(Somewhat) Mellowed with Age
Few bands still going today in independent rock could argue a reputation that precedes them as well as New York’s Swans. A legacy of uncompromising music, punishing noise and an overall outsider aesthetic is as honored a merit badge as any band could flaunt, and yet with The Seer, it’s evident the band was anxious to do more. How much more? Well, even for a band that is no stranger to bursting album lengths, the two-hour run time is startling in and of itself. However, what matters more than the time this album demands of your physical presence is how long it demands of your attention.
Though Swans’ initial reputation as industrial strength grinders has wavered in favor of a plethora of diverse textures, a cut like “Mother Earth” still jolts you around hypnotically for several minutes, later to whirl you around with some Faust-recalling weirdness. Such jarring sounds are offset by the positively enraptured chants of opener “Lunacy.”
At times, Swans seem to have undergone the same transformation Nick Cave underwent at a certain point during his career. Neither mellowed too abruptly of course, but the same kind of movement from Nick Cave’s early Birthday Party recordings to 2008’s Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! can also be detected in Swans’ evolution, both sonically and aesthetically. No doubt, a nearly 10 year silence through the entirety of the 2000s helped predicate this change for Michael Gira and company, and with more expansive terrain to wander, the exotic and chaotic title track seems unabashedly at home.
The relatively shorter pieces here are funny in that with the beautiful Karen O-sung ballad, “Song for a Warrior,” and the more unsettling, “The Wolf,” there seems to be a concerted effort to keep them as simple and minimalistic as possible. Both, as well as the third and only other song under five minutes, “Daughter Brings the Water,” are largely based around subdued but tasteful acoustic guitar figures. One would think that traditionally, the shorter songs on a given album are going to end up the most bustling and compact. Not so with The Seer. As in almost prog-like fashion, the smaller tracks serve as shallow breaths between long, pandemonium-stricken bellows—namely the title track (32 minutes) and “Apostate” (23 minutes).
Overall, the adventurous, broad-scoped tracks that comprise The Seer suggest Swans are really trying to push their boundaries and achieve what might have proved elusive to them from their outset, as well as in their early-2K “comeback.” It is nice to hear a band in that mode, and proceeding with no less energy than was held in their early, confrontational work.