As a music dork, two of the most transcendent, quasi-religious experiences you can have are going to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Neurosis live. And after I saw Neurosis a few years ago, something occurred to me: The two shows are pretty much negative mirror images of each other. Both bands are full of grizzled bruisers who play in the dark, slowly building up to massive and crushing climaxes before ebbing into another long astral-contemplation bit of ambiance. Both use film projections as a crucial component to their live show. Both leave behind any ideas of song-form. And both have flown under the radar for a long, long time, but they still pack people in on the rare occasions that they play shows. But from the one Godspeed show I saw nearly a decade ago, the one image that remains burned into my head is the word “hope” flickering on the screen behind them, as the show finished. When I saw Neurosis, a different image lingered: Wolves running toward the camera, the gritty black-and-white film stock doing nothing to hide the malevolent glint in their eyes. Both of those shows were about transcendence, but one moved toward happy and hard-earned bliss, the other toward soul-saturating dread. And I’ve come to think of the new Swans album The Seer as something similar: The heart-eating, spirit-crushing, apocalyptic flipside to the 1999 Boredoms masterpiece Vision Creation Newsun.
Bear with me a minute here. Boredoms had been around more than a decade by the time they got around to making Vision Creation Newsun, moving gradually from booger-flecked broken-pop explosions to astral psychedelia. And that album was the moment that their latter-day sound stretched to its dizzy drum-circle natural conclusion and transformed itself into an altar to the very concept of love. It’s a deliriously beautiful piece of work, one that rushes into a headlong blur of joy. The songs don’t have titles, just shapes, and they all melt into one holistic composition anyway. It’s an album for spinning around in grassy fields and staring at the sky. Boredoms have stuck around since then, but unless we’re counting 2004’s two-song Seadrum/House Of Sun, they haven’t released a proper studio album since then. They don’t need to. They already got it right.
The Seer, for its part, has similar ideas about structure. The massive two-hour monolith of an album hangs together perfectly, but it refuses to contort itself to suit anyone’s idea of an album. One song stretches out past half an hour, and a couple of others come pretty close. Songs will go full-on noise-drone for 10 minutes at a time before suddenly becoming monastic incantations, or death-country lullabies. You can’t just throw it on while you’re cruising the internet; you need to carve out the time to sit and listen it, to let it dominate your soul. But rather than the wordless summery bliss of Vision Creation Newsun, Swans have given us a massive slab of all-consuming hate and disgust. It’s an album made for spending time in dark and dank basements, staring holes in the wall, holding your hand above a candle flame, imagining the death of the world. It’s heavy stuff.
“Heavy stuff” is, of course, pretty much what Swans have been doing since their early ’80s inception, as they moved from soul-grating proto-industrial clangor to classical-infused dramatic creep. When he got a new version of the band together after more than a decade off, bandleader Michael Gira wrote that he never intended Swans to get back together but that he missed something about it: The ecstasy of doing these shows, of summoning those vast walls of noise. And in the interviews he’s been doing lately around this new album, he’s talked about The Seer as the final culmination of everything he’s done with the band, the one where he applied every last production idea he’d picked up over the year. And god knows, this thing is bursting with sounds, bells and choirs and feedback and martial drum-roil. He released a live album just to benefit the recording sessions behind this one, and he put all the money he raised to great use, pulling symphonies of darkness into every track.
But Gira is also a deeply instinctive bandleader, one who knows just how much all-consuming pummel the listener can take before the band needs to pull back for a quick dose of beauty. “Song For The Warrior,” a gorgeously slow and sad ballad with a tremulous Karen O lead vocal, is probably my single favorite thing here: An eye-of-the-storm break to breathe before the fury returns. And Gira himself is also a vocalist of tremendous presence and charisma, a barrel-chested moaner whose intonations conjure pure religious fear. After seeing Angels Of Light, the band he led during Swans’ absence, absolutely obliterate a small Baltimore club some years ago, it occurred to me that Gira might be the closest living vocal peer to Johnny Cash, a voice that seems to emanate from a dark forgotten time. And on The Seer, he masses that voice, uses it to pant or mutter or howl, in multitracked choir, at the moon. He’s someone who could pull you into a black place with nothing more than that voice an an acoustic guitar, but on The Seer, he’s assembled armies of the damned, and arranged a piece of music that brings a very dark version of the transcendence he always talks about seeking. If you’re willing to give yourself over to The Seer, it’s one of the greatest musical achievements in recent memory. It’s not an easy album to mentally process, but it’s one that leaves a deep mark.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner’s chilly, synth-suffused indie-supergroup debut A Thing Called Divine Fits.
• Wild Nothing’s expansively glossy indie-pop sophomore effort Nocturne.
• Dan Deacon’s homeland-inspired concept piece America.
• Matthew Dear’s decadent synthpop album Beams.
• TEEN’s spectral psych debut In Limbo.
• Krallice’s experimental black metal odyssey Years Past Matter.
• Holy Other’s murky, R&B-leaning bass music LP Held.
• Beanie Sigel’s bleak 25th-hour rap return This Time.
• Dysrhythmia’s math-metal immolation Test Of Submission.
• Chilly Gonzales’s 88-keys meditation Solo Piano II.