The bulk of the 32 minute title track on The Seer is two chords, one tritone apart from each other, played over and over again. The interval – once thought to actually be demonic – heaves back and forth, collapsing and recollecting like throwing a two-ton burlap sack of noise. Instead of crescendoing to some sweeping catharsis, the two chords remain steady and resolute, never resolving. The song doesn’t lift, it doesn’t pound, it just twists and screws and digs.
It’s like: Say a word over and over and it can lose its meaning and succumb to semantic satiation. Intone a mantra or prayer every morning and it can be a spiritual guide. Have a drop of water fall on your head for seven hours and it’s torture. Watch a pendulum swing back and forth and fall into hypnosis. The volatile act of repetition yields all kinds of results ranging from pure truth and ecstasy to violence and lunacy, but the overarching theme of repetition is that it looks for what is beyond the surface. Repetition is a jackhammer trying to wrest truth from the muddy waters of the subconscious. Repetition is a wholly committed search.
For 30 years, Swans have been searching for something through ceaseless abrasion, droning atonalities, and dour words. The ringleader, Michael Gira, has somewhat disavowed the idea that Swans are a bleak band, though you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of that on the surface of their previous material. God, love, death, and the mind — some of Gira’s preferred subjects — have all been extolled and damned in Swans’ music over the years, and like some masked bacchanalia that’s going just fine until someone pours blood all over themselves and starts screaming to the night sky about being choked to death by a snake, it often gets uncomfortable.
But just as Swans once cursed the sun for shining too much light and revealing dark crannies of the world, they know that real truth and transcendence is only unearthed from beneath the surface when music is drilled at full bore. This is The Seer, a masterpiece of post-rock and experimental composition that burrows into subterranean worlds and speaks with ultimate truth about spirituality, childhood, and the madness of the future of the mankind. It’s less about the size of the music — though clocking in at about two hours, The Seer is definitively “epic” — but rather its guile and instability as a modern musical artifact. The constant repetition of cryptic chants and sounds culled from the lower depths of the 20th century avant-rock canon can debase, transcend, torture, hypnotize, and inspire because it’s a completely aleatory experience with each listen.
The Seer oscillates between songs developed organically and amorphously on the road, and those developed with more structure in the studio. Gira reenlists the same band he used to record and tour with Swans’ previous studio album, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (and the live album from earlier this year, We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head). Two years ago the bandmen of Swans were still just starting to feel each other out, and that caution and claustrophobia is all over their My Father…, still a jagged connection between a past goth-industrial Swans and present chamber-metal Swans.
This album redefines Swans by gathering the best of its past and re-centering the music on impulse and interplay, built with a preternatural sense of how long to let a section develop before moving on to the next idea, like the orchestra bells featured in the opening minutes of the nine-minute “Avatar”, one of the “road songs”. The internal sections of songs gather and regather for triple-dog-dare lengths as some version of sameness and drone and noise stretch out for 20 or 30 minutes on deserted stages. The shortest of these road songs, “92 Ave. B Blues”, is what would happen if you left Steve Reich or La Monte Young to die in the Mojave desert. The longest, “The Seer”, is a journey in its own right, the lumbering heart of the album, and ends with Gira speaking in slithery tongues; or as credited in the liner notes, simply “sounds”.
The other road songs are furious adventures, ones where you could actually picture Gira having primal fits and channeling on stage in front of a bricolage of post-rock and noise-metal. It’s in these stretches that Swans start to pour their elixir right directly in the ear: The closing half of the final track “The Apostate” is one of the more intense listening experiences you’ll hear this year, especially with about 100 minutes of The Seer heavy on your body. And The Seer is body music, loud and violent, and boy you’ll feel it by the time the hail of floor toms, barrel drums, heartbeats, and off-mic screams hit at the very end of the album. It’s not quite a catharsis in a way that Godspeed You! Black Emperor would have you experience, and it’s not quite the void that Sunn O))) would leave you in. Gira closes with the words, “We are blessed,” and then, “Fuck bliss.” It leaves you searching for the right words, too.
The “studio songs,” on the other hand, interpolate the big action sequences and one-take extended shots. Hearing a chord change, a bare piano, slide guitar, and traditional song structures on the beautiful ballad “Song for a Warrior” is respite from all the heavy. Karen O delivers a powerful performance on that sort-of political track. Similarly, erstwhile Swans collaborator and vocal hero Jarboe lends her droning talents to the swung-funk of “The Seer Returns”, and pairs with Akron/Family to make dense, vocal clusters on the 19-minute drone experiment of “A Piece of Sky” — the only song ever written where the sudden sound of hammer dulcimers might scare the ever-loving shit out of you.
Gira sings, “Your childhood is over” on the opening track “Lunacy”, after repeating the titular word the exact amount of times a lunatic would. Swans have never been about the minutiae of life. They’ve been about the myths of the world, not just talking to God but building a ladder to him, and not just loving someone but pouring your life into their mouth. Gira believes this grotesque drama exists in this world, not in dreams. There’s no unreality to Swans, nothing ethereal and dreamy. The Seer is more precise than just a tsunami of dynamic shifts. It’s wily, cunning, and aims to pull out the ecstasy hiding down in the guts of everyone, no matter if it’s uplifting or wretched.
One of the greatest breaths of all time is the first one that escapes after The Seer ends.
Essential Tracks: “The Seer”, “A Piece of Sky”, “Apostate”, and “Song for a Warrior”.