Swans – The SeerPosted by Daniel Ahrendt
The Seer is the twelfth studio album by no-wave prophets Swans and is described by frontman Michael Gira as the culmination of everything the band (and he) has ever created musically. Its scope clocks in just over two hours and incorporates some fantastic guest appearances. The diversity of anthemic power and dedication here is unmatched in bombast by any other popular music release of the past year. Swans’ aesthetic pull is now less of the preaching of the city ego’s collapse and more of a full fledged gravity well. In listening to The Seer‘s peaks and valleys, the record does often seem like the proverbial “it”.
However, The Seer is intrinsically more than the grandeur of its planet bashing drone and country apocrypha. In an interview with Pitchfork, Gira calls it an attempt to make “the best possible music ever made”. With a statement like that, its hard to take anyone seriously. Thankfully, Gira himself very much doesn’t. Regardless of the sheer emotive implosives inherent in all of Gira’s music, be it from early Swans or the doom-country dirges of Angels of Light, Gira can and will tell a fart joke. In a solo performance earlier this year at Seattle’s Triple Door, he presented his pieces of solemn acoustic drone in fatalistic concrete. He followed this by literally telling a poop joke and then asking someone in the front row to buy him a beer, his iconic grin barred. This is the same set of teeth that grace Swans first album Filth. They reappear again on the cover of The Seer, initially unbeknownst to Gira during the image’s creation by Simon Henwood. In classic amoral smirk fashion, he requested that the back cover be the “posterior” of the front (click here to…gaze into its depths…).
Inside the packaging lies eleven pieces varying in length from a minute and thirty five second to over half an hour. Sure, the record is a commitment of symphonic proportions for the listener in not just glances at the clock but in holistic construction. No song here can really be identified as a ‘single’. However, it’s recommended that you make the temporal commitment.
The album starts dishing out portents from the get go with “Lunacy” and “Mother of the World”. In a progression of minor drone swells, the band arches up and over initial lone high note repetitions from the guitar, tiny leaking motes of light that return with vengeance on piano in the album’s second half as a part of “Avatar”. This feels like a definite heralding, with vocals chanting in unison fixating eventually on the songs title before announcing quite ceremoniously that “your childhood is over” (amidst the chorus are Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low). “Mother of the World” sounds like the killing of her. Intense nailing of minor seconds violently punctuates the rhythm section alongside Gira’s exhausted panting. Almost abruptly around 2:14, a mist of ambient light begins to cover the higher registers, an ethereal blood letting. The tune peaks half way through in a well timed wall of force and voice before giving way to Gira’s questions of the song’s subject. With the injection of the word “oil”, its hard to conceive of this piece as anything other than a human condemnation. As a transition into the album’s title piece, Gira hums the listener a gentle if ghastly lullaby in “The Wolf”, a short deposition before the next half an hour of your life.
By more than logical deduction of the following track being “The Seer Returns”, “The Seer” feels like backstory. It rolls out from cosmic drone generated by a horn arsenal into a hypnotic and loud exploration of 4/4 in three following sections. It runs first through fast, creepy subdivision eventually combined with Gira muttering knowingly, “I see it all” in time. This eventually collides into a wall of powerful unified hits, the single yet beautiful chord doom that can be experienced in so many of Swans earlier albums. A grind ensues for the last several minutes in subdued yet aggressively sexual manner. Its a great sonic image of what old songs such as “Money Is Flesh” would look like if they were surgically dissected and turned into origami.
Then, there’s “The Seer Returns”. If anything in this album feels like a poop joke amidst soothsaying, this is it. The drums find a curiously delicious hip-hop beat around forty seconds in and support a spacey choir that one almost expects to shout “NOTORIOUS”. Songs with an immediate attitude like this are common all over the popular spectrum, but didn’t we just listen to thirty minutes of gargantuan D-based drone? Did Darth Vader just walk into the club? This isn’t to say the track isn’t enjoyable, this album would be less without it. At the least its a questionably tasteful inclusion of a popular trope after a typically unpopular one. At the most its a fantastic, yet cheesy way to illustrate the return of the seer, forcing minds to ask just how seriously we should take him. Its as if the black monolith from Space Odyssey just stepped out of the limo and is currently sauntering down the red carpet in slow motion.
Following this in direct opposition is “93 Ave. B Blues”, a vacuum of tonality, a haunted construction site in full operation. This slides into “The Daughter Brings The Water”, a pensive and rippling acoustic song presented close up by Gira. “Song for a Warrior” could have been much the same if it hadn’t been for Gira inviting Karen O to sing its tear tinged major line. The last three pieces come together into a final judgement of sorts, combining earth shattering, full band melodies and moments of bright, cheeky country-balladry. Former Swans member Jarboe comes into play, setting a fluttering collage of voices in the first half of “A Piece of the Sky”. The record ends with the twenty three minute ambient and comet impact disjunction of “The Apostate”, ultimately terminating in a strangely groovy rock out and happily chaotic drum circle…huh.
Included in all the cataclysmic wonder that is the sheer volume of this album and the statements that make it so serious are reminders that even this shouldn’t be taken so seriously. It is a fantastic piece of work, a fitting object of culmination (but lets hope there will be more). However, what seals the deal is that smirking little bastard on the cover and what he’s waiting to show you on the other side. No matter the size of creation, make room for a solitary grin and whatever wisdom or infantile humor comes out.