The Seer is about aggression, as Swans often are. It is an angry album, full of wails and cacophony, disruption and distortion. The aggression is often about volume, as cymbals crash and guitars wail and human voices scream. It is sometimes about speed, whether a quickly-strummed guitar approximates a drone, or breakneck beats propel an experimental, improvisational piece headlong into its next movement. Every so often, it’s even about words, as in the constant scream of the title of opener “Lunacy”, or the exclamation of “GET! OUT!” on closer “The Apostate”. It is brutal and uncompromising in its assault.
And in an aggressive way, The Seer is about patience. It is over 100 minutes of music over 11 tracks on two discs. There are tracks of 19, 23, and 32(!) minutes. The title track features a ten-minute build that seems to climax at the 11th minute, and yet that “climax” lasts over ten minutes itself, crashing and tumbling forward into a quiet, but no less intense, coda. Akron/Family prove their part as one of the most vital parts of Swans frontman Michael Gira’s Young God Records imprint as they fearlessly spend the first eight or nine minutes of “A Piece of the Sky” creating formless soup. Repetition is a potent weapon in Swans’ arsenal, and they use it to great effect here.
Still, The Seer is about the quiet. Gira’s revival of the Swans name in 2010 after 14 years of inactivity has brought a maturity to the band, an artistic sense that recognizes that all the aggression and volume in the world doesn’t mean anything without something to contrast it all to. While the aforementioned incantation of “LUNACY! LUNACY!” is perhaps the track of the same name’s defining characteristic, it is the quiet, acoustic coda, in which Gira imparts a defeated, repeated “Your childhood is over,” that truly inspires horror in the listener. “The Wolf” features an almost unaccompanied Gira, beaten and broken, barely able to croak out his words before the bagpipe drone of “The Seer” revives him. And then there is Karen O., famous frontwoman of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, offering a shockingly traditional and tuneful song called “Song for a Warrior”, a red herring of an opening to the album’s experimental second disc.
Because really, The Seer is about art, it is about freedom, it is about history, it is about the breaking of boundaries, it is about the will of a human being inspired to create. It is about the earth, the environment, about man’s relationship with God, about collaboration and singularity of vision. It is about all these things, and it is a fascinating document of what can happen when an artist happens to have, and chooses to use, full artistic license to create whatever he wants, however he wants.
The Seer is about everything Swans have ever been by being nothing like anything they have ever released. Gira, at 58 years old, seems oddly content in his rage, finding comfort in the difficulty of his music. He invites collaborators old (the brilliant Jarboe returns to Swans for two tracks) and new (members of Low contributed to that brilliant opener that is “Lunacy”). It is not fun, it is not catchy, and it is not happy. It tests the listener, and then rewards those willing to persevere. It is infuriating, and it is fascinating.
The Seer is about triumph.