In his nearly two decades of recording under the Swans name, Michael Gira has held nothing back. Every stage of the Swans evolution has pushed some extreme or other, from the group’s early no wave performances so physical and confrontational that Gira frequently suffered cracked ribs to their intense, increasingly industrial recordings that literally featured nail gun percussion. Even a relatively accessible album like Children of God felt like a slow elevator ride to hell, and their prettiest record, the double-disc Soundtracks for the Blind, featured soundscapes wallpapered with highly disturbing recordings of field monologue. No matter which phase of the group’s career one enters, Swans is not a band well suited for casual experience. More than that, Swans is not a band so much as a consuming, visceral experience.
At 58 years old, Gira no longer thrashes himself into amplifiers or sacrifices his increasingly fragile bones for the sake of live performance, but to say that any of the intensity that characterized Swans material in the past has abated would be highly inaccurate to say the least. The first recording following Gira’s reviving of the Swans name, 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, for being one of the most oddly catchy items in the catalog, nonetheless bore an explosive sensibility that served as an ominous harbinger for even more epic and overwhelming acts to come. Yet not even the band’s most confrontational or immense material could adequately prepare one for something on the scale of the band’s planet-crushing new album The Seer.
Described by Gira as “the culmination of every previous Swans album, as well as any other music I’ve ever made,” The Seer is a vast and terrifyingly overwhelming work of art. To call it rock music is to sell short the nearly supernatural power it harnesses. To even call it an album doesn’t quite convey the monolithism and gut-punching nature of the rituals within its temples. The title track alone comprises more than one quarter of the album as a whole, its 32-minute duration progressing from an almost meditative post-rock chant of “I’ve seen it all/ I’ve seen it all/ I’ve seen it all/ I’ve seen it all” to a loud and fiercely droning exorcism. It crashes and drones, squeals and moans, made all the heavier by the uncompromising crash of Thor Harris’ percussion, which acts as more than mere rhythm, but rather a performance that parallels the natural chaos brought about by the collision of the earth’s own tectonic plates.
That probably sounds pretty intimidating. It should be — this is music that asks a lot of a listener, but in turn gives a lot back. In the final four minutes of “The Seer,” for instance, the noisy chaotic breakdown transforms into a cool, raga groove that, while still unsettling on the whole, might actually elicit some toe taps and head nods, if one is so inclined. The other half of disc one doesn’t require the same level of endurance, yet the level of intensity maintains an impossibly consistent high. Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker lend some eerily angelic vocals to opening dirge “Lunacy,” while “Mother of the World” stitches together five minutes of pounding repetition to five minutes of darkly baroque folk. The juxtaposition of groove and stomp on “The Seer Returns” is practically fun by comparison, if still ultimately chilling, Gira repeating the lines, “You put your light in my mouth” and signaling an escalation of slowly growing cacophony with the statement, “You/ have/a-rrived.” Only “The Daughter Brings the Water” sounds like a proper `pop’ song in any sense, gentle and haunting, but still far removed from how anyone else might consider a pop song to sound.
Curious, then, after an hour’s worth of sheer menace and sky-opening roar, that The Seer‘s second half opens with its prettiest, most straightforward moment, “Song for a Warrior.” Here, Gira cedes vocal duties to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose mantra, “Use your sword/ and your voice/ and destroy/ then, begin again” serves as an oddly comforting statement of inspiration, paralleling Gira’s own path of destroying and rebuilding his own artistic creations. Given its place on the album, its sheer gentleness comes as a bit of a surprise, but it’s also a necessary reprieve from the path of thunder and chaos that leads toward it and away from it.
Yet while the remaining three tracks on the second disc total a combined 51 minutes, they’re in many ways more conventionally beautiful than much of the album’s harsh, but sublime, first half. The nine-minute “Avatar” is fiercely heroic, galloping upon a clatter of bass and cymbals, a deep low-end rumble and a towering progression of bells. That it rises to an aggressive and, frankly, ass-kicking climax only adds to the argument for it being one of the album’s strongest moments. Though the 19- and 23-minute “A Piece of the Sky” and “The Apostate,” respectively, provide uniquely stunning experiences all their own. Former collaborator Jarboe lends her vocals to the former, a droning, post-rock piece that sets funereal strings against an almost rain-like percussion illusion, and eventual foray into gorgeous folk rock, with instrumental aid from Akron/Family. Yet “The Apostate” is the most truly majestic moment here, a slowly lumbering creature that awakens and breathes, grows and intensify, seethes and soars. As prelude, its first half is all goosebumps and adrenaline; as main event, its second half is profound in its transformation from the corporeal to the transcendent.
One doesn’t just listen to The Seer; one is consumed by it. It overwhelms by design, but is not so confrontational to not invite one back for further exploration or deeper understanding. And, for something so dense and sprawling, that understanding only comes with greater familiarity and a fair amount of patience. Every corner of The Seer contains something at once unsettling and mesmerizing, affecting as it provokes. To even attempt to convey its ferocity in 1,000 words seems insufficient, but I’ll say this — if the past 30 years have been leading up to this moment, it’s a hell of a climax.
Stream: Swans – “The Apostate (edit)”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.