30 years in, Swans make their masterpiece with ‘The Seer’.
‘The Seer’ (Young God Records)
Rare is the band that’s still at their creative peak 30 years into their career. But Swans new album ‘The Seer’ is their best work to date. Founding member Michael Gira and co. seem brimming with purpose and demonic intensity.
It’s a daunting listen. A double album, featuring several tracks over 20 minutes long, it takes time to absorb. 2 weeks into it, and I’m still scrambling for the right words.
So let’s start at the top with Disc 1:
‘Lunacy‘ is one hell of an opener. It begins with an ethereal Middle Eastern wail, followed by eerie harmonized vocals (featuring Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk from Low). The repeated choral refrain of “Lunacy” is chilling and will make you question that your own sanity is slipping. Once the chanting climaxes, it lulls into a lament; “Your childhood is over“. But this album is just getting started.
“Mother Of The World” has a death grip on your ears from its first clanging industrial riff. It’s repeated motif will test your patience, but it settles into a nice bluesy vibe towards the closing.
This album is like Texas weather. If you don’t like what you hear, wait a few minutes. Often times a single track sounds like multiple songs. This constantly morphing, labyrinthine approach is dizzying and disorienting.
The title track is impossible to classify. It’s over 30 minutes long and vacillates between hypnotic transcendence, nihilistic rage and abstract terror.
It’s followed by ‘The Seer Returns‘ . A slowly escalating track which also feels Arabic in tone. Gira’s lyrics are suitably abstract; “My light pours into your mouth/Your light pours into my mouth“. His vocals are alternately soothing and sinister (His old flame Jarboe adds her trademark wailing backing vocals)
DISC 2 is still dark, but it does offer occasional uplift.
“Song For A Warrior” features a great guest vocal from Yeah Yeah Yeah’s vocalist Karen O. The lilting country ballad sounds more akin to Mazzy Star than the Swans, soothing and restorative.
“Avatar” is next, and it’s my favorite. Atmospheric and ethereal it has a powerful dark beauty. Thor Harris’s orchestral bells sound almost like an homage to Mike Oldfield’s ‘The Exorcist‘ theme. Indeed, much of what makes ‘The Seer’ so richly compelling is the addition of non-‘rock’ instrumentation. Orchestral instruments used here work at odd, unsettling angles, not the typical window dressing you find when most rock bands add a string section for a power ballad. When Gira’s vocals appear late in the song, it has a magnetic, Gothic drone.
“A Piece Of The Sky” is another standout and sounds akin to the post-rock of Mogwai. Piano driven and hypnotic, it’s a beautiful piece of work. But it later veers into atypical territory with a playful melody and Gira’s laconic baritone crooning which is reminiscent of Johnny Cash. He waxes poetic, a mix of whimsy and urban decay; “In the wind of our love, in methane and love/in petroleum plumes there’s a floating slice of moon/ in your tooth and your claws and your unforgiving jaws, are you there?”
But lest one think Swans are mellowing out, the album closes with ‘Apostate‘, one bombastic, violent piece of noise rock that has Gira at his most manic with a profane delivery that sounds like a man with Tourette’s speaking in tongues.
Awhile back I put Swans ‘The Great Annihilator‘ on my list of darkest albums. But it has nothing on ‘The Seer‘.
This album throws down the gauntlet. It’s a middle finger to the internet age of instant gratification, where music competes against a million other distractions, not allowing it to be the fully immersive experience its meant to be.
You can’t listen to ‘The Seer‘ in snippets. This is musical homework, an investment of your time. It’s a challenge, but a rewarding one. Live with it. Drive to it. Write to it. But don’t try to sleep to it, or you’ll have some epic nightmares.
*You can buy or preview ‘The Seer‘ from iTunes below or click on the album image if you prefer to get the 2 CD set from Amazon.
[amazon_image id=”B008K7WCJM” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Seer[/amazon_image]
**UPDATE: The Seer is our Best Album Of 2012. Check out the full list.