Swans – The Seer
A brutal symphony of sorts, Swans’ The Seer is a brilliant, punishing, gorgeous and rewarding work. Michael Gira claimed that this record is the culmination of his 30-year career, and in a sense, that’s accurate: The Seer touches on the visceral No Wave of Swans’ early efforts, the band’s more recent forays into extended compositions, the subdued melancholy of Gira’s Angels Of Light and the haunting atmospherics of his Body Lovers project. But this isn’t the sound of an artist delving into his past because he’s scared to move forward; no, this is someone returning to his strengths with renewed vigor and consolidating them into a major statement. At nearly two hours and only 11 tracks, The Seer isn’t afraid to push its tracks to nearly absurd lengths—the title track runs a cool 32 minutes—but rarely a moment goes by where it isn’t anything but captivating. With these longform, rise-and-fall compositions (as well as the fact I’m using the word “compositions”), it’s easy to throw around the term “post-rock,” and though it certainly applies to some facets of The Seer, the record is more diverse sonically and dynamically than that label can suggest.
“Lunacy” sets things off with some post-punk riffing before snowballing into an apocalyptic opera as Gira and Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker chant the title like deranged angels. And it hardly ever lets up from there. Swans assemble what constitutes a small orchestra on these tracks, swelling songs like “A Piece Of The Sky” to their breaking point before tearing them back down again. Even more, the moment the creepy, creaky interlude, “The Wolf,” slams into the droning, bagpipe-laden cacophony of the title track is surely one of the most surprising, terrifying and emotive musical moments of 2012. But it isn’t all uncompromising heaviness: “The Daughter Brings The Water” approaches something like verse-chorus-verse structure, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O has a sweetly mournful vocal turn on the country-tinged ballad, “Song For A Warrior,” which gives the record the necessary balance and humanity. Adding to that balance are Gira’s lyrics, which focus on images of water, light, mothers and daughters, conveying ideas of mortality, fundamental need and power dynamics. Of course, these themes are fleshed out in the music, so the words simply tie the record’s provocative emotions to specific viewpoints and topics that give the songs even more strength, since they are grounded in reality. That The Seer‘s last track, “Apostate,” ends with a flurry of pummeling percussion is fitting. It sounds like both the finale of a fireworks show and a Revolutionary War battle at once, which is to say it is simultaneously celebratory and violent and a better description of the record’s considerable power than I can muster here.