Swans ‘The Seer’ is a monster record. Its an epic, a behemoth, an aural odyssey. It takes effort to do ‘The Seer’. You have to dedicate time to this one. You almost have to set aside a weekend. It’s like all the very best things in life. You have to really work at it but once you get it, it gives back in droves. I have been contemplating this particular review for weeks but ,as with every Swans listen, I have had to get myself in just the right place to do it. As I said you have to have time but also its quite an anti social record in a busy household and not everyone appreciates listening as much as me so I started open listening but was soon told in no uncertain terms to climb into my headphones (which is a great place to really appreciate what really happening in this record).
Anyway this is a record I bought second hand last year after buying ‘To Be Kind’. I had seen it pass from a distance but had not looked very closely. I had heard good things about it but thought I should probably keep well away from old rockers even though Michael Gira had always been a very principled and forward thinking man. By 2014 the curiosity was getting far too much and ‘To Be Kind’ swooped in from left of centre to give me a big aural kick up the arse. It was a similarly epic record requiring application and from there I looked backwards.
The Swans have been around for years grinding out some of the ugliest music of the late eighties and nineties. Gira abandoned the Swans ship for a good few years to concentrate on ‘Angels of Light’ but then wished to go out touring again and brought together a band of what appear to be child murderers and circus freaks….I’m certain you’ll know what I mean when you view their picture. Norman Westberg was a long time Swans guitarist, Christoph Hahn and Phil Pulio also played previously. Chris Pravdica and Thor Harris, a gong banging hairy muscle bound percussionist, joined in 2010 to produce the ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope to the Sky’ record.
‘The Seer’ was the second in this series of monster albums based not on jaunty pop songs but grinding noise terror and most importantly atmosphere. This band sound like no one else. There are elements of noise rock and metal and post rock etc etc but they are entirely indefinable. There are repeated themes, drones, masses of percussion including dulcimers and bells and layers and layers and layers of layers.
It all starts fairly tamely with ‘Lunacy’. Flick flack guitars and a passing screech produced probably by Hahn’s lap steel. Yes, a lap steel. Not played as you would expect. It is used to make yelps and squeals. The vocal brings to mind a Indian chant. Gira soon tells you that your childhood is over. You ask yourself what it is that he is trying to tell you. What he is saying is that its going to get a whole lot more difficult for all of us.
Apostate is a proper 23 minute epic. Air raid sirens are heard overhead. Appropriate for what’s coming. Its all quite subtle at first. This serves up as warm up time. I saw them in the summer and the first 20 minutes were dedicated to Phil Puleo playing cymbals and Thor playing tubular bells. For Gira build up and time taken are most important. Its all about layering until submission. Then after 5 or 6 minutes the power starts with what seems to be about 30 people hitting as many percussive instruments as possible progressing to great percussive thuds of guitar between what appears to be bursts of Thor and Pulio gunfire. It’s not until 13 minutes that any king of groove starts on Thor’s bells and Gira starts his vocal shouting, screaming ‘g g g g get out……. we’re on a ladder to God’ gradually progressing to what sounds like a coven of witches engaged in dark worship and a huge earthquake.
‘A Piece of Sky’ is an ethereal piece starting with fire or water or something elemental. A choir of Buddhist angels appear to hover over drones and then the dulcimers start again really adding to the ethereal feel (are there Christmas bells in there)leading to a fairly identifiable riff in turn leading to a rather tuneful ending unusually
’94 Ave B Blues’ commences with clarinet whale song that turns into rather sinister and darker wolves in the forest and culminates in an extraordinary percussive firework display. I’m not making this up
‘Daughter to the Water’ and Song for a Warrior’ are a couple of fairly standard tracks bringing in Karen O for ‘Warrior’ in a rather melodic end to the third side.
Back on track with Mother of the World. A repeated riff allows Puleo room to punctuate with sharp drum stabs as Gira breathes in and out and in and out. Avatar again brings Thor’s bells to the fore. The next huge tracks are the title track and ‘The Seer Returns’. Commencing with, wait for it, bagpipes, it is a master class in building tension. The mantra ‘I see it all, I see it all’ repeats and repeats while the band build behind droning up to pure sludge to a crescendo of huge hits each one sounding like an end chord for about 10 minutes extending the pain. And I can vow through experience that a Swans gig hurts. They are soooo loud you can feel odd chest movements as the hits burst through you. The final drones of The Seer pass directly into ‘Returns’ and see’s out the record. Of course the Cd version is entirely differently arranged with ‘Apostate’ last which I think is the correct position for it.
All in all this is an extraordinary lesson in drone and percussion. Puleo and Harris really excel and timing is everything on this album. It rather pours water on any claim that 60 year old guys cant bring something new to modern music when you compare them with bands half their age happy to copy the music of the past. My son was certainly taken by surprise by them. The Swans are planning their last album as we speak. I, for one can’t wait to get another dose of this brand of (grand)dad rock. Oh by the way. Please go buy this album. Gira expressly asks you not to upload it onto the internet on the sleeve although it is there. So I will not direct you there myself as I think he’ll be round to kick my head in.