Review Summary: A monster.
Never fall asleep listening to Swans. A night spent alone with a bottle of bourbon and opiates merits a lesser throbbing hangover than that unfiltered miasma. Michael Gira seems to be a man of many nightmares, and he unleashes these terrors through Swans after they've been crushed and tenderized in his gut. The 58-year-old's stage presence staggers between iron-fisted bandleader to possessed scarecrow, and age has not hindered his need for kick-jumping across the stage before crashing down with a nameless thundering chord…30 times in a row. The Seer
is a particularly monstrous demon, clocking in at just under two hours of deranged discord.
But it is impossible to speak of The Seer
without first unpacking its origins. Gira himself said it took 30 years to create, calling the massive double-record a culmination of Swans discography. Swans' career sees Gira tucking into every pocket-dimension of his counterculture creep. Swans' 1983 debut Filth
was a sort of gloppy industrial raging punk that burbled and burst forth like boiling pitch, whereas 1991's White Light From the Mouth of Infinity
was a collection of brooding chamber songs of love and life, Gira's low drawl exuding Leonard Cohen
rather than deep-voiced post-punk ringleader. Four years later The Great Annihilator
, heavily influenced by the presence of Jarboe, capitalized on the post-punk idea, with cheerleader female vocals weaving in an out of cavernous tribal mood rock, ringing with the drama of movie music.
, for lack of a better comparison, is the ridiculously large and grotesque boss creature at the end of a video game where bullets bounce and light people on fire. It soundtracks a dystopic wasteland where all structure consists of scrap sheet metal thrown together like playing card houses, where the landscape is dust and sand and a perpetual dry ochre light seeps between rusty blinds. Gira is a high-functioning psychopath, sitting with his feet up and his broad cowboy hat the color of bleached bone set upon his brow. Indecipherable streams of words crawl parched from his thirsty throat, and his accompaniment is the clatter of dysfunctional machinery. He is a man who was afraid of himself, not quite understanding his own thoughts, so he has chiseled himself into a hard old man, eerily jaded with an foreboding presence.
is a well-crafted monolith of layers and repetition, building at an agonizing slow pace and glazing new sounds onto itself like a burgeoning pearl, eventually reaching cacophonous climaxes rivaling those of such powerful build-up craftsmen as Godspeed You! Black Emperor
. The first half of "The Mother of the World" is a bizarre crescendo, loops of Gira's huffing breath and two-note guitar and bass licks climb across each other and are eventually flowered over by Gira making a nonsensical falsetto "eee", wandering about randomly from note to note. "Avatar" practically ASCENDS, breaking through the atmosphere with its slowly churning build. The massive title track grows on a slow, intense curve, drums and strings swooping in and out like cars driving past on the highway, Gira's blurred murmurs of "I see it all I see it all I see it all" pushing forward and careening upward till the track spills over, blasting chords crashing like noxious waves on a dead shore, fading to a crying harmonica and hopeless wind.
Between towering, 20-minute behemoth tracks, Gira slips into the dripping alleyways of his desert construct, maneuvering deftly through street funk, plodding dustbowl acoustics, and ambient noise. He takes a sharp turn into "Song For a Warrior", a track that juts from the murk like a lighthouse. The crystal-clear indie folk seeming to be from another album entirely, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
' Karen O uncharacteristically mimics girl-with-piano artists like Regina Spektor. The background glimmers and twinkles are no longer eerie but calmingly ethereal. It's a sort of mercy, an oasis before the hurricane of the final three tracks. The gargantuan "A Piece of the Sky" and "The Apostate" are whirlwinds of everywhere Swans has been since '83. The crackling fire that harkens "A Piece of the Sky" bursts into a thoroughly warped trail song, a bumbling dirt-road tune stretched and debauched by off-color female chorus oohs and aahs and ritualistic rattles. The 23-minute closer "The Apostate" is a storm, growing from jittery drone to a chaotic flurry of dissonance and furious drums, foraying off into an inexplicable oddity from the deepest, most abstract recesses of Gira's psyche as punchy gang vocals shout "Star dust! Space cunt!".
With The Seer
, there's appeal in the invigorating hope of survival, of coming out the other side unscathed but internally shaken. Tucked into every dark corner there are nuances meticulously placed, invisible they fly from all angles, a glimmer of bells, the scorch of feedback, flitting and sneering and careening from every angle as to be sea-sickening. The near-60 Gira wields it both as a weapon and a shield, cloaking himself in his own harsh produce. Some bands may become slightly resigned with age, almost pastoral, but Swans don't sound like other bands. Other bands sound like Swans. Swans don't sound like anything.