Swans - The Seer
This must be what it feels like for book reviewers when they have to form an opinion on an 800+ page novel by a deadline. This new, highly anticipated album by Swans is their twelfth, and is so ambitious and epic that it is hard for me to do it justice. I usually make a rule of six listens before I start to write down my opinions on any album, but given the excessive length of The Seer, I had to start halfway through my fourth. The album has been described by Michael Gira as a culmination of all of his music to date, and he claims that realistically it has been 30 years in the making. With a running time of two hours, over only 11 songs, it is both an extension of the ideas on their 2010 comeback album My Father Will Guide Me up A Rope to the Sky and a very rewarding endurance test.
There are echoes of a lot of earlier Swans output - the sonic experiments of Soundtracks for the Blind, the epic songcraft of White Light From the Mouth of Infinity and the noise assault of Filth to name just three - whilst some of the quieter moments are reminiscent of Gira's Angels of Light.
'Lunacy' sounds huge from the beginning, with all of the instruments building to a rich, early cacophony, before the voices emerge. The dominant, distinctive tones of Michael Gira are combined with a few others, including Alan and Mimi from Low. Although at only six minutes it is one of the shorter pieces, it is still split into sections or movements, and Gira doesn't come to the fore until the quieter closing section, intoning "your childhood is over" over a mournful coda.
'Mother of the World' is a breathy, urgent repetitive piece, with such precise ensemble playing that you could believe it was a loop or a locked groove.
The 32 minute title track sits square in the middle of the album. It begins with a squall of bagpipes, chimes, drones and percussion for four minutes before moving into a pulsing rhythm untilGira's voice creeps in, repeating the phrase "I see it all" over and over like a mantra. It then surges towards a relentless pounding section just before halfway; the momentum subsides and the piece hangs in the air with a crashing single note repeated and left to decay over and over for the best part of 10 minutes until it starts to become transcendent. Drill-like guitar sounds hark back to their earlier, brutal work, yet these transitions between movements are subtle and skilful. The piece drifts into a mournful harmonica section, a calm after the storm if you like, whilst the closing section has a groove not dissimilar to Can, with sinewy, snaking guitar lines and a garbled, almost feral vocal from Gira.
It's a hard act to follow but next track, the much shorter 'The Seer Returns' has a swagger to it, and is also the first track where the lyrics are prominent. Perhaps even more exciting for long term Swans fans is the presence of Jarboe on vocals, a pivotal member from their heyday who didn't feature in the 2010 comeback.
The shorter songs are very varied. '93 Ave B Blues' is a curious interlude, made out of squealing strings and horns and crashing percussion, creating a glorious organic wall of noise. 'The Daughter Brings the Water' is a pretty, mostly acoustic song, not unlike their Burning World album or Angels of Light, while 'The Wolf' is raw Michael Gira, a short vocal performance accompanied by some abrasive noise. 'Song for a Warrior' is a slight departure, an excursion into alt country with a lead vocal from Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
'Avatar' opens with another pulsing groove with Thor Harris's tubular bells to the fore, before a powerful vocal performance from Gira and a closing section with the band sounding as on fire as they ever did. The epic 'A Piece of the Sky' recalls the ambient drones of their Soundtracks for the Blind album before shifting abruptly halfway through into their more conventional work.
'The Apostate' begins with some brilliantly noisy guitar drone which just gets more intense and for the last third of this song they deliver a great jazzy krautrock groove. It is sacrilege to compare Swans to an act which came so far after them, but fans of bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor should enjoy this track. Again Gira's vocal is wired and improvised, babbling and only forming full words occasionally. The whole thing ends with a minute of drum interplay.
The Seer is a superlative album which ranks amongst the very best work released under Swans name. With its excessive length it effectively gives two fingers to the commercial music industry. It is simply too much to take in a few sittings, but it is so rich and varied that every new listen reveals more. Thirty years on and Swans are growing, developing and building on their rich legacy.
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A photo gallery from Swans' show at the Brixton Electric, London (27/05/14) courtesy of Andrew Novell. [read more]