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Swans – The Seer
Label – Young God Records (YG45)
Format – LP, CD
Country – USA
Released – 2012
Genre – Post-punk, post-rock, alternative
The Seer is an ambitious double-album by post-punk pioneers Swans, led by their creative driving force Michael Gira. The band have been active for various periods of time between 1982 and the present, with a changing line-up and several breaks in output. A quick check of the Wikipedia page will show an entire roster of musicians associated with them for the duration of a single album or more, with only Gira remaining a constant throughout the life of the band.
Swans’ output has varied significantly but generally fits into the alternative, post-punk and post-rock genres. Aside from a much earlier EP, The Seer is the only material I have by Swans, I was drawn to it by several reviews in the music press and intrigued by the weirdly interesting cover (the back cover completes the joke).
The first listen to both disks was slightly underwhelming, I couldn’t quite make head or tail of what all the fuss was about. Repeated listening sessions have persuaded me that this dark, sometimes droning album contains some very accomplished musicianship and songwriting. Songs vary in length from 2 minutes (The Wolf) to 32 minutes (The Seer) with many different compositions in between.
Disk one opens with Lunacy, a track which in many ways acts as preparation for the tone of the songs to come. Repetitive in rhythm and in lyrics, its blueprint of heavy, effects-laden guitars and sometimes dreamy, indistinct vocals set a pattern for the rest of the album. The next track, Mother of the world, is a breathy affair with some excellent guitar work and changes of pace that leave you simultaneously bewildered and bemused. The vocals in the last part of this song remind me of Nick Cave in the way the lyrics are intoned; I don’t think Gira is quite the wordsmith that Cave is but the folksy, storytelling lilt lends the song a little of the Australian’s sinister and maudlin atmosphere.
The Wolf is a short, almost spoken-word track which bridges the gap to the epic 32-minute The Seer. This track is the magnum opus of the album and showcases the variety of musical styles and skills of the players. Transitioning from quiet, plodding passages to louder, driving drum-and-guitar walls of noise, this sums up the entire theme of the album better than any of the other songs. This is great modern post-rock of the type so well practiced by the likes of Godspeed you! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, among others. Just as you feel the track is meandering to a close, it ramps up the tempo again near the end with some indecipherable lyrics and sawing guitar before fading out….
We then move straight into The Seer Returns, a more vocal-oriented track but one that doesn’t deviate too much from the atmosphere we have become used to. The usual guitar and drum template of repeated rhythms remains, providing a solid backdrop upon which Gira can build his drawling vocals. There is a kind of folk-americana vibe to this track, but always with the slightly sinister undertone that makes you feel a little uncomfortable whilst listening to it.
Next up we have the instrumental 93 Ave. B Blues, which contains some screeching strings and feedback-strewn guitars along with staccato drums and some faint moaning. Not much to write home about in truth, but an interesting interlude before the last track on the disk; The Daughter brings the Water. Silly title aside, this one is a fairly reserved track in terms of the instrumentation and the vocals, neither of which get too excited but this draws the disk to a solemn conclusion.
Disk two starts off with Song for a Warrior which has vocals performed by guest Karen O (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). I don’t know whether it is because of the female voice on this track but it does sound a little more upbeat than the previous songs. The words are more distinct, even when Gira joins in with the backing vocals, and the sightly plodding guitar track doesn’t detract from the overall lighter feel.
Next up we have Avatar which is probably my favourite piece across both disks; this contains a repetitive, insistent rhythm which is more driving and powerful than anything we have previously heard – at least compressed into a single passage of music. Vocals again join the music about halfway through the track, and are typically sombre and downbeat. The song seems to wind down to nothing before tinkling piano notes suddenly unleash a crescendo of guitar and drums which last for the final energetic minute of the track.
The penultimate track is titled A Piece of the Sky and this returns to the lengthy, post-rock influenced sound of The Seer on disk one. We have all of the usual ingredients, guitars twinned with wailing strings and changes of pace and volume to mislead and intrigue. About halfway through this one, the insistent drum beat returns and we once again follow a repetitive guitar-led track until the final few minutes of vocals and chiming piano notes.
The climax of this epic is the sprawling The Apostate, 23 minutes long and sounding like the end of the world. Echoing notes lead into brash drums and massed guitar noise to beat you into submission over the first 13 minutes, before morphing into another chiming punk-influenced guitar and spitting vocals section (with suitably surreal and non-PC lyrics). The track retains its hectic pace right up until a couple of minutes from the end, where it suddenly runs out of steam and kind of stumbles to a close.
Overall I would say that this is one of those albums that gets played rarely, partly due to the length and partly due to the mood it sets. It’s not something you can really put on as background music (say if you are reading a book at the same time), it rewards you by listening out for the interesting key and chord changes from the musicians and the exceptional way in which some of the longer tracks are crafted to keep you listening for the duration of the album. I don’t think it’s good enough to get me rushing out to buy all of the Swans’ back catalogue; but it’s an album that from time to time fits in nicely with my listening mood and certainly keeps you interested.
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I knew nothing of this artist before this arrived for review, just a vague feeling I had listened to something by him on Spotify once.