Michael Gira describes this album as “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” For a group as mythologised and self-mythologised as the Swans, it’s a typically bold statement and also a hostage to fortune.
When the group returned in 2010 their comeback album seemed curiously muted and made little impression on me, whereas the live show was mostly very impressive. The Seer is much closer to those live shows in spirit.
Some passages sound like extended live variations and Gira says he expects them to change further when played live. The result is a sprawling, uninhibited work on an epic scale, in parts essential and in parts inessential. The lengthy songs are full of abrupt shifts, songs within songs, dead halts and dead ends.
It opens dramatically with ‘Lunacy’, which demonstrates the slow Krautrock atmosphere that surfaces a few times in the course of the album. The repeated chants of “Lunacy-Lunacy-Lunacy” and the harmonies lend a slightly medieval feel and there is even a trace of neofolk. In contrast, the last section bears a trace of early Pink Floyd.
‘Mother of the World’ starts out much more urgently with an angular 1-2 rhythm, much more in classic Swans style. The next section is marked (or marred) by an irritating improv vocal, fortunately displaced by the fast section from what seems like a completely different song, which in turn decelerates to be replaced by a more melodic final section with the repeated refrain “in and out in and out and in and out again…”, very much in the old style.
‘The Seer’ itself is a 32 minute-plus epic, introduced by the impressive sounds of bagpipes and drones. It gradually gains speed, stops and starts and takes some interesting detours but again is undermined by absurd vocal effects in places. I can see some of this material going down better with some of the Dalston hipsters who attended Gira’s solo gig at Cafe OTO in the spring.
A song (or suite of songs) on this scale almost demands to be treated as an album in itself and since Gira describes the songs as unfinished it’s hard to reach a definitive verdict on them. In a very different style, ‘The Seer Returns’ features ex-Swans member Jarboe on a song with a sleazy feel that might work very well on a David Lynch soundtrack.
’93 Ave B. Blues’ is the most uneasy and experimental piece, with abstract vocals a little like a Tibetan chant. This is also clearly a work in progress but it has a clearer focus than some of the others, even in the closing freak-out section. By contrast, ‘Song for a Warrior’ (featuring Karen O.) is pleasant but doesn’t seem as profound as it wants to be. Strangely, it again has a Pink Floyd feeling at one point – which is not something I ever imagined I’d write in relation to Swans.
‘Avatar’ is much more typically Swans in the sense of urgency and drama. Opening with bells it gradually builds into a dark and aggressive piece that will surely have a great impact live. The repeated phrase “Your Life is in My Hands” isn’t aggressively delivered but certainly has a dark undertone. This is one of the most disciplined and coherent parts of the album and all the better for it.
‘A Piece of the Sky’, which opens with a sampled fire provided by Ben Frost, certainly creates an atmosphere and also acknowledges the Swans’ distant industrial past. An ethereal choir of voices introduces a long section that sounds very similar to some of the soundtracks to Hermann Nitsch‘s infamous actions and all the better for it.
01 The Apostate – edit by GOLDSTARPR
The only problem is that when the song proper emerges it can’t quite reach the same level of intensity and the final section seems disappointingly light in comparison. Barbaric as it may be, this makes me wish the songs were sub-divided into more separate tracks.
After that 19 minute suite we reach the conclusion. The 23 minute(!) ‘The Apostate’. It’s based around long, drawn-out drumming, and takes a darker turn as it goes on, despite some more ethereal elements. At times it’s very Krautrock, at other times it’s a bit scrappy. Gira doesn’t always sound fully himself and maybe that’s the point.
So what are we left with? Is this a compelling work that will come to seen as a high point in the Swans oeuvre? In terms of scale it’s certainly a grandiose work, but whether it’s on the same scale of importance as their most important albums it’s too soon to say, even if some will surely hail it an instant classic, simply for the fact that it’s the Swans.
Others may see it as a travesty but the truth is somewhere in between. The second half is definitely more interesting and there are some very impressive passages but also some seriously over-extended ones.
The Seer may well be a grower and may accumulate more power with time, but I find it striking that after listening to it the Swans songs I hear in my head are mostly those from much earlier. Time will tell if this changes… although whether I or others are going to invest sufficient time to fully absorb this sprawling, unfinished work remains to be seen.
The Seer is released on August 28th 2012
From Speak and Spell to Laibach.