Swans - The Seer
By: Rob Gannon
The latest Swans LP is an absolute monster entirely befitting of their and, in particular, Michael Gira‘s fearsome reputation. Two hours in length, it’s an uncompromising, fiercely intense statement and exactly the sort of forward-thinking missive demanded by the band’s reforming two years ago. Simply put, The Seer outstrips 2010’s nevertheless impressive My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky in a single bound, reducing it in retrospect to but a necessary stepping stone on the road to an album that has reputedly been 30 years in the making.
Certainly Gira hasn’t pushed himself, his band or his listeners this hard for a couple of decades. Take the almost intolerable screech-drone that opens for the foreboding gallop of the ever-intensifying 30+ minute title track. Gira’s manic chants and doom-laden screams then swirl amidst bludgeoning repeats, technical drum skitters courtesy of Thor Harris and exploding time signatures all recorded at suffocating volume. The track latterly decays at a punishingly slow pace, becoming in fairness a bit of an endurance test. Indeed with a touch of judicious editing here and there, a compressed edit of The Seer may well have been looking at close to a perfect ten.
Yet The Seer is not some extremophile’s paradise, rather a record of extremes that reels from rousing battle sequences to pretty patterning and then on to crushing noise. It’s thus far from beyond those that dwell with any frequency as such experimental depths, but periods of extended antisocial drone and, for example, the blunt fists of “Mother Of The World” are liable to send certain curious indie types scuttling for their mothers. Welcome breaks in the running order like Karen O‘s beautiful tackling of the piano-led “Song For A Warrior” seem otherworldly in comparison.
Should there be any doubt however of The Seer‘s muscular credentials, passages during the massive closer are assuredly loud enough to literally bring down a house, its crushingly dark contortions containing just enough optimism and hope in order to inspire a fearless few willing to embrace this alternative epic. More direct, the magnificently rousing orchestral bells of “Avatar” earlier herald some impending annihilation, ultimately giving way to solemn drum volleys and an adrenalin-fired, empire-slaying onslaught.
Despite these undeniable shows of brawn, The Seer has brains too. Contributing to its racket are the tortured strains of harmonica, bassoon and clarinet, even the strings of a hammered dulcimer. This rich palette of instruments is teased out further by a cast of many, which notably includes experimental composer Ben Frost providing “fire sounds” on the relatively breezy 20+ minute “Piece Of The Sky”. Notable too is the guest “voice collage” of former member Jarboe on the same track – the core band (once more including riff guitarist Norman Westerberg) currently recording as a tight-as-you-like six-piece.
Incorporating almost every element of the back catalogue – blistering No Wave, black jazz, blunt-force blues, post-rock, Art rock, perhaps even pop – Swans are still a beast in the throes of evolution and one willing to learn and use its teachings as a weapon (see the scorching “93 Ave. B Blues” for the most challenging end of this freeform programme). In fact, so many genres are tackled concurrently during The Seer, so many labels applied and then ripped apart during its course as to suggest that Swans have finally completed their voyage. Maybe it’s time to start referencing Swans on their own terms – as true originals.
Advised downloads: “Song For A Warrior” and “Avatar”.
The Seer is out now on Young Gods. It is also available as a special edition that includes a live DVD.