’s either unwelcome, unpleasant, or just an absurd extension of previous material. I have to give Swans credit, though. Albums like The Seer
– beautiful, ugly, grandiose, understated, and everything in-between – are what keep music fascinating because they’re simply unlike anything else out there. There’s imagination behind this, and musicians who clearly put time and thought into every piece of it. Whether they succeed is a matter of personal taste, but you could do far worse than giving your inner musical pioneer a very long, confusing, and occasionally rewarding journey with The Seer