The Seer took 30 years to make. It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined. But it’s unfinished, like the songs themselves. It’s one frame in a reel. The frames blur, blend and will eventually fade. [...] Despite what you might have heard or presumed, my quest is to spread light and joy through the world. My friends in Swans are all stellar men. Without them I’m a kitten, an infant. Our goal is the same: ecstasy! - Michael Gira, Swans
There's been a generous fistful lately of great new music from well-established bands. Earlier this year saw Orbital return with Wonky (and one of my favourite music videos for a while), late summer saw the triumphant return of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (more on that in a later blogpost, perhaps) and it was just this week that Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their first new recording in a decade (more on that next week, most likely).
Outliving the lot of them so far, Swans reformed a few years ago and have already released an album of new material (2010's hefty My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky). It's taken me way, way, way too long to start listening to Swans (I really should've paid attention to Rob, but don't tell him I said that) but after lapping up that last album I was curious to see what they'd come back with next. The answer? A double album (triple on vinyl!) that seems to be the perfect expression of what Swans has been hammering away at for all these decades, And it is incredible.
The Seer starts with the clanging chimes of Lunacy, the word repeated like a fervent choral mantra. It's an extraordinarily dramatic opening, appropriately so for an album so huge, so overwhelming. Jangling, howling, thundering. Then suddenly quiet, gentle repetition of "the child is over", vocals from Alan and Mimi from Low, a hushed tension punctured by a gapless switch to Mother of the World, all taut rhythm and guitar while the singer moans, keens, "dee dee dee" - a sudden break for air, then klang, a booming intonation "IN AND OUT AND IN AND OUT", band crashing in hard. Christ.
Each song is unpredictable, broken into numerous parts that can be startlingly different from each other yet absolutely right together. The result is as demanding as it is rewarding, at once exhausting and exhilarating, Total Music. There's SO MUCH going on, it demands your full attention, constantly wrong-footing you, sweetly melodic and jarringly discordant, forever on edge. It is, without doubt, the worst background music in the world (though I imagine painting to this would result in something quite special).
The Seer's title track stands proud as the centrepiece of the album, that one song longer than some complete albums. It builds, builds, driven by drum, doom and volume, nightmarishly hypnotic. A voice repeatedly mutters "I see it all / I've seen it all" while the tension becomes almost unbearable, going faster, higher, louder, higher still, until - SLAM! - it suddenly climaxes, all pounding drum, howling guitar and thunderous noise. Well, I say climax - there's another 18 minutes left. It reminds me of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's jaw-dropping Storm, peaking with a violent sonic roar then exploding, bursting open bit still ploughing on and grinding down like some monstrous beast/machine lurching wounded, spewing black fumes, raging as it dies.
There's still plenty of album to go, and it barely lets up. The Seer Returns takes the tempo from part of The Seer and makes another song with it, spoken lyrics talk of "a greasy beast" and light pouring in and out of mouths. 93 Ave B. Blues is the most challenging (and, if I'm honest, most skippable), an increasing wall of screeching noise and rattling noise. Song for a Warrior is a rare breather, featuring Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, exactly what you'd want to hear sung over a flaming. Avatar is all clanging chimes of doom before a sudden violent thrashing release. Then, to close, two massive tracks, each around 20 minutesA Piece of the Sky is downright lovely, like some mittelEuropean folk sung around a campfire, tired and bruised but controlled and warm. If the album finished here it would still be a classic, but there's still another whopper to come, The Apostate. It slowly burns, building tension and unease - then, six minutes in, it suddenly cranks up the volume and terror, like a soundtrack to something awful and huge. Hardly music made for popping up on 'shuffle' but in the context of the greater album it's profoundly powerful and thrilling. Michael Gira's vocals are the polar opposite of what they were a track earlier, now howling, shrieking, roaring, a bloodied face in the midst of battle. And suddenly, the music stops and there's nothing but the fast random battering of percussion, like fireworks or artillery.
All in all, The Seer is as perfect a complete album as I can think of. From start to finish it's a clear example of why albums matter, why they still matter, and that when done right they become more than the sum of their parts. It unashamedly demands so much of the listener, both in terms of time and attention, but it's an investment that absolutely pays off. It's intense, but it's no ordeal - like a doorstop novel or epic theatre, it has the time to reach heights and depths, to cast a spell, to reel you in. Much like seeing 'There Will Be Blood' for the first time, it feels as though this album stands apart from other contemporary releases, so much so that comparison seem pointless, unfair to all concerned. It's not music to be heard the way we hear music these days - even now I'm listening to it in half-hour fragments on my commute, when it so clearly deserves a good couple of uninterrupted hours to really dive into it. The Seer challenges you to find time, to put the effort in, to surrender yourself to something so much slower and greater than we're accustomed to. The result is a revelation.