Swans have always been a band that reveled in obliteration. They built their reputation back in New York’s no wave scene as perhaps the darkest, most crushing act in a musical scene not short on brutality, and the band hasn’t aged into sentimentality so much as a more fully realized bleakness. Back in their early years, they were adopting new styles just as quickly as they threw old ones to the wayside—the common thread in their music largely being basic human cruelty—and this mentality carries over into Swans’ post-reformation albums. Even nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find another legacy act that cares less about its own legacy. The band remains unequivocally forward-thinking, and The Seer is the best evidence of this since 1996’s Soundtracks For The Blind.
The first thing most people will probably notice about this release is the length—at nearly two hours, The Seer is one of Swans’ longest albums. The title track alone is over half an hour, and in the hands of a lesser band, The Seer might well have turned out what is politely termed a “brilliant failure.” Swans are not one of those lesser bands, and they spend every minute of the album justifying its length. The songs here are built on repetition, as is the norm with Swans, but the innovation here is in how the broader instrumental palette lets that repetition build. “Mother of the World” builds off of a harsh two-note guitar riff, at first accompanied in lockstep by frontman Michael Gira’s panting, and then subsumed into the rhythm section. At the halfway mark, the song cuts out, and when it reappears, it’s as a roiling, apocalyptic surge—a pretty good metaphor, all things considered, for Swans’ newest incarnation.
This is, by and large, fairly abrasive music to listen to if you’re not already a Swans fan. When repetition isn’t the word of the day, it’s walls of noise, or ambient soundscapes that sound like they belong on a David Lynch soundtrack. But at the core of it all is what Swans has always done best: convey power. Whether it’s on the blackened, industrial groove of “The Seer Returns” or the towering slow-burn of “The Apostate,” Swans sound more like a force of nature than a band. The Seer feels monumental, and not just because of its runtime: in its variety, and the range of emotions expressed across it, the album feels like its own, self-contained world.
Gira has referred to The Seer as “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” When most bands Swans’ age hype up their latest project as their best, it comes across as a fairly desperate grab for attention; after listening to The Seer, Gira’s assessment doesn’t seem too far-off. If 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky was the band getting back on its feet, with a sound more heavily indebted to Angels of Light than past Swans albums, then The Seer is Swans taking flight, with an ambition that far outstrips all but a few items in their back catalog. The main distinction of their post-resurrection output is in taking the raw, utterly crushing sound of albums like Filth and blending it with the more delicate, avant-tinged style Gira has favored in his side projects since, and this is where those two approaches finally come together on equal ground. Look at the back-to-back ballads “The Daughter Brings The Water” and “Song For A Warrior”—the album’s most beautiful, approachable moments coming after one of its most abrasive and experimental, in “93 Ave. Blues.”
Lyrically, The Seer feels almost mythological in its scope. Songs carry abstract titles, and when lyrics consist of more than a single, repeated phrase, the final picture is often disturbingly detailed. “The Seer Returns,” in particular, has some of the band’s most chilling lyrics, deadpanned by Gira as the song creeps along. Swans have moved on from the petty cruelties of their early work to something just as frightening, but on a cosmic scale—and musical backing to match.
And yet, The Seer ultimately doesn’t come across as a nihilistic undertaking. Whatever else, the album builds up a sense of awe by the end of “Lunacy” that doesn’t dissipate for the remaining 10 tracks and 113 minutes. There are moments—the point when “Avatar” appears to end before soaring back to life has to count among them—when The Seer feels genuinely transcendental. Gira has said this of the album, and it seems as fitting a summation of Swans’ accomplishment here as any: “My friends in Swans are all stellar men. Without them I’m a kitten, an infant. Our goal is the same: ecstasy!”
Essential Listening: Mother of the World, The Seer Returns, Avatar