Some artists and works have a power to eclipse anything that stands close. A popular website (scaleofuniverse.com) shows the scale of a quark, zooming out to a germ, to a man, to a planet and, finally, to the largest known galaxy in the universe. Keep scrolling for hours past its defined outer-limit and there lies Swans. Thirty years on from the birth of Michael Gira's confrontational, challenging, bewildering project, comes The Seer; a two-hour masterpiece that Gira himself claims to be the summation and culmination of the last three decades. A man prone to profound statements, this may yet prove to be merely a sound bite, particularly when noting the fact that the band are showcasing newer material live already, but The Seer is certainly the most accomplished work of his life.
It's an album that doesn't defy comparison as much as render anything with the merest similarity redundant, so wrought is it from start to finish with visceral emotion and vivid imagery, so expertly crafted and yet always organic. Never more so has Gira's comment on the name 'Swans' been more applicable than it is on The Seer; "Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments". It is, at times, malevolent, at times meditative and, at times, masochistic, undoubtedly spiralling out from a single point of focus but without a sense of ego. Gira is always the centre of the storm; a dictator, but one who knows exactly when to afford autonomy to his dependants, and when to outsource. The album's first vocals are echoed by Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, sighing the introduction to The Seer's second CD. This is interesting for two reasons; firstly, it highlights the separation from a project that has always felt cathartic for its protagonist, but, secondly, the songs on which these collaborators feature do not bend to their strengths, rather the collaborators bend to the songs, with Alan and Mimi's voices shrieking with a decidedly non-spiritual pain rarely heard outside of the darker moments on 'The Great Destroyer', and Karen O forsaking her trademark shriek for a calming lull on the album's quietest moment.
Thor Harris, Gira's drummer of choice since the reformation of Swans, is also afforded more space to set the tone for each track; something which is of benefit with his standing as one of the greatest creative percussionists in modern music. As he does on Shearwater's Animal Joy, Thor, at times, becomes the star of the show, possessing an animalistic, unselfish instinct for knowing exactly when to take the lead and when to set the scene; on 'Mother Of The World', his disciplined snare-rolls add gravitas to a barbed riff, whilst his drum-work on the twenty-three minute closer 'The Apostate' is as unhinged and exhilarating as on any western rock album of the last decade or five, veering between euphoric tribal beats and into sheer cacophony.
Which is not to say he casts a shadow; indeed, each element of The Seer is equally integral. Take the title track for example; the droning horns that introduce it are weighted with as much consideration as the snapping guitars that blossom out from beneath them and, equally, Gira's mantra of "I've Seen It All" is delivered with the same belief as the squealing guitars that soon make their presence known. As is, perhaps, inevitable on a track passing the half hour mark, there is an emphasis on repetition, but still there is not a single wasted moment.
To truly compare The Seer in its entirety to other works, you need to look behind the musical realm. Yes, traces can be made to their own Soundtracks For The Blind in the ebbing, dusty soundscapes full of dread on the albums centrepiece, and references can be made to the wisps of Americana in its sparser moments (think Neil Young at his darkest) and the roots of Krautrock evident in the drums, but, as a whole, it evokes the sheer presence of For Whom The Bell Tolls, the breath-taking imagery of War & Piece and the shifting, grinding abyss of House Of Leaves.
One can only hope that Gira is indeed dealing in sound bites and not truths; The Seer shows that thirty years on, the Swans are not only as powerful and as vital as they were three decades ago, but they are even more so.
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