In retrospect, 2012 was a particularly stellar year for music. Frank Ocean (channel ORANGE) and Kendrick Lamar (g.o.o.d kid m.A.A.d city) each dropped their respective masterpieces that permanently cemented them as modern classicists amongst critics and fans. Meanwhile, Death Grips’ The Money Store showed the group mastering their demented take on abstract hip-hop, Flying Lotus provided his most nuanced and hypnagogic release to date with Until The Quiet Comes, and Tame Impala proved that there was strange beauty in loneliness with Lonerism. However, one album stood out like a black sheep because while it was inaccessible to most mainstream music listeners, it was ambitious as it was gravely terrifying and ugly. This album is The Seer; New York experimental group Swans’ near masterpiece and and a classic that was considered by many to be the biggest comeback of the year. This album is indeed one of the finest works in the groups catalog as well as a roughly 2 hour post rock hell trip and endurance test through sheer brutality, meditative repetition, and catharsis.
To most people, a 2 hour album may seem asinine (“It takes up too much time, I might get bored with it, etc”). The Seer is by no means for those people but rather for open minded folk, audiophiles, and the sadistic fans of industrial and extreme music alike. While Swans did attempt a similar format with 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind, it wasn’t a definitive piece. It was ambitious, but rather scattered and moreover a compilation of found sounds, voice recordings, and their signature, sinister viscera. The Seer is superior in how it forges a set of tracks to make a whole; an album best taken in as a singular experience.
The narrators that makes up the journey that is The Seer are lead man Michael Gira, lap steel guitarist Christopher Hahn, percussionist’s Thor Harris and Phil Puleo, bassist Christopher Pradvica, and guitarist Norman Westburg. While The Seer doesn’t have a clear story, it’s in essence a simple warriors journey through adolescence and towards transcendence. The album kicks off with ‘Lunacy’, a chant that foreshadows the impending apocalypse. As the track ends, Michael Gira and guest collaborators Alan Sparkhawk and Mimi Parker croon “Your childhood is over” repeatedly. ‘Mother Of The World’ showcases Swans’ technical prowess, with a syncopating drum rhythm and angular guitar riff over Gira’s panting. You can feel the synergy on this track, imagining Gira staring into the drummers’ eyes and building tension between them as he does during live shows. At the halfway point, the instruments cut out, leaving his stray breathing audible. As the instruments kick back into a breakdown he yells:
“In and out and in and out, agaaaaaaaaaain!”
‘The Wolf’ is a simple acoustic interlude with him crooning in a dark tone, where even the movement of his fingers along the guitar neck are audible. It’s creepily solitary and anticipates the insanity about to take place on title track ‘The Seer’, the album’s longest track clocking in at 30 plus minutes. The track builds up in a way that only a musical genius could conduct, with shrieking violins, beating percussion, guitar static, and other sounds conglomerating into a sonic tornado. This tornado explodes at the 11:40 mark and batters the listener into submission until the mess slowly peters out with a whining bassoon. Another rhythm makes way for Gira to coo like an infant and scat sing as the track finishes off. ‘The Seer’ doesn’t care if the listener can’t take the brutality, as at this point the listener could either turn off the album or continue through hell. This is the strange beauty about Swans.
‘The Seer Returns’ featuring long time Swans collaborator Jarboe is worthwhile, yet shows the few flaws that exist in an otherwise phenomenal album. The lyrics are silly and abstract in a way that feels sticky, and the rhythm gets redundant because it doesn’t explore any new territory. However, the track finishes off nicely and is a great track nonetheless. This makes way for the midway point of the album as well as it’s most unforgiving track, ’93 Ave. B Blues’. Shrieking violins are like nails on a chalk board, voices moan in an occult manner, drum blasts pound the listeners ears, a lap steel guitar creates a wall of deafening static; to put it simply, shit breaks loose. The track elicits the worst aspects of humanity such as murder, self-mutilation, rape, and suicide. You could listen to this album and be having the worst day of your life, yet the fucked up purgatory that is The Seer‘s first half can surely pale it in comparison. However, the second half is a whole other beast; one that while subdued and nowhere as brutal, is of ecstasy, spiritual growth, and exorcism.
‘The Daughter Brings the Water’ is a simple acoustic ballad with electronic flourishesand simple, yet intriguing lyrics and metaphors. ‘Song for a Warrior’ is another beautiful ballad with vocals courtesy of Karen O. Her voice provides a fragility rarely seen elsewhere in the album and the lyrics compliment the loose story. Avatar is reminiscent of a march towards a final battle of sorts and carries a dramatic, tense flair that rivals that of songs in the first half.
‘A Piece of the Sky’, featuring Jarboe and folk group Akron/Family, is the albums most ethereal piece. For an album of such brutality, this track is oddly gorgeous. Bells chime in harmonic cohesion, shining light into the darkness. Halfway through, a simple post-rock riff builds into the heavens. The last part meditates that while the journey might be fucked up and horrible, there’s retreat in the simple fact that we exist and are fighting against the horror.
“In the blood of the swans
as the sun fucks the dawn
In the mud of a lake
In the drunk and the dazed
Are you there?”
Album closer and contender to place on a future list for best album finales of all time, ‘The Apostate’ reassures us that the long journey was all worthwhile in one last shamanic dance. The track builds and batters the listener as usual, but in it’s second half, all the tension held in for the album is released. Gira yelps, caws, and scat sings while exorcising himself to the seductive rhythm, getting every last bout of feeling out. Rarely has an album closer felt so relieving, like scratching an itch that hasn’t been touched for years. The last minute is spent with nothing else but a drum kit getting the living shit beat out of it and Michael Gira’s last stray screams before fading into silence.
The Seer is not perfect. It’s a tad sloppy in delivery and editing, a bit repetitive in some areas, and lyrically unfocused (thus why the perfect To Be Kind exists), but those are all minute complaints to what counts as an absolutely brilliant post rock album. It drains every last bit of energy from the listener and beats the crap out of them like a punching bag. You might have a massive headache, a swollen cheek, sprained ankles, and some big bruises, but it all feels absolutely invigorating.