Swans – The Seer

Swans – The Seer

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Despite being responsible for a number of successful projects, Michael Gira is, first and foremost, known as the towering prophet of doom behind the much-beloved, avant-noise mercenaries Swans. When Swans no longer interested Gira, he formed Angels of Light as a vehicle to explore his increasingly folky tendencies. But Gira made his name on doom and gloom (mostly doom) so, newfound gentleness aside, his predisposition towards heavier subjects dominated much of Angels of Light’s output. Check out “Michael’s White Hands” to see how easy it is for Gira to switch from glimmering folk to apocalyptic howling within minutes.

In retrospect, Swans’ reformation in 2010 feels like an inevitability, and their well-received, full-length comeback album, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, succeeded in assuring longtime fans that age had not blunted the group’s brutish force. Yet Gira is a restless creature, and since it’s simply not enough for a restless creature to resurrect his band without it being an embarrassment, we have Gira publicly proclaiming that the new Swans album, The Seer, is “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” That’s a lot to live up to, and even if The Seer doesn’t quite meet those astronomically ambitious standards, the album plainly shows that the effort was there. Whether or not you enjoy The Seer depends on a few important factors.

For starters, is more automatically better? Because hoo boy, is there a lot of The Seer. Two hours of it, in fact, which includes one nineteen minute song (“A Piece of the Sky”), one twenty-two minute song (“The Apostate”), and one thirty-two minute song (“The Seer”).

Then there’s this: how much pounding do you like in your music? If you answered “lots,” then you’re likely to find plenty to love here. Most, if not all, songs on The Seer offer up a section, or even the whole song, to dramatic, repetitious hits. “Mother of the World” revels wholeheartedly in the effect of perpetually repeating, ugly chords. So much so that when all of the music drops, leaving nothing but Gira mimicking the melody, it’s simultaneously terrifying and amusing. And, if nothing else, it keeps your attention firmly in place. It will certainly help if you don’t prefer your songs “sung” so much as “demonically chanted.” But those last two points are nothing new for Swans: it’s the sheer amount provided on The Seer that necessarily makes this a landmark album for the band.

The most important element to consider is how these songs hold up once the listener gets past the utter grandiosity of it all. To that end, Swans have made a record commensurate with their ambitions. The great, lumbering, twenty-minute-plus beasts gnash and wail for as long as you’ll have them, then go on for ten minutes longer, just because.  Deal with it; that’s what Swans came to do. And if you question whether or not Angels of Light taught Gira anything that could be useful for Swans, the lovely duo of folk songs (“The Daughter Brings the Water,” “Song For a Warrior”) that interrupt the onslaught of dread are spookily spare, and perfectly timed. This album is a focused, fearsome monster that can turn shockingly sweet and humane just because it’s that much more jarring to do so.

At the risk of sounding self-contradictory, The Seer, like many Swans albums, is still a chore. Again, it’s two hours, with three songs adding up to an hour and ten minutes. It’s easier to admire a band stubbornly and intermittently bashing away at one note for an EP-length of time than it is to completely enjoy it. Then again, one of the great joys of watching Swans develop into a more melodically-driven band has been the push-pull between their desire to make you swoon and their desire to make you tremble. Maybe they’re one and the same.


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