Posted in Music Reviews, Swans

Swans – The Seer – Review

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For some reason I’ve been on an inaccessible album spree lately. If it’s daunting, dense, maybe even despised, I’m there. I have no idea what’s brought about this sudden interest in the uncompromisingly experimental, but it’s here, so I might as well make verbose use of it.

So, Swans! These guys have been on my radar for a while, if for no other reason than they have a fascinating history. They started as an abrasive no-wave band, dressed up their misanthropy with gothic rock, went uncategorizable with Soundtracks for the Blind, broke up, came back, started making incredibly daunting post-rock, and are now moving into a phase the details of which are yet unknown (if any Swans fans are reading this, feel free to correct me). That’s a path that HAS to have made for some interesting music, though my experience with them is severely limited as of this writing. Thankfully, The Seer and Soundtracks for the Blind have captured my imagination in ways that ensure that won’t be the case for long.

So, some basic facts for those unfamiliar: The Seer is an incredibly dense post-rock album. It’s two hours long, divided into two discs, and builds its length around indescribably dark arrangements that play demented grooves hammered home by unceasing repetition. It’s not for everyone. It’s not for most people. But I dug it, so there you go.

Talking broadly about the album is difficult, but here’s a few big-picture quibbles. The production and mixing are nothing short of incredible, getting the most out of every sound. The only cases when it gets mushy, understandably, are when the volume reaches absurd levels. The grooves themselves are usually well written and lend themselves well to repetition, especially the ones on “Lunacy” and “Avatar.” The lyrics don’t do much for me but at least they go through the trouble of not usually being clichéd. The album in general doesn’t need to be as long as it does. I know the aim of the repetition is to make you feel trapped and terrified, and it does that, but there are several moments where it goes on so long it becomes numbing, and numbness is NOT what you want in an intense experience like this. These issues prevent me from giving this album a top score, but otherwise this is a brilliant version of what it wants to be. Let’s dive in! Hahahahahahahahaohgodi’mgoinginsane.

I can’t think of many better, more representative openers then “Lunacy.” It’s actually one of the most accessible songs on the album, a measly six minutes long and divided into three easily separated sections. The first is an ominous strumming that builds gradually (occasionally being joined by other sounds, like tinkly keyboards and pained rhythmic moans) into a brilliant repeated VROOM that builds into an abrupt climax. After the climax calms, a chorus that could straight-facedly be described as “demonic” says some creepy stuff about things. One of my favorite moments on the entire album is the flute that pops in the background at the beginning of the second “verse”, if it can be called that. But we’ve got to have another build before songs’ end, this case the vroom comes back and is propelled by the semi-iconic LUNACYLUNACYLUNACYLUNACYLUNACY refrain. This build is actually real short, and quickly turns to something a lot creepier: a minimalist atmospheric part with the same chorus telling the listener repeatedly that “your childhood is over.” Yeah, I already knew that, I’m in college now, thanks for playing along Swans. The echoing cymbals in this part are just fabulous.

And like I said, that’s one of the most accessible songs on the album! “Mother of the World” completely destroys any semblance of sanity immediately with its incessant DU-DUN DU-DUN DU-DUN DU-DUN DU-DUN percussion, mimicking a heartbeat as its backed by an incessant exhale. It just pounds your skull in, alleviated a bit by some higher regal notes from an instrument I’m having a hard time discerning and some creepy falsetto vocalizations. After four minutes of this, Swans puts the hammer down and fills your now suitably broken head with some more creepy vocals and a thick organ atmosphere, gothic without being cheesy. We finally get another groove after that fades out, this time built around guitar and piano with a rising wall of sound behind them. Michael Gira takes this time to step in and say…something, I don’t know or care honestly. What I DO care about is how dry and discomforting his vocals are, like he’s the talking body of someone who died in the desert. After he shuts up, we get our final buildup with rattling noises in the back. Though the whole thing is creepy, I like how this song goes from unrepentantly abrasive to twistedly beautiful. A very satisfying ten minutes, all in all.

“The Wolf” isn’t even two minutes long, a minimalist folk song with more creepy vocals and a melody that reminds me of that old Disney Robin Hood movie for some inexplicable reason. Some natural sounds become background about halfway through. It’s not magnificent, but it’s a nice breather before the title track.

The title track…oh boy, the title track. Thirty-two minutes long, it opens by slapping you with one of the loudest drones I’ve ever heard. I can definitely hear bagpipes in there, but otherwise this is just an impenetrable wall of sound. And a good one too! This is definitely the best drone on the entire album, one with an interesting texture that manages to pull off some electronic sounds without feeling out of place. It goes on for about two minutes before being phased out by some more incessant rattles and foreshadowing bells. Another groove takes over, and it’s my favorite on the entire album. A combination of distant strumming and a massive dark percussion beat, it’s super atmospheric and driving. It carries the feeling of being watched and chased, and only gets better with the introduction of frenetic drumming and terrifying pitched-down Gira vocals going ISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALL. This is definitely one of the grooves that never gets old, because even when it’s static it simply sounds awesome. It builds tension marvelously for a good long while before finally climaxing at around the thirteen-minute mark. We hear the climactic crash! Wait, make that two crashes. Three. Five. Fifteen. Oh, this is the next groove, isn’t it? The track’s only halfway over, you silly goose. The crashes go on for a looooong time, occasionally backed by some manner of bell or screeching low guitar part, and the effect is maddening. Occasionally they’ll do a slightly different crash, as if they’re leading into an actual ending, just to toy with you. This is definitely one of the best examples of the album making you feel trapped, alone with the incessant beat. The other instruments that pop in play off the crash extremely well, By the time the crashes end, it’s well over twenty minutes into the track. So, the first ten minutes were awesome, the second were interestingly oppressive, the last are unfortunately a bit dull. It’s just another atmospheric soundscape, with a few cool touches like dripping water and cavernous piano notes but not much in the way of the blistering intensity that informs the best parts of the album. A little rest is nice after that whole ordeal, but not eight minutes of it. Thankfully, the last four or so minutes introduce another groove, with another creepy vocal refrain and an unsettling guitar sling that sounds a bit like “Screen Shot” from To Be Kind. It’s got a tribal flavor to it, fitting the “seer” concept well. So yeah, it’s not a perfect track, but as far as half-hour long songs go you could do much, MUCH worse, and it’s worth it for the first twenty minutes alone.

“The Seer Returns” is the weakest track on the album. It’s got another plodding groove, which is good but underwhelming compared to the one in the middle part of the title track. My main problem with it is that it doesn’t build to much. A few elements get added but there’s not much noticeable tension. Mostly it’s just kind of dull.

Thankfully, this is immediately made up for with the absolutely skin-shedding “93 Ave. Blues.” It opens with a screechy, horrifying soundscape with some hellish moans and unending dark ambience. About halfway through we get some AMAZING percussion, coming from performers that sound like they are literally drumming like their life depends on it. The tension is INCREDIBLE. Fantastic song.

Disc One closes with another creepy folk song, “The Daughter Brings the Water”, which is just sort of alright. It’s got a nice acoustic riff backing it, some great creepy vocals from Gira (who sounds like he really could use some of that water). It’s not very evocative, though it’s cool while it lasts.

Disc Two opens with the last of these folk songs, the unironically gorgeous “Song for a Warrior.” Great lethargic female vocals, a beautiful melody, and Talk Talk-style minimalism with the keyboard and guitar. It’s simply breathtaking, even if it does carry an obvious air of tension and uncertainty.  The last part introduces Gira’s unnerving voice and a brief flicker of building noise, but even that is a relief compared to everything else.

Things get even better with the nine-minute “Avatar”, my favorite song on the album. It kicks off with an absolutely brilliant groove built around dark ambience and an ominous bell. The odd thing is that it doesn’t sound scary, it sounds epic. Instead of building tension, it builds scale. More fabulous percussion propels it along. A little under the five-minute mark, the vocals come in with an absolutely sweeping melody that defines “disturbing ear candy.” The distant guitar is also one of the sonic highlights of the entire album. And of COURSE the final stretch is another insane, ear-destroying buildup that’s nothing short of amazing. Perfect song.

“A Piece of the Sky” is slightly weaker but still an incredible experience. First is a wall of fire ambience, then a wall of ethereal vocals, then a wall of some other mystical sounds I can’t even decipher, then a wall of high rattling chaos, which actually doesn’t sound as abrasive as it could. About nine and a half minutes in, we finally get our thunderous groove, which sounds…nice? Pleasant? Freeing, possibly? At least in comparison to the rest of the album. The dark undertones are still there and get more prominent as it goes on, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling like a release. There’s not much variety in its unceasing jangle, but I never get sick of it. Fourteen minutes in, we get another lovely change of pace with some nice strumming and unnerving Gira vocals. The backing vocal harmonies are rather pleasant as well. And we close with some more rattles.  It’s a very cohesive, even somewhat lush, nineteen minutes.

All this is to prepare us for the epic conclusion, the twenty-three minutes “Apostate.” This song doesn’t screw around. It opens with another atmospheric drone, reminiscent of “93 Ave. Blues.” The frantic strings that hang subtly in the background add a wonderful dimension of shrill terror, but otherwise this is one of the more ordinary drones on the album. Thankfully, about four minutes in we get the beginnings of our groove for the evening, also not the strongest but acceptable nonetheless. The noise picks up at the six-minute mark, with some shrill something-or-others and punchy drums. The drums speed up into an incredible rush, moving through different percussive textures and crushing crashes. The repeated slams take over about halfway through, eventually transforming into another epic bell groove at the thirteen-minute mark. Gira says his final something something. I have to say, this song doesn’t strike me as one of the stronger on the album, much less a completely satisfying finale, but it does have one major notch in its favor: an incredible ending. It’s a drum solo. Percussion has a major highlight of the entire album, and now we’ve got numerous drums just pummeling each other into a rough cascade of sound. Perfect finale.

I would be lying if I said The Seer completely grabs me beginning to end. I much prefer the “stuff in as many ideas as inhumanly possible” approach of Soundtrack for the Blind, and as much as I like a lot of the atmospheres and grooves on here sometimes I can’t dig on them for very long. This is, nonetheless, a titanic effort of an album with some mind-blowing material. Heavily recommended to all who can stomach experimental music.

…and that’s it. I don’t have an epic conclusion. It’s a good album. Screw all y’all.

Music: 4/5

Identity/Themes: 4/5

Lyricism: 3/5

Vocals: 5/5

Diversity: 2/5 Well, there’s those folk songs…

Resonance: 5/5

SOUNDTRACK TO: the brain of someone whose gone insane from gaining supernatural knowledge. LUNACYLUNACYLUNACYISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALLISEEITALL

8.5/10

Best Songs:

  1. Avatar
  2. Lunacy
  3. The Seer
  4. Song For A Warrior
  5. A Piece of the Sky

 

Worst Song: The Seer Returns

Listen here (for pleasure of course):

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Author:

I'm a teenager who writes about music, movies, and other popular art in a style somewhere between George Starostin, Bob Chipman, John McFerrin, and sometimes William Zinsser. It's worse then it sounds.

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