This time Richard has me listening to The Seer by Swans released in 2012, another one that is completely new to me. I clearly haven’t been paying attention!
Essentially this album is two hours of gruelling noise lurching between churning cacophonic dirge and tortuous ecstatic drone. I really enjoyed it. It comes from a place where everything is too loud or too quiet and radio stations can’t quite be tuned in. It feels totally free to go anywhere, and use anything. If it uses the timbre of rock – guitars and drums – it is not tied to four beats in the bar or to singing about baby love. A song can be a minute and a half or it could be half an hour. Sometimes there is complexity, sometimes they just pick two notes and dig in.
Lunacy opens things simply but soon dissolves into repetition in a hypnotic, shamanistic way first of the title, then the line ‘childhood is over’. The repeats lead you to abandon expectation and invite you contemplate the dark void of the present. The mixture of acoustic and electronic is very well orchestrated to blend into one sound. When artists are also producing (as here) this doesn’t always happen. It allows the drone to take on a trance like religious nature.
Mother of the World develops this feeling. Where Wilco could never seem to find a groove they wanted to stay with, Swans seem to be able to make one out of two notes and some heavy breathing. And they stay with it for a long time here – it feels like some Post Rock ventilator – keeping itself alive. Over this a processed abstract vocal comes and beneath it all a drone, but there are a lot of layers which reveal themselves very slowly but never seem to quite disappear – song has words intoned rather than sung. The overall effect is a gently ecstatic but rather unsafe trance. The end sounds immense.
The Wolf (the cover art depicts a wolf with human teeth) is a kind of short unproduced-sounding interlude. It’s a close to the mic vocal that draws you back into closer range just before you get blasted away again by the title track – which is the centerpiece of the album.
The Seer comes in at over half an hour and it fills it pretty well. It begins with a long sustained swell of sound – huge and very rich in tone. The rhythmic section slowly eases in – more like a distant train – coming in slightly off balance as the hi-hat suggests motion but the heavily accented drums roll around. Layers of looped guitars underlie it almost like a landscape through which the rhythm moves. Gradually the snare drum takes over the hi-hat motino building the intensity. The vocal – ‘I see it all I see it all’- comes in repeating – a panoramic godlike consciousness encompassing this unstable world. The drums drive on – very close now, almost on top of us. Guitars’ pitch also rises – a controlled frenzy. It keeps rising – how long can it go on? On top of this breaks a wave of distorted guitar. Or is it? I can’t tell anymore. It is almost total noise. Eventually the sound breaks up into single doomy stabs with a residual tingling of feedback behind it. It really is a massive sound. They very very gradually slow in frequency. Each irregular one feels meant, like an axe blow. eventaully they dissipate and we are left with echoing darkness. Out of the darkness comes…yes, it is, it’s a harmonica! But it sounds lost – a bit like the call of a bird on a lonely evening as darkness gathers around it. Tones come in and out of existence never really settling anywhere. The drums come back – it all wakes up – the same vocabularoy of sounds are all playing together now making a sort of hideous sense. The voice on top of it all is like an internal monologue half heard and felt rather than understood.
Finally it ends leaving you pretty exhasted, but The Seer Returns is up next. It starts almost as an ethereal aftershock of The Seer – but becomes a more another kind of dismal march whose purpose remains obscure. 93 Avenue Blues which follows sounds like whales discovering feedback – another amorphous and unresolved ethereal swamp, culminating with a storm of violent noise in which drums are the only recognisable element. The Daughter Brings the Water is another glimps of intimacy in the maelstrom. It works as a wind down before the end of disc one. We all need a breather.
Disc two is more or less in the same vein as disc one. Song for a Warrior begins – a relatively songlike song with a vocal that sounds like the daughter we know Lou Reed and Nico never had. Very reminiscent of a kind of extended Velvet Underground the first time I heard it, but now more like Grandaddy. Kind of disaffected but sweet. The gentle interludes work well to break up what might otherwise be completely undigestible but the real business soon resumes. Avatar launches us back into a churning dark instrumental turbulence, this time led by what sounds like a kind of doorbell chime. Apostase finishes things off as though Swans were trying to lift a piece of heavy machinery out of a deep and dark place with music. The end sounds like an amplifed hailstorm.
Overall I thought The Seer was highly original and very strong. I will keep listening to it. Thanks Richard!
Richard’s Endtroduction: The Seer is the second album by the reformed Swans. It’s not the pulverising noise rock (neo-No Wave?) of their early days or the delicate gothy sound of their major label years, but some kind of hybrid. A major development. It’s complex emotional music full of drama – the kind you get in a major storm. And it’s my favourite album of their’s to date…thanks, David!