By Lane Oliver
Fans waited fourteen years for the shape-shifting entity known as Swans to return in 2010 with the phenomenal My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky. That record was a forty minute leviathan that combined elements of Swans and Angels of Light into a colossal slab of elated sound. My Father ended up being one of my favorite records of that year and one of my favorite Swans records of all time. But there is always room for improvement and boundaries to push with anything that bears the Swans moniker. The band knew this and combined their talents in the studio to create something bigger than anything they have ever done and bigger then themselves as well. The end result is The Seer; an eleven song, two hour monster collected on two discs. The record, according to frontman Michael Gira, “took 30 years to make”. He also described it as a culmination of all music he has been involved in including Swans. When you listening to this record you will see that his statement is true.
The Seer opens with “Lunacy”, a haunting dirge and wonderful display of excellent production and mixing. It begins with simple one chord strums that are then accompanied by a simplistic piano riff. Layers of snare fills, banshee like guitar howls and an elaborate arrangement of other percussion and mandolin are piled on top of each other to create a huge atmosphere. Two minutes in and the layers are stripped away except for the initial chord strums and Michael Gira and members of Low croon about childhood innocence and lunacy over it. Then the group comes back in with the layered instrumentation as Michael and company drone “lunacy” in a haunting manner. The final moments find Swans performing a bluesy section while they croon that our childhood is over in a creepy yet catchy way. Next, “Mother of the World” comes in strong with a mind numbingly repetitive two note riff that trudges on throughout a big portion of the song. Extreme repetition is something I am not fond of unless it is used to build atmosphere; which is exactly what Swans do best. Conflicting bass riffs and bright synths slowly come in to add to the song’s initial oddness. Gira starts humming in an odd cartoonish manner while the rest of the band crawls along. Around the four and a half minute mark the music stops abruptly (but can be heard in the background) and you can hear Gira mimicking the guitar’s two note riff with his mouth. The group comes back in full forth in a massive wall of sound as Gira yells “in and out and in and out again”. “Mother of the World” reaches its climax much like “Lunacy” in an acoustic ballad. The shortest song on the record, “The Wolf”, comes next. Gira’s gravelly voice struggles over barely audible acoustic guitar while an odd, wind like synth hovers above. The track leads right into the massive, thirty two minute “The Seer”. Long tracks can be a daunting task to listen to unless they are ever evolving and maintain a sense of suspense and “The Seer” does that. It begins with a huge cacophony of strings, and horns that bombard the listener with pure force. The cacophonous apocalypse slows to a humming drone and a dance like drum beat comes in. This rhythmic groove is brought to life by sliding guitars, catchy primal bass lines and Gira’s droning baritone. Layer upon layer of every instrument at the band’s disposal create a very interesting and overwhelming atmosphere. Around the eleven minute mark the band kicks into full force with mammoth size chords churned out in rapid succession that soon collapse into drawn out, machine like chugs of pure metallic noise. The slabs of sound crawl into a drone phase with a whining harmonic crying over steel guitar and humming drums. The song ends with a catchy groove riff that is accompanied by Gira’s indiscernible, weird vocals. “The Seer Returns” brings forth this monstrous catchy groove that sees the band chugging along in a rock and roll type fashion. Here marks the return of Jarboe, who provides backing vocals in the background. “93 Ave. Blues” is an instrumental noise track that would make Nurse with Wound blush. It begins with the screams of conflicting horns and woodwinds that transforms into a sickening, terrifying cacophonous creation. This track will give you nightmares, I guarantee it. Disc one ends with a psychedelic folk ballad entitled “The Daughter Brings the Water”. This track reminds of Angels of Light material except a lot more melancholic and trippy sounding.
Disc two begins with a simplistic, whining steel guitar laden country ballad known as “Song for a Warrior”. The vocals for this track are spear headed by Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I have never been a fan of her band but this track as well as the cover of “Immigrant Song” for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack makes me respect her as an artist a hell of a lot more. Her vocals are soft and gentle and glide over the track. Gira could not have made this song as good as she did. This song may throw some people off but I love it to death. It’s a beautiful track and it provides a nice break from all the dark chaos. The nine minute “Avatar” opens up with an infectious groove of bells that signal the coming onslaught of brilliant soundscapes. As the song progresses, it sheds its skin and becomes a euphoric reptilian before the band decides to start hammering away with titanic sized chords near the middle of it. This gives way to a triumphant sounding intergalactic ballad that sees Gira proclaiming that we are all one entity. The track ends in an explosive wall of swirling instrumentation that spirals out of control before its climax. The sounds of fire, synthetic and real, open up “A Piece of the Sky”. A vocal collage by Jarboe follows shortly thereafter and is completely disorienting. Then the layering begins with sheets of violin drones, synthetic drones and Gira’s drones are wrapped around Jarboe’s vocals. A lengthy procession of swirling chimes leads way to the band’s groovy, rhythmically tight rock section. But the fun doesn’t last long before the track reaches its climax in the form of a saccharine folk ballad. The Seer comes to its conclusion with the abnormal “The Apostate”. Waves of siren like drones open up this twenty minute epic. Layers of different octaves are pilled upon each other and bleed into a destructive sonic titan. Wave after wave of auditory bastardizations crash down upon the listener’s comfortable shore before the band kicks up the speed and batters the listener with a sledgehammer of sound. Even when the song slows down a bit, Swans does not let up their sonic attack. The band still manages to pull out uncomfortably heavy chunks of instrumentation and slam them upon the ears again and again and again. After Swans has finished raping your skull they morph the song into a primal like psychedelic acid trip. At this point Gira goes completely insane. He and his fellow band mates shout obscenities like “cunt” and “fuck” in a variety of ways. It’s hilarious to be honest. This pleasant aural annihilation goes on for quite some time and continues to build tension. The track comes to a close with thunderous rolls of conflicting drums and leaves the listener drained of all their senses. If you were brave enough to tackle this titan then I am confident you left completely satisfied. Two hours well spent.
The record is not without its faults, as with any record. I wish that Jarboe had more of a contribution on this record. Backing vocals are not what she should be doing. With a tremendous voice such as hers it’s a crime for her to do anything less than lead vocals. I also thought some of the tracks were a little anticlimactic. I thought the way “The Apostate” ended with just drum fills was unnecessary and could have been replaced with something grander. Some of the transitions from section to section were a little abrupt on some of the tracks (the abrupt stop in the middle of “Mother of the World” for example). Also, this is not the most accessible album in the world. If you have never heard a note of Swans before you may be completely overwhelmed but I am sure that if you keep listening that it will grow on you like a tumor. All of these minor issues do not take away from the sheer brilliance of this record.
All in all this record is simply fantastic. There is so much going on in The Seer that I could talk about it for hours, but I have said too much as you can see. As Michael Gira stated, this record combines elements of everything this man has been a part of. It’s one behemoth of an album and with each listen I find something I missed. It was hard for me to sum up the album like I usually do because there are just so many things going on that it is insane. This is without a doubt the greatest thing Swans has ever done. The Seer will eradicate your mind and suck the life out of you but after to listening to this thing you will be reborn a new person. Don’t sleep on Swans.
Label: Young God
Release Date: August 28th, 2012
Favorite Tracks: “Lunacy”, “The Seer”, “93 Ave Blues”, “Song for a Warrior”, and “The Apostate”.