Swans – The Seer
(Young God Records)
Not that you’d know it from our sporadic and lethargic attempts at reviewing things, but this year has seen a plethora of rather fine album releases. You probably know what they are already. Who knows, maybe we’ll get round to reviewing some of the others some day, although realistically the chances of that are slim enough to be an irritating new assistant for Doctor Who. But quite frankly, all those other albums can go take a running jump, because Swans have just released a two disc, two hour plus album of such grandiose brilliance that it makes the likes of Baroness and High on Fire and Om all cower in the corner like the insignificant little whelps that they are.
If you missed Swans first time around (like I did, because I was too busy being a child and listening to grunge and nu-metal like the unwashed cretin I was and still am) they were a hugely influential post-punk/drone/industrial/oddball band led by Michael Gira, a man who breathes artistic integrity like you and I do the grimy toxic air that surrounds us. They split up after over a decade of pleasing their fans and appealing to nobody else, and then a few years ago they reformed (without vocalist Jarboe) and released the stonkingly good ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky’, which took their early sound and dragged it into the modern world, an otherworldly delight of swaying fragility and beauty offset by haunting repetitive drone and Gira’s now wizened drawl. So that was all good.
Now, two years later, comes ‘The Seer’, a project that looks to be the ultimate exercise in hubristic arrogance. Eleven songs over two discs, centred around a title track over half an hour long, with long passages of atonal noise dispersed liberally throughout its running time. Sounds enticing, does it not?
It only takes three minutes moments of opener ‘Lunacy’ however, the gentle chants of ‘lunacy, lunacy, lunacy’ breaking against increasing swells of layered instruments before falling away into gentle acoustic guitars, and all such apprehension should be extinguished. The pattern is set for the rest of the album, throbbing, swelling, pulsating repetition, the two hours running time allowing the beauty and beastliness of the songs to be stretched beyond the limits of plausibility until they become mantras, hypnotic loops of drone.
Second track ‘Mother of the World’ is an excellent example of this, its opening staccato riff stretched out for four and a half of its ten minutes, before finally breaking into a typically Swansian riff, until that too falls away and we’re left with a gentle, swaying instrumental dirge, then a Gira vocal that could teach Nick Cave a thing or two about darkness. It’s enthralling and exciting, and bloody hard to tear your ears from. ‘In and out and in and out again,’ he drawls, his voice betraying none of the urgency the music underneath it carries. Two tracks in and it is already an exhilarating, exhausting listen.
It is nothing, however, to compare with the next three tracks. ‘The Wolf’ is a short, almost acapella number, the weariness of Gira’s voice swathing the listener in darkness as a gentle noise carries us into the title track and centrepiece to the first disc. A stunning 32 minutes in length, quite honestly ‘The Seer’ as a track could have been released as a one track EP and I think everyone would have still gone home happy. Every thought and movement in this one song is stretched out and left to repeat until you almost want to put a pillow over your ears, pushing the pain/pleasure barrier like some kind of Tantric exercise in pleasure delay. But then when it does tip over into the thundering riffs the relief soon gives way to the next wall of noise. At one point you will be convinced a kettle is boiling in the next room. I may be making it sound dreadful, but to this reviewer’s ears this is like some kind of bliss explosion, a half hour of steaming joy. To be fair, somewhere in the middle it does start to drag before it picks back up for the last four minutes of brooding intensity.
When it finally stumbles to its climax, it gives way to ‘The Seer Returns’, a more traditional Swans song that takes the motifs of its obese sibling and condenses them into a swaggering stomp. As is to be expected for an album that breaks the two hour barrier, it cannot sustain this momentum, and the rest of Disc One is given to two tracks, one of which is an uninteresting feedback loop, before ‘The Daughter Brings the Water’ brings the disc to a rather anticlimactic end.
If Disc One was a shiny tasty treat, then Disc Two is even tastier. It opens with the haunting ‘Song for a Warrior’, which features Karen O on vocals, and shows yet again how interesting she can be when surgically removed from the humdrum Indie Rawk of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Then ‘Avatar’ cranks up the gears, all low key bass and bell ringing that build and build to an almost apocalyptic intensity, and then there are two twenty minute masterpieces to bring the curtain down. ‘A Piece of the Sky’ is haunting and melancholy, before it all sweeps up into a joyously upbeat key, and then the whole thing comes to a grandiose down beat with closer ‘The Apostate’, twenty three minutes of thundering drums, wailing walls of guitars and endless, beguiling noise and throbbing riffs. The greatest compliment you can pay this album is that even after two full hours, you’ll find it a struggle not to hit play and start it all over again.
Top that, world.
9/10Ltd edition of the CD comes with bonus DVD (trailer below) Swans on tour: 15-Nov London – Koko 16-Nov Glasgow – The Arches 17-Nov Manchester – Sound Control