Swans' new album a rewarding endeavor, if you have the patience

Review: Despite some lengthy tracks, the band's latest release is worth your time.

There’s a cinematic quality woven throughout The Seer, Swans’ newest album. Over the course of its 119 minutes, you can feel the solipsistic stoicism of Kubrick, the industrial dystopia of Lang, the ephemeral spirituality of Malick, the grueling suspense of Leone.

From the first round of pummeling drum rolls, “Tubular Bells”-esque pianos, and eerie chanting in the crowded opening track “Lunacy,” The Seer is a dense, frequently difficult album, but it becomes surprisingly accessible after a few listens. If you can make it through the album, that is.

In the 32-minute title track (the first of three 20+ minute songs, though “song” is loosely used here as the album feels and moves like one continuous excursion), Swans ran the gamut of post-rock experimentalism; the droning mechanical drudge and grind, gears rolling over each other sequentially, ethereally, undeterred, the droning moaning from some unnamed apparition and the single bursts of guitar-like equipment on an assembly line stamping metal over and over. It’s ugly and sometimes unpleasant but it isn’t abrasive.

Because the band functions so organically, with no one instrument soloing or breaking out of unison, the music moves along fluidity. That juxtaposition of uncompromising noise and lucid affability is what makes The Seer so successful. It’s a thinking album: put it on while you read or write, while you take notes, when you’re taking a long walk at night (as long as you’re not in the seedy part of town), when you want to sit back pensively and allow the wonders of the world to gestate within you as the album churns like an electric mixer. It’s pervasive background music.

Swans’ original incarnation prowled the No Wave scene from 1982 to 1996. Their music was even more jarring then, and only barely qualified as accessible. They (meaning Swans’ Trent Reznor-esque leader and producer, Michael Gira) went on hiatus and didn’t release another album until My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky in 2010. That album starts as a swirling, gyrating, calamitous, cosmic cacophony. It’s more an experience than a song. For four minutes it’s all jingling chimes and thunderous drum pounding and swelling atmosphere, a sky ready to explode, before the drums roll like horseback gun slingers, galloping towards their next unlucky passerby. The song explodes into torrent of tremolo guitars and scratchy synth. Calculated chaos: drum rolls, guitar feedback, an organ or synthesizer or some keyed thing hammering persistently, everything rebellious. The instruments on My Father obey a loose structure but they’re all renegade guns, more Man With No Name than Wild Bunch. It hints at the cinematic grandiose that permeates The Seer.

The Seer is as caustic as its predecessor, but it’s more meditative, if cryptically so. It’s dedicated, pained but unflinching, a killer ready to deliver his fatal strike but patient, making the victim (you) wait for four, five, six minutes before the tune shifts and something erupts. That’s not to say it’s boring, though. If you can get through “Shh/Peaceful” then you shouldn’t have a problem with The Seer.

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Tree of Life or Stalker, films that share the same insolence towards formal narrative structure as The Seer, Swans are at times as maddening as they is beguiling, The Seer doesn’t push boundaries so much as it transcends them. It flows and carries you with it, pushing past rocky spots and not pausing for damage reports. It wants to explore the human spirit and brood over the heart’s afflictive loneliness. Its calculated repetition transcends tedium. 


Photo via joeri-c / Flickr

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