Swans- The Seer
August 28, 2012; Young God
It's not often that I feel compelled to write a review for a recent album that initially flew under my radar on release--after an album been in circulation a couple of months or more, most of the initial rush and novelty of writing about the contents of said record tapers off. In the rare times I'm spurred to write about music these days it either has to be something relatively hot off the presses or a lost oddity I feel the need to drum up as Something You Need To Hear Now. Everything else rapidly loses its luster.
Not The Seer. This is not one of those records you listen to a couple times and then feel compelled to spit out a load of typical music critic hyperbole for. Most releases that clock in at a daunting two hours or so have that effect, and doubly so when it's from an act that's been making music longer than some of its newer fans have been alive.
When Michael Gira at the tender age of 56 announced that he was bringing Swans back from the dead in 2010 with the emphatic disclaimer “THIS IS NOT A REUNION. It’s not some dumb-ass nostalgia act. It is not repeating the past," I immediately got very excited but also a little hesitant considering Jarboe would not be on a Swans record for the first time since Cop/Young God was released waaaay back in '84. Having regretfully little exposure to both the last few Swans albums or Gira's career in Angels of Light wasn't much help either.
That was okay because My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky (Jesus that's a long title I am not typing that out again) was largely a clean break. It didn't sound like the churning black sludge of their infamous '80s period that gave breath to the careers of myriad lesser acts--my favorite Swans era, incidentally. It didn't sound like the more melodic Goth-inflected records after that or the more streamlined psych-rock of The Great Annihilator. It wasn't a continuation of Angels of Light's dark folk direction either. It contained elements of all but was decidedly none of them. And it was great yet at 44 minutes, strangely unfulfilling. Not in the usual late-career mediocrity sort of way but I was seriously worried that this short burst of new Swans material would be a last gasp of creativity before Gira got bored and decided to fold it again.
Two years later and we get a double LP. Well played.
The Seer is just as big a break from the slightly more song-oriented My Father... as My Father... was from previous Swans albums. It's got all the darkness, minimalism, and dissonance of the '80s material but the focus is outward, more expansive and spiritual. Barked declarations of self-hating depravity are abandoned and Gira intones shamanic mantras like Nick Cave on peyote (that is far more positive than it sounds). The industrial vibe is also long gone--the credits reveal a kitchen sink of instruments ranging from lap steel to bassoon but, refreshingly these days, not a single obvious keyboard in sight.
The songs often stretch for post rock-like lengths."The Seer," "Piece of the Sky," and closer "The Apostate" at 32:14, 19:10 and 23:01 respectively are frigging epochs containing naturalistic expanses of organic ambience, guitar vamps, bursts of noise, tribal seances, and even a sardonic ballad midway through "Piece of the Sky" where an otherwise self-consciously grimdark line like "As the sun fucks the dawn" takes on a wry wit coming from Gira's wizened croon.
The shorter pieces are no less memorable. "The Seer Returns" has Jarboe returning for a truly spellbinding performance with an oddly catchy, bluesy shuffle despite its eerie apocalyptic aura. Taking up the WTF Cameo Spot from Devandra Banhart on My Father...'s "You Fucking People Make Me Sick," Karen O shows up with a surprisingly sweet and gentle vocal turn on "Song for a Warrior." Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low add their chanted vocals to the madness dance of "Lunacy," rivaled only by "The Daughter Brings the Water" for sheer skin-crawling effectiveness.
And then there's "Avatar," which simply defies description other than to say it effortlessly achieves the kind of effect that late-period Tool seems to be striving for minus any sense of that band's goofy pretension, or maybe a more subdued Neurosis. The teacher returns to school the young'uns, and it's easily the centerpiece of the record.
I've dropped all 120 minutes of The Seer twenty times since it came out and every time I hear something new. If that's not a hallmark for Album of the Year material, I dunno what is. Yet what would be a fitting epitaph to the careers of many long running, less creative bands is but one more marker here. Gira says it will not be the last of New Swans.