Swans: The Seer Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on The Seer by Swans.
Chris Besinger (STNNNG)
I’ve never been too fond of the Swans particular brand of blare. Despite great claims of the punishing and bludgeoning music (and hey I like getting bludgeoned) I usually found it boring and one note. It never sounded intense to me, at least never as intense as I wanted or needed it to be. Not that it didn’t have its moments, just for the most part their specific type of audio torture I was never drawn to. And those feelings were more or less confirmed when I saw them live last fall. So, let’s just say I was approached the idea of two hour new record with no small amount of trepidation.
And honestly the first song, “Lunacy” which sounds like “Tubular Bells” before it turns into a merry-go-round chant of “lunacy” certainly made me feel like I was in for a rough road to hoe. But soon the album’s centerpiece and title track “The Seer” turned my head, here was the first time I felt that the band truly lived up to their hype. A circular, keening wail, this was the Swans we were always promised, hypnotic, and primal, channeling Branca’s guitar orchestra theories back into rock, climbing to a majestic pummeling, before breaking it down to build back up on the back of coruscating guitar noise and then again diving deep into a lonesome valley of wet reverb and harmonica. The song runs over 32 minutes and is followed, in a hilarious bit of black humor, by “The Seer Returns” with a guest spot from former vocalist Jarobe and it could easily run for another thirty minutes or hours, frankly. Gira has noted that this is the album that combines all of the Swans version visions and incarnations into one and it is the perfect description. This has always been what they are pointing to, a sort of brutalist mood music.
But the album is more then just “The Seer”, it is surprisingly varied, highlighting much of what this current incarnation of the band is good at, with “The Seer Returns” a processional march in which Gira depicts an apocalyptic possession of spirit, “93 Ave B Blues” starts as a shrill wolf whistle of abstraction that is soon buried under an avalanche of drums, and “A Piece of the Sky” which starts as drone piece, chugs through the middle and goes all Nick Cave Xmas at the end. Not that the record is without a mis-step, namely “Song for a Warrior” with Karen O on vocals (and really it’s fine but I liked it better when it was called “The Evening Bell” on the Sunn O))/Boris colab) And for a band that prides itself on being so listener unfriendly the record rewards quite a bit too repeated spins, I’ve even kind of come around to some of those tubular bells. Some.”
I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to start listening to Swans – on paper everything about their sound is something I tend to be interested in, but somehow up until now the band only existed to me as an abstract. I didn’t know what they sounded like. I assumed – incorrectly – that they were probably just another one of the hard rock groups prevalent in the late 80’s and early 90’s that I had no interest in listening to. As it turns out they were (and are) a lot more than that.
So since Seer is my first proper listen of an entire Swans record my thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt. I have no idea how Seer compares to the Swans discography, but I do know that I (mostly) really like it. I tend to love dark, bleak, uncompromising music – and Seer takes those themes to such an extreme that it’s something of a Pride parade for dark, bleak, uncompromising music. It’s that over the top. It contains a dizzying array of musical instruments (including notably a Rufus Harley-esque bagpipe section(!)). It is thematically consistent from start to finish (ruthlessly serious) and it frequently attains moments of sublimated beauty that are brutally pounded out of discordant noise.
In short it’s great.
The band, however, seems painfully aware of its own greatness to an extent that it can get a bit tedious. A two hour noise opera might seem, in itself, to be a bit on the extravagant side – but generally I don’t mind it. In fact, I think that overall more musicians should take their art more seriously as opposed to less. Seer takes the seriousness to an entirely different plane however, and though I mostly can vibe with it, I occasionally found myself rolling my eyes. The prog-rock chorus parts in particular seemed a bit over-wrought. It’s one thing to spout melodramatic goth poetry (“kill the truth / speak the name…childhood is over,” etc) and quite another to do it grandiosely accompanied by a chorus that has the tendency to weight every utterance with like god-like solemnity.
Still, more often than not I was simply impressed by Gira and company’s commitment to their vision as well as their savagely beautiful orchestrations. I may have waited far too long to experience Swans, but at least their latest record has me wanting to go back and catch up on all that I have missed.
After spending 2 years out on the road touring behind 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, Gira and the current incarnation of Swans crafted an album that Michael Gira says is the result of 30 years of work. From the earliest days of slow motion illness inducing pounding through folk through Gira’s post-Swans Angels Of Light, Swans have always been constantly evolving their sound. The Seer is no small task to tackle clocking in at nearly two hours.
Opener “Lunacy” sets the tone from the beginning with percussionist Thor Harris’ chimes making the intro before the first of a number of guest spots is filled by Alan and Mimi of Low joining the Gira in a chant. After a similarly dirgey “Mother of the World”, “The Wolf” is a brief guitar and vocal intro by Gira before the albums title track and centerpiece. The 32 minutes of “The Seer” arc from dissonant noise to frantic percussion building itself into an intense tidal wave of noise. Karen O provides guest vocals to the beautiful “Song For A Warrior”, the standout opener to the 2nd side. The intense (and only 8 minute long) “Avatar” is almost lost before the pair of 19+ minute closers before the album finally closes itself in a squeal of violin into a flurry of drums.
The Seer succeeds in pulling together all eras of Swans (there’s even an appearance by Jarboe) into what plays out exactly as intentions stated. While some may be turned off by the 2 hour listening time this is exactly what Gira wants: if you’re going to do something, do it to the extreme.
See Swans this Saturday, 9/22 at the Fine Line Music Cafe
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