Best of 2012: Swans – The Seer

The notion that Swans are an active musical project still boggles my brain. But what’s more important is the quality of their output post-reunion, both live and in the studio.

After their last record, a relatively successful collection of intense Michael Gira songs, the band set off on a lengthy tour during which the group developed an intensive and menacing new style of stretching old and new material into endlessly cacophonous clattering grooves. Like a plough working the same furrow over and over until the furrow is a canyon. Now they have returned in the year 2012 with as intense and out-there a record as they’ve ever made, and one that finally lives up to the promise of their powerful live milieu.

And I'm hungry like the wolf. And I have Michael Gira's teeth.
And I’m hungry like the wolf. And I have Michael Gira’s teeth.

A mere glimpse at the track listing reveals this; The Seer is a double-album with two songs around 20 minutes long, and a third at over 30 minutes. Two of those three tracks, the title-track and “Apostate”, along with others such as “Avatar” and “Mother of the World”, work on a principle of finding a rhythm and pounding that rhythm to death with a visceral and primal sense of purpose. Gira describes the foundation of this music as “that deep sex death place in your stomach“. It’s like a headache, a muscle-spasm, leg cramp and an orgasm, all at once.

And the result is one of the best records of this year.

Alongside these tracks, Gira returns with a handful of more song-oriented material, another important tenet of Swans’ modus operandi, and the primary focus of his previous project The Angels of Light. “The Seer Returns” straddles that blurry line between the two projects that My Father Will Guide My Up a Rope to the Sky did – which is fine by me, because I love Angels of Light, and I’m glad the experience of making that music has fed back into the development of Swans.

“Song for a Warrior” features guest vocalist Karen O, doing a sterling job here on by far the most languid and reflective track on the album. It’s the kind of song I could play to my parents and they wouldn’t think I was weird. It also comes at exactly the right moment in the pacing, as the band ramps up for a wholly draining final 50 minutes… Yes,that’s right, the last three tracks on this 11 track set comprise 50 whole minutes. That’s the kind of thing you’re dealing with when you come to this record.

So the thing Swans do could be described as noise rock, but their noise is not constructed from distortion, but from a large collection of instruments hitting a note at the exact same time, with the force of a sledgehammer, over and over. Their aim is to overwhelm your body and mind.

And let me say once again Swans are not fucking around with their aim. They threw everything at the wall, and most of it stuck. The parts that didn’t stick went right through. And then threw even more at the wall for good measure. And then they kept throwing stuff at the wall until the weight of what was on the wall, and all the holes left behind caused the wall to fall over and the whole building collapsed on your head.

Making it to the end of The Seer is a not a test of endurance exactly, but it is demanding, and if you let it it will suck every last drop of adrenaline out of your glands and leave you fizzling with lactic acid, feeling simultaneously empty and yet full, abused and yet satisfied. It’s muscular and lean and violent. It caresses you with one hand and chokes you with the other. It resonates in harmony with your bones and it writhes in your gut like a tapeworm.

I can think of no other band than Swans who have that same effect, and I can think of no other Swans album that is a more accurate statement of this intent, pre or post-reunion. And I salute them for pulling this one out of the bag this late. The Seer is my album of the year.

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