Music Review: ‘The Seer,’ by Swans

(Originally published at www.lastwordblog.blogspot.com.)

The closest thing I can compare Swans’ The Seer to is (anything/everything by) Godspeed You! Black Emperor, though the truth is I’ve never heard anything like it. The structure of the album is mostly post-rock: pieces begin as dissonant noise, cohere into a baseline of repetitive dread, and then ever-so-slowly build into a cataclysmic climax (though it may take a couple movements to get there). This climax ultimate shreds itself into more harsh, painfully dissonant noise, which can serve as the beginning of another piece. Apocalyptic Beethoven, in other words.

But the album is much more complex than this. Swans utilizes abrupt, disorienting transitions in the middle of pieces, like a fast-moving car suddenly breaking and then re-accelerating, as though to stop the listener from settling in. It’s like the music shouts, “Hey! Pay attention!” Elsewhere the album takes on more of a blues-and-spoken-word feel, with slow percussion-driven chants creating the ground for the lead vocalist, Michael Gira, to mutter lyrics over. Other parts sound like Black Sabbath, with short, sharp jabs of guitar noise coupled with what sound like Satanic church bells. Yet others oscillate between the film music for a Hitchcock psychological thriller (rising tension, on strings) and the film music for a David Lynch psychological thriller (shattered noise on horns and strings, plus a bunch of guys going “Uuuaauungh!” while they presumably beat their heads against a brick wall). There’s even some piano and angelic, soft-soaring country-western bits. It’s a bizarre album.

Click on the link at the top to listen to the album for free, and to read NPR’s First Listen review. This album is depressing as hell, and beautiful, and inspiring. And weird and awful and soothing and nauseating. I don’t know. It’s music, dude–you gotta listen to know what it’s like.

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