Swans: The Seer

New York noise lords continue their resurrection

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When Michael Gira resurrected Swans back in 2010 and released My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, the band’s first studio album in 14 years, many diehard admirers remarked that this new incarnation of the legendary New York band seemed different somehow, as if the elemental might of previous lineups had been foregone in favour of a more measured and streamlined sonic approach. The live shows that followed proved that Swans were still a formidable proposition and that Michael had lost none of his intensity, but it now transpires that what was witnessed on that tour amounted to a real-time transition.

A vast, sprawling and frequently overwhelming monument to its chief creator’s infernal muse, The Seer is different again, but this time around there’s no mistaking the rejuvenation of Swans’ original skyscraper-levelling heft as it underpins Michael’s relentless evolution as a songwriter.

There is so much music to be absorbed here that no review could ever truly encapsulate the entirety of The Seer’s daunting contents. The opening Lunacy sets the tone with one of the band’s trademark mantras set to an insistent, hallucinatory rhythm, Michael’s dark wordplay jabbing at the senses like a rusty knife thrust from the shadows. Like several tracks here, Mother Of The World commences as a hazy sound-scape before mutating into another beguiling exercise in ecstatic repetition.

Meanwhile, the two hypnotic epics that close the album, A Piece Of The Sky and The Apostate, are dimly redolent of Swans’ original farewell, Soundtracks For The Blind, and yet almost surreally distinctive, as if 30 years of slamming the primal and the cerebral together has led the band to an entirely new mode of expression. In contrast, the sublime avant-folk of Song For A Warrior revels in windswept frailty and elegance. It is the title track that promises to leave all but the hardiest of listeners in a crumpled, exhausted heap. Thirty-two minutes long – that’s three minutes longer than Slayer’s Reign In Blood, incidentally – and as mesmerising as the unerring ebb and flow of a great ocean, its majestic forward grind and incremental evolutionary waves are almost unbearably absorbing, demanding surrender and total immersion. _ _

The Seer’s key moment, however, comes at the start of 93 Ave. B Blues, an amorphous collage of disorientating noise that harks back to the days of Filth and Cop. Like a wickedly obtuse salute to New York City itself, it begins with a burst of soaring woodwind that echoes the famous clarinet glissando at the start of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, before descending into a spiky melee of jarring atonality worth of the Big Apple’s premier jazz terrorist, John Zorn.

By bringing old and new together and reshaping them for his own ends, Gira seems to be reaching for the definitive statement of what his band represents, while basking in the euphoria conjured by his own extraordinary creativity. The Seer is all that and more. Ageless, fearless and peerless: Swans are alive and nothing else comes close.

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.