A coruscating, compelling treatise on creation and destruction...
Swans - The Seer

Clash’s Spotlight series usually looks at albums marking key anniversaries, or that are being brought back into the public eye through special shows or some other industry-standard opportunity for reappraisal.

But with Swans set to release their 13th studio set, ‘To Be Kind’, in May, we thought the moment was perfect to look and listen back to what is perhaps the most powerful studio statement in the Michael Gira-fronted New York experimental ensemble’s catalogue so far: August 2012’s incredible ‘The Seer’, spread across six sides of vinyl and just as remarkable now as it was on release.

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Swans, ‘The Seer’

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“I see it all.”

‘The Seer’ reeks of the definitive, the platonic form of Swans made real, a hellish golem raised from magma and mud. It collects the produce of the American experimentalists previous 11 albums and craftily condenses them, distilling their dusky essences in the way of an alchemist or particularly dastardly perfumier. Propelled by a ferocious fervour, its unbridled, ecstatic, musical mania feels somehow inevitable – but considered and wiser than ever before.

Joining with an impressive cast of collaborators – including Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Iceland-based noise merchant Ben Frost, members of Akron/Family and Low – is Gira’s former partner in crime, Jarboe. Their respective inputs provide luxurious glossy highlights, the butter in the jus if you will. But they don’t dilute a thing. Some passages initially make for excruciating listening, only to shift tone dramatically, whisking you a hair’s breadth from danger and certain unbidden defecation to a plane of vibrant aural pleasure.

Constructed of distinct movements, ‘The Seer’s is a symphonic piece clocking in at over two hours in length, with a half-hour title track. You don’t listen to something so demanding overly regularly, which is possibly why over a year on it sounds as fresh as the very first time. It’s an event, like a Wagnerian opera, a marathon dictating complete surrender – music so simultaneously cerebral and dynamically physical you can feel it in your muscles, your belly and bowels.

Its refusal to compromise is sometimes claustrophobia inducing, but this is what lends ‘The Seer’ its sense of potency and emotional catharsis. The honesty and clarity of this record is rigorous and relentless. It is aggressive, reflective, dually awkward and elegant: an ordeal, but a beautiful one. The cover – a snarling/grimacing wolf leering out from the shadows – suggests both hunter and hunted. The perfect image, really, of a metaphysical monster in the dark.

Opening track ‘Lunacy’ sets the tone. An unhinged voice, leeching out of darkness over a wave of percussion and guitar builds inexorably, expansively; drums froth like waves, violins crash against harpsichord. Eventually a chorus of voices begins to chime and soften, and order seems restored, the piece becoming a madrigal. But it’s merely the calm before the storm of “lunacy” being chanted a hundred or so times. It’s a dark, dense struggle sitting between Aleister Crowley, Led Zeppelin-style paganism and the secretive mysticism of the Knights Templar. In a final Songs Of Experience-period William Blake-style flourish Gira states: “Your childhood is over.” Is it ever.

Syncopated drumming and a single panted refrain heralds ‘Mother Of The World’: a spiralling arabesque of squalling, scissor-sharp guitars and a wailing, scatting Gira. It then shifts into unbridled glam rock: an incongruous Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars jam segueing into the sleaze of ‘Sister Midnight’-era Iggy Pop. This is the beating heart and breath of the world, the universe, a diabolical Ohm. Gira’s Gaia is the “mother of senseless things,” a disappointing human race, unbalanced in our consumption and living practices.

The title track is aptly grandiose. It’s the voice of an oracle witnessing the horror and splendour of the divine in real time. It’s Carlos Castaneda vibrating in the desert on a peyote-fuelled trip, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced near-death experiences. It’s Swans’ ‘The End’ or ‘Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun’. It builds and builds, tighter and faster, like a train derailing, an ever-crescendo-ing voice in the background. Around the halfway mark it is absolutely relentless – but just when it threatens to become too much, the monstrous becomes elegantly beautiful. A piano coda worthy of a Giallo horror soundtrack diffuses the endless repetition of “I’ve seen it all”. It’s pretty much better than most bands’ entire albums. However, Nietzsche has a point: “When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” In other words, I wouldn’t listen to it on repeat too much.

In its companion piece ‘The Seer Returns’, the world is literally being torn asunder, perhaps ready for rebirth, a resurrection. Whispers of immortality flutter over its sand torn ribbon of desert sound. Then the record hurtles into batshit-crazy New York-style free jazz territory on ‘93 Ave. B Blues’. Are those dolphins screaming beside the mild-mannered credit of the “Violin type instrument”? This takes work. It’s a punishing point of no return. Yet, for all the hair shirt qualities evident here, these musicians sound as if they’re having big-time fun.

There are brief moments of relief, such as the Beefheart blues of ‘The Wolf’,  ‘The Daughter Brings The Water’ and the haunting, alt-country ballad ‘Song For A Warrior’. Gira really has to give us a few of these songs. It would be difficult to make it through without them. They’re the pause on a treacherous alpine pass, a respite from catastrophe.  The beautiful, King Crimson-recalling ‘A Piece Of The Sky’ is still apocalyptic, however. The “sun f*cks the dawn” isn’t a light hearted observation – it’s redemption, Book of Revelation style.

Abiding influences can be heard throughout, the sinister soulfulness of Howlin’ Wolf, the experimentalism of Can and the deep psychedelia of early Pink Floyd bubble under the surface. It may seem like spiritual flagellation in song but its actually closer to an aural meditation on the sublime: the danger, terror and beauty of boundlessness.

This struggle with the notion of the divine is heard on ‘The Apostate’, as a struggle with truth. We may be on “a ladder to god” but it’s definitely an Old Testament deity towards which Gira climbs. The song possesses the preposterous overblown arc of Van der Graaf Generator’s ‘Man-Erg’ but also the control of Steve Reich and other great minimalists and modernists.

This is an album that will be spoken about in decade-marking retrospectives as an epic exercise in American gothic. We may feel insignificant in our everyday lives, but music still allows us to bypass the mundane for the metaphysical if we are desperate to experience secular rapture or transcendence. As Gira himself states, “Like anyone else, I want to experience ecstasy – something greater than myself.” 

We may not fast, we may not meditate or dance ourselves into a trance and we may not imbibe large quantities of drugs (or we may) – but maybe we don’t need to. Listening to this album is a portal allowing us to touch the fleshy membrane of something else. It’s a Lovecraftian mountain, a Conradian odyssey, a Freidrichian ravine. It leaves you flayed, sensitised. It’s ancient and authoritative, a coruscating, compelling treatise on creation and destruction. So it goes.

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Words: Anna Wilson

More Spotlight features

Swans’ ‘To Be Kind’ is released by Mute on May 12th. See the band live in the UK, supported by Jenny Hval, as follows…

22nd – Academy 2, Manchester
23rd – Hoult’s Yard, Newcastle
24th – The Arches, Glasgow
25th – The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
27th – Brixton Electric, London
28th – Trinity Community Arts, Bristol
29th – Sub89, Reading
31st – Supersonic Festival, Birmingham

1st – Cockpit, Leeds
2nd – Concorde 2, Brighton

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