Swans - The Seer

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.

The Seer is out now on Young God. Stream it here.

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.

Comments (62)
  1. Album of the year?

  2. Damn, I just moved into a new apartment and I’ve been listening to this and Centipede Hz fucking loud…feel like the landlord’s gonna change the locks. Or my neighbor’s gonna beat the shit out of me.

  3. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • OK…Its settled. I need to give this behemoth its due respect and clock in another few listens before passing judgement…its sorta growin on my like a tumor.

  4. I’m playing this a little loud at my desk right now. Office neighbour asks me: “What are you listening to? It is seriously starting to scare me a bit.” Me too, pal. Me too.

  5. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  6. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • Key words being “I have not heard ‘The Seer’ yet”. Don’t be that person.

      • While I’m sure the latest Swans album transcends any ideas of private listening and should best be experienced communally, I would tell the person playing my favorite album in public to “headphone it”.

    • Am I the only one who thinks that it’s a little sad that an album can be considered to be flying under the radar or underappreciated when I has only been released for a day?

      And yes, I know what an internet is.

  7. Not to be antagonistic towards above commenters or anything and I like Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner a lot, but The Seer is just fucking right. I doubt there was any question in Tom’s mind when he picked this because it’s such a huge, kickass beast.

    • I ‘ve yet to listen to The Seer, the new albums from Matthew Dear or Divine Fits, or any other album released this week, but I’m quite positive that this was the incorrect choice for album of the week.

      • “Beams” is good. “America” is really great.

        But given how good “My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky” was… after a 15 year Swans hiatus… “The Seer” marks an incredible… actually unthinkable progression that I think only people that had seen them live could have seen coming.

        It’s sheer size alone warrants an album of the week nod, at the least. Again, I’m hugely biased toward long songs and even longer albums (see: Kill for Love). But ever since I first heard Gira’s voice on the Akron Family/Angels of Light split back in ’05 — I kind of love everything he sings on.

        Of course the only downside I see is that you can’t exactly go out and geek over this album to casual music listeners. Best friends sure but you can’t exactly post this on yr facebook and say “this album is amazing!” then have yr mom or former teacher go “I’m worried about you raptor jesus”

      • You’ll eventually hear it and eat those words.

    • This album is far from a dream come true… This thing is the goddamn theme to my nightmares’ nightmares (I mean that in a VERY good way)!

  8. this is the best album I’ve heard in the past few years and all of you complaining about how other albums deserve to be picked instead need to check this one out.

    also, since Tom mentioned Neurosis, did anyone else realize that they have a new album coming out soon? cause I just realized that and I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere.

  9. Swans, Krallice AND Dysrhythmia? Tom, you’re allllright.

  10. this album is scary…


  11. probably the best album I’ve heard in the past few years, definitely the most intense.

    Also, since Tom mentioned Neurosis, did anyone else notice that they have a new album coming out October 30th? I saw it on their website, but I haven’t seen it announced on here.

  12. Listening to this record is like traveling through Dante Alighieri’s 9 circles of hell.

  13. I’m not sure how anybody can have a coherent opinion of this album yet…

    It’s going to take me at least a month to process.

    I sure as hell hope it’s worth the tie investment I’m about to give it!

  14. i just knew dipshits were going to be confused by this album once the acclaim rolled in. One of the best albums one of the best bands ever has released in their almost 30 year career.

  15. YES. AOTY so far for me. such a intense primal experience.

  16. I think the real star of this record is Thor Harris. I mean, with a name like THOR and the way he plays his instruments. Yes yes cliche but ill say it: EPIC.

  17. I was already very excited for this album and the Boredoms analogy just kicked it up a notch. I am so ready for a massive slab of doom right about now. Planning on picking this up tomorrow (yes, I still “buy” music from a store). Can’t wait.

  18. Before I put this on at work to start my day, I had been reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son on the busride down:

    “The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking any more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”

    Needless to say, it was a pretty fucked-up morning, one that I would gleefully relive in place of many others…

  19. Loving “The Seer” but could someone recommend a couple Neurosis albums to listen to first? Just need some professional guidance because now this is another time I’ve heard only good things about Neurosis.

    Also, if anybody knows my historical love of long songs then you already know how I feel about this behemoth. Uhhhhhgggghhhh tttwwwwwooooo hhhhoooooouuuuuurrrrssssssssswwwwwaaaaannnnnnsssssss

  20. this album really does feel transcendent. especially that initial barrage of bagpipes, organ, sax, and whatever the hell else in “The Seer,” and the brilliant avalanche of dulcimers in “A Piece of the Sky.” it is literally painfully beautiful.

  21. This album: Hidden due to high comment rating.

  22. Put Pink Floyd, Throbbing Gristle, John Zorn, and hell, Miles Davis in a blender for good measure. Add Swans touch to everything. I almost think “noise” and “experimental” is too limited. This is classic rock in the making.

    The first time I listened to this I knew it was something else. The other night, I down a bottle of wine, set aside some time, and listened to this again from front to back. One of the best musical experiences I have had.

    Kiddos, that’s how to make an album.

    • Did someone mention John Zorn?
      An older album I liked: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Execution_Ground

      • Nice! I have a live album of Pain Killer but have not heard this. Anthing that involves Zorn, Laswell and Yamantaka Eye is okay in my book. For some reason I thought Dave Lombardo played drums on this project but I see that it’s Mike Harris from Napalm Death. I might have to check out some of that as well. Time to pour my first cup of coffee. This is a great day for having my ear canal make sweet dirty love to some beautiful noise.

  23. Wait wait wait can we have a Swans albums from worst to best countdown?? That would be swell.

  24. Not even a mention of tobyMac’s new album, typical indie blog bias

  25. Regarding the album cover: This is why Wookiees and Ewoks shouldn’t interbreed.

  26. Holy actual crap. Just listened to the whole thing for the last two hours. Unreal experience. I want to parse it and try to find a deep hidden meaning in it, but I honestly believe its power is in the communication of deep primal truth. Just…wow.

  27. word of advice: great album, but not a good album to have on in the company of high school girls.

  28. Around the time “The Apostate” hit the 19-minute mark, I thought of “Here Come the 7,000 Frogs” by Naked City. MG and Eye must have the same vocal coach.

  29. You are all just pretending to like this so everyone will think you are cool right? These fucking assholes called Swan sound like they are just banging on random instruments going “aish!” over and over. What garbage, album of the year my poopy butt!

  30. Stop talking about it. And other things. Just fucking listen to The Seer.

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