Michael Gira has made some pretty bold claims in the lead up to The Seer‘s release, the 12th album to manifest itself under the Swans banner, and the second since the dormant band’s reactivation in 2010. One of which is that the album is unfinished. Fair enough: each of the 11 songs here lend themselves to all sorts of expansions and contractions, things Gira and company have been doing plenty of during their intensely physical live performances over the past couple of years. Gira has also claimed that The Seer represents the culmination of 30 years worth of music and personal development. True, but dramatically selling it short. While traces of everything Gira has had a hand in can be found in The Seer, from the seething heft of the Filth and Cop days to the gentler balladeering of Angels of Light (even former foil Jarboe shows up to deliver some background vocals), the album is no mere summary, nor does it bother presenting these elements in anything approaching a rehashed fashion. It is another bold step forward, a consistently jaw-dropping display of power, a world unto itself.
Despite its cumulative nature, The Seer primarily expands on the noir-inflected country-doom-blues explored on 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, both in size and instrumentation. Large horn and woodwind sections make appearances, whether in heralding the entrance of the title track, or bleeding their way into the borderline free-jazz freekout “93 Ave. B Blues.” Swans’ penchant for drones makes a more pronounced appearance, and contribute more all-enveloping weight as they grind on.
The proceedings are divided mainly into two large sections that make up the album’s two-hour running time. Opener “Lunacy” almost serves as a mission statement for the album’s first half. Backed by Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, Gira unspools his first set of incantations over a full band blast that repeats like a skipping frame of film before dissolving into a bed of acoustic guitars and an ending chant of “your childhood is over.” The listener’s sense of security and complacency is then chisled away at dilligently by “Mother Of The World”‘s initial two-note riff. The 32 minute title track, a behemoth of compositional skill, runs through a series of buildups before slamming on the same chord for ten whole minutes, the guitars of Gira and longtime Swan Norman Westberg seemingly ripping their insides out on top of the whole thing. Somehow, this isn’t the pinnacle of the album, as the second half includes the Karen O-sung “Song For A Warrior,” the genuinely hooky “Avatar,” and the closing epics “A Piece of The Sky” and “The Apostate.” It’s like an eternal plateau: a series of peaks with no dropoffs in between.
Swans have long been synonymous with Gira, but the contributions of the band this time around can not be undersold. “Avatar” practically revolves around Thor Harris’ chimes, while the tender “The Daughter Brings The Water” swoons beautifully thanks to Christoph Hahn’s lap steel. When “The Seer” locks into its single-chord holding pattern, its Christopher Pravdica’s bass guitar that booms over everything, and not enough credit can be given to drummer Phil Puleo, able to snap in and out of controlled lopes and unhinged chaos at a seconds’ notice.
By far one of the most challenging pieces of music to be released this year, The Seer is also one of the most satisfying, a nearly unclassifiable mammoth of sound that manages to weave brutality, atmosphere, and aching melody into a body-enveloping cocoon that sticks around longer than the average Hollywood movie. It’s an absolute delight to get lost in. Swans have enjoyed a renewed lease on life for two years now, but it’s The Seer that will truly pull the seminal group out of its own considerable shadow.