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Album Review
The Seer

The Seer
by Swans

Young God Records

Review Date
2nd October, 2012
Reviewed by
Michael Harvey

Ladies and gentlemen: this is the album of the year. Most people probably wouldn't have thought that the accolade would go to a two hour-long concept album about something indecipherable. The Seer is wholly palpable and dripping with emotional resonance – this from a band whose first album in 15 years album was a welcome and relentless opus of droning post-psychedelic rock. Astonishingly, Swans went on tour around the world and wrote an album that is even more magnificent, heavy, and blissed-out than its predecessor. Audacious in the extreme, The Seer is the kind of old-school gesture that separates Swans from most others operating today in this Youtube-A.D.D era. A triple album, packed to the brim with 20 and 30-minute songs, this is the kind of record you immerse yourself in, then repeat ad infinitum so those little details you would have likely missed on the first spin can permeate your consciousness. Words like "dense" or "epic" barely begin to describe this record, this monster.

2010's Our Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky re-introduced the world to Swans, coming as it did after a 15 year hiatus. However, the components that constituted Our Father... are merely a blueprint for what to expect from The Seer. Live, the songs from the previous album were transformed into transcendent hymnals, the band stretching the elements out rhythmically in such a way to make songs like 'Eden Prison' into incredibly dynamic and emotionally taut pieces that are psychedelic in a more literal sense of the term. Through the primal repetition of simple motifs, the band and crowd merge into a mass-mind. It's music that consumes and shatters the psyche, as much as the act of performing this music must be for the players. On The Seer, this feeling and power is ably essayed onto record by the band and the myriad guest performers, led by Swans founder Michael Gira.

Beyond electric guitars and bass, the majority of the instrumentation here is acoustic and percussive. It's an aural world of chiming bells and amplifier hum, chants and heavy breathing, screams and shouts, and, according to the liner notes, "fire sounds (acoustic and synthetic)". So The Seer is an elemental record; a quintessence of many personalities and emotions, and fittingly Gira describes the record thus: "It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.

Though often lengthy, these songs use turn-on-a-dime dynamics to make the repetition even more effective. The tense grind of the first half of 'Mother Of The World' is shattered as the band go into a faster section that ultimately disintegrates as the song's weirdly gospel refrain enters. 'Lunacy', featuring Alan and Mimi Sparhawk of Low on vocal duties and shifts suddenly from the massed chant of the song's title into darkly pastoral folk, with Gira singing "your childhood is over" ominously. The 32-minute title track is a multi-pronged journey, moving from an Eastern-style drone into mass percussion into twitchy snare-rolls over which Gira intones "I see it all". From there, the band move into tension-building mode, attacking a single chord with such intensity for a long time, until the only thing they can do is veer into a harmonica-led drone passage, finally resolved by a section distinguished by what can only be described as Michael Gira doing scat. It sounds absurd on paper, but the sheer power of the band behind Gira is breathtaking to hear.

Amidst the all the longform workouts here there are shorter numbers, in some cases acting as interludes, yet no less compelling for their brevity. '93 Ave. B Blues' is an atonal experiment in skronk that sounds like a booze-up in a train-yard. With drums! 'Daughter Brings the Water' posits another intriguing Gira lyric over some caterwauling lapsteel. Gira's blank tone poems lyrically anchor the songs' tendencies to veer off spaceward, through their profoundly elemental themes -- like most other Swans records, they revolve around sex, power, life, death, rebirth. Karen O's guest spot on 'Song For A Warrior' is one of the hidden gems in an album full of unsuppressed male Id roaring and gnashing and bashing away at sundry guitars, drums, sides of mountains, etc. The lyrics are clearly Gira's, but the energy is markedly different, with the tender piano refrains supporting O's even more delicate performance.

The eight brilliant minutes of tension, climax, and release that is Avatar; contrasts heavily with the following track 'A Piece Of The Sky', a lengthy study in sustained details; chimes, guitar drones, vocals (including former Swans vocalist and Gira foil Jarboe), all collaged seamlessly together, and spontaneously erupting into the sort of chime-led swing that wouldn't sound out of place on a Godspeed You! Black Emperor record, and then moving into a beautiful drum-less section with some of Gira's most arresting lyrics ("In a burning white ship / in the taste of her lips / in the blood of the swans as the sun fucks the dawn"). 'The Apostate' brings the album to an iconoclastic conclusion with an elegiac feedback drone leading into a taut jam led by an unhinged-sounding Gira, crescendo-ing into a wigged-out drum tattoo that just stops, offering no final coda and invariably taunting the listener to start the album again from the beginning.

The Seer confirms that Swans are the world's heaviest band, but not in a heavy metal sense. Its heavy like a mountain is heavy, like the creation of a planet is heavy, like the universe is heavy. If The Seer is indeed the culmination of Swans' musical journey, then they have gone out on a truly monumental and ecstatic note, one that will continue to resonate for a long, long time to come.


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