It’s a beautiful thing to witness a band rising from its own ashes. In a time when washed-up musicians can command an absurd paycheck for going through the motions of a reunion tour, Swans’ return feels like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. Instead of reforming for All Tomorrow’s Parties to play Children of God and fading back into the abyss, Swans are marching into the future with a limit-transcending force scarcely matched by any band currently plateauing into its prime. There is no stronger evidence for this force than The Seer, which will emerge as one of Michael Gira and Swans’ definitive statements. Its expansion of the borders of their back catalog is so vast that it renders much of the old records nigh unrecognizable, and yet it also in a sense completes of all of Swans’ previous work, the end result of Gira’s constant refinement of the sounds and ideas that compose the group’s foundation. The Seer is a massive statement, and it’s clear from interviews that Gira can barely contain his own excitement about Swans’ new direction.
All that scope does not come without a cost. Gira states that The Seer is the result of 30 years of work and that it drove him broke in the process, and yet he still claims it’s unfinished (perhaps the distillation process will continue over their next tour). Its 119 minutes will exhaust even the most prepared listener: not only is the vast majority of that running time an electrifying, pounding assault, its repetitious patterns stretch each song to a tension just at the edge of tolerability. The album’s themes are as heavy as they get: ecstasy, power, love, family, the body, madness, war, god. Three of its eleven songs push 20 minutes, with the title track clocking in at over 32. Barring “The Daughter Brings the Water” and “Song for a Warrior” (which are welcome breaks), The Seer’s difficulty finds no equal in Swans’ canon. It’s the Moby Dick to Gira’s Ahab (and Melville); I wouldn’t be surprised to find a gold doubloon nailed to the dashboard of Swans’ tour vehicle.
“Despite what you might have heard or presumed, my quest is to spread light and joy through the world,” Gira states in a note for the album’s press material. That’s a hard fucking battle. To find ecstasy, let alone to spread it, requires the release of extreme pressures. The Seer reads like an exploration of divine madness. Or rather, it reads as if the album’s conception, arrangement, and recording all derived from a state of ecstatic mania and so epitomize it, providing an extended window into a mind in the grips of a vast power but limited by its own human frailty. I’m referring here not to a mental illness, but to an altered state. This is apparent already in the first track, “Lunacy,” where for a large part of the song Gira and Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker chant “lun-a-cy, lun-a-cy, lun-a-cy…” repeatedly, as if conjuring the moon to descend from the heavens to fill their innocent souls with knowledge.
Chanting recurs in “The Seer,” this time by Gira alone: “I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all, I’ve seen it all…” The image of the all-seeing eye comes to mind. Atop an unfinished pyramid, this eye becomes a symbol of the gradual movement of human endeavor towards the omniscience of god. But here we sense that The Seer (i.e., the character) has skipped a few steps. Transgression into the divine and forbidden knowledge has a high price. The Seer is not chanting to invoke omniscience, but to come to grips with having seen too much. This is not merely a lyrical motif; at the beginning, swells of noise punctuated by a chorus of dulcimers ring like the ticking of the world’s most fucked-up clock, as if time is fracturing and superimposing on itself, all the while the tension building with layers of bass, drums, and guitar. During many moments on the album, one gets the sense that everything could suddenly collapse into utter chaos, but it’s all miraculously held together for a time by the strained control of the musicians. The most common method of control that manifests here is a sort of mantric repetition, which at once suspends and prolongs ecstasy, as in erotic action and prayer. But in struggling against that ecstatic force, the divine light sometimes reveals to The Seer the vastness of its power, crushing it into oblivion.
The midpoint of “The Seer” is the first indication that breakdown of order is coming, but it isn’t until “93 Ave B Blues” arrives when order entirely devolves into chaos. Swans have been dipping their toes into the pool of noise ever since the project began, but this is the first time that they truly dive in, even approaching free-jazz territory. And this is only a taste of the chaos to come in the latter part of the album. While “A Piece of the Sky’s” first 10 minutes could hold its own with any epic drone track, perhaps the newest and most powerful sound arrives in the final song, “The Apostate.” Here, the madness is complete. As the culmination of a culmination, “The Apostate” goes everywhere you ever wished Swans would go. For a reference point, the closest they’ve ever come to it was on last year’s live cut of “No Words/No Thoughts” from We Rose From Your Bed with the Sky in Our Heads (it has more raw power than the version on My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky). From a swarm of EBow’d guitar swells, the song builds into a lumbering behemoth of a bass line, piling on layer upon layer of noise and bursts of percussion. It arrives, finally, at an almost tribal dance beat, the vocals transforming into pre-linguistic animal sounds.
To return to Gira’s mission: The Seer’s dark ecstasy precipitates a kind of joy in its listeners. In subjecting yourself to it, you absorb some of its manic glory, “[fed] through [its] power lines,” as Gira would have it on “The Wolf.” Its depth and emotional force reach a level that has become exceedingly scarce. I could spend more paragraphs discussing the issues this album raises: the return of Jarboe, however brief; the fact that Karen O. mostly complements this record on “Song for a Warrior;” Gira’s shifting relationships with God, fatherhood, and mortality; the dense instrumentation and host of collaborators; the ethical and metaphysical underpinnings of each track. But that would belabor the point: The Seer delivers on its promise. It’s an exhausting and maddening document, but one can’t help but emerge from it filled with a renewed radiance. Gira can now soldier forward on his quest, this battle won.