Album Review: Swans – The Seer

[Young God; 2012]

Not many albums get the kind of progressive documentation that The Seer received prior to its release. There was a live album earlier this year (We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head) that featured almost an hour’s worth of material that ended up on The Seer. There were acoustic demo bonus tracks on We Rose for songs that would end up on The Seer. There was also a DVD trailer for the live concert film that comes with the special edition of The Seer. Michael Gira has actively discussed the creation of The Seer, stating that the songs “began on an acoustic guitar, then were fleshed out with (invaluable) help from my friends, then were further tortured and seduced in the studio, and now they await further cannibalism and force-feeding as we prepare to perform some of them live, at which point they’ll mutate further, endlessly, or perhaps be discarded for a while.” He also called it “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” Well, shit.

When a band starts hyping its 12th studio album as its best work (or something of a similar ilk), it’s usually a sign they’ve jumped the shark and are only still in the business for monetary reasons. But The Seer presents a different model, one that impossibly meets the lofty proclamations made behind it. It has all the makings of a great album – impeccable guest spots (Karen O, Jarboe, Akron/Family, Low), enormous scope (almost 2 hours long), and most importantly, high-quality material that personifies the artists behind it. At their cores, the songs on here are (dare I say it) on par with the best in the Swans canon, but they’re also characteristically obfuscated by extended drone, noise, and post-rock passages that take up the majority of the album’s running time.

It’s that gratification when the songs’ hearts are revealed, that really makes The Seer work though. Take “Mother Of The World,” which opens with heaving breaths and a rebounding, repetitive guitar riff anchored by Thor Harris’ drumming. It doesn’t seem to be building anywhere, but after about four and a half minutes have passed, the song opens up with a whirlwind of instrumentation accompanied by Gira’s nasally chants of “In and out and in and out again.” The first movement may not rank among the most compelling drone music to be released this year, but the way the song shifts seamlessly not just in style, but in tone, is demonstrative of Swans’ ability to stitch together completely different styles of music into one piece, which is key to the success of The Seer’s longer songs. And this isn’t even to speak of the song’s coda, where Swans descend into an eerie downtempo before ominously disintegrating.

Another example would be “A Piece Of The Sky,” the album’s penultimate 20-minute song. “A Piece Of The Sky” is the continuation of a lot of post-rock that Swans helped influence, with nothing but licking flames, clamoring bells, lonely strings, and heavily processed ambient Jarboe vocals to be heard until nearly 10 minutes have passed, when some semblance of order breaks through in the form of a full band playing a shuffling beat. And then, the song breaks down even further, entering folky singer-songwriter territory with a vocal melody that recalls, of all things, Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.”

In a recent interview, Michael Gira emphasized that Swans’ music isn’t all about darkness. It mines dark territory, sure, but the eventual goal is ecstasy, an aspect especially evident on tracks such as album opener “Lunacy,” the ascendant “Avatar,” and album closer “The Apostate.” “Lunacy” is built on the strength of drum flourishes and Michael Gira’s harmonized chanting with members of Low, but despite the song’s dark overtone and menacing message, there’s glee in those chanting voices. They revel in their lunacy rather than despair in it, which makes all the difference to the album’s mission statement. “Avatar,” meanwhile, is the musical equivalent of standing on the roof of a tower during a lightning storm. Only the lyrics purvey a sense of accepted finality rather than fear (“Your light is in my hand”), and Gira’s wordless howls help punctuate the sense of impending doom before falling off the roof to the sound of percussive overdrive. Finally, “The Apostate” is the least restrained song on The Seer, at 23 minutes long and climaxing with Gira’s crying of the line: “Get fucked.” It’s unhinged in a way befitting of a filthy, starving creature lost in the wilderness; not a man approaching the age of 60.

By now, Swans have already had a very lengthy and illustrious career. Over the years, they’ve been harbingers of countless forms of “experimental” music – avant-garde, no wave, post-rock, drone, etc. – but on The Seer, they aren’t really any of these things. There are elements of all the things that make Swans, Swans, but the range of the songwriting is wide and far. Gira himself has acknowledged some of the songs’ individual influences and primordial directions on We Rose From Your Bed’s bonus tracks, such as The Rolling Stones on “The Daughter Brings The Water” and Neil Young on “A Piece Of The Sky,” and “93 Ave. B Blues,” the album’s sole instrumental song (with the exception of some nauseated moaning), even has a free jazz element to it.

At almost two hours long, there’s a lot to sort out on The Seer. Make no mistake; it’s not a perfect album, and it’s also not by the same band that made Cop or White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity or Soundtracks For The Blind or any other Swans album from 1983-1996. This is a new Swans, and besides its lack of the prominent female touch that was once Jarboe’s role (with the exception of the Karen O-featuring “Song For A Warrior”), it really shouldn’t be judged against the old Swans. Just be thankful that the new Swans are as clever, as terrifying, and as proficient in their craft as presented on The Seer. There still aren’t any other bands out there quite like this.