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SPIN Essentials

Swans, The Seer (Young God)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: August 28, 2012
Label: Young God

Over 11 Swans and five Angels of Light albums, the mercilessly stern Michael Gira has played prison warden, funeral director, S&M slavemaster, Faces of Death documentarian, executioner, whistleblower, suicide casualty, 99-percent Molotov-thrower, and ultimate screwface spokesgrunt for the bullied ultimately becoming the bully. For him, punishment is transcendence, and a quick cycle through his combined catalog shows that he’ll brandish any available weapon to find it. In the early years that meant repetition, feedback, and bowel-busting bass; in the middle years, it was sacrilege, swears, and borrowing the icy glare of Jarboe. More recently, it’s been oppressive volume and Cormac McCarthy creep-outs. But for his 12th album with Swans (and the second since their glorious, all-Swans-everything 2010 reunion), he’s unleashed the one blade he’s left sheathed for the last 30 years: patience.

The Seer is a planet-eating Galactus of an album. Two hours long and six sides of vinyl, with three separate songs unraveling past the 19-minute mark. Special guests materialize and disappear without a trace: Major-label superstars, Swans veterans, underground avant-metal muckarounds, slowcore hauntologists, and Icelandic sound artists are all a revolving door for Gira’s beautiful dark twisted murder fantasy. (As for the live show, a Facebook boast about their upcoming tour promised eight songs stretching over two hours.) The title track tells the album’s story, a 32-minute Glenn Branca guitar symphony played at Ozzfest volumes, microtones clashing and clanging in anguish while Thor Harris’ orchestra bells chime and shimmer. There’s a humanist/mystic mantra (“IseeitallIseeitallIseeitalIseeital”) and suffocating ziggurats of dissonance. It pummels you with volume and noise and speed, then cold-cocks you with the lumbering electroshock blues of early Swans (*blam* *silence* *blam*). But what was once crusted over with downtown noise-metal scabs now sounds like it was played on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s widescreen backline.

The Seer‘s 11 songs transform and interact so glacially and hazily and deliberately and mysteriously that describing every sound and detour and forking road and twist ending would be as exhausting as trying to explain the plot of a Terrance Malick movie. But take the album by its weathered, calloused hand for two hours and you’ll can find eclectic entryways: Low’s Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker harmonizing like a Jonestown end-times choir, mournful harmonicas whining and wailing from the caverns of noise, hardcore ragas, folk songs choked unconscious by field recordings and dumptruck drone, a Morricone Neurosis churn, angelic free noise that could nuzzle up to old Animal Collective or new Fuck Buttons, and bagpipes galore. Now that Relapse Records is going full Tzadik (signing Locrian and Horseback and who knows who else), there’s also a five-minute piece of surprisingly of-the-moment, saxophone-drenched free-doom called “93 Ave. B Blues.” Oh, and “The Seer Returns” is basically the Beastie Boys’ “So What’Cha Want” playing inside a Hieronymus Bosch painting — it’s totally screaming out for a Danny Brown guest verse.

The guests herein do not anchor this non-linear fever dream to a tangible reality, but only make its contents stranger: Icelandic sound sculptor (and Swans tour opener) Ben Frost could have provided the album’s deepest, most contemporary Sunn O)))-ready subterranean subwoofer-rattlage, but instead delivers “fire sounds (acoustic and synthetic)”; Karen O, the most famous person here by about five light years, provides a brief escape from the noise, kicking a tumbleweed and growling like Larkin Grimm; ex-Swan Jarboe and Akron/Family both appear somewhere in “A Piece of the Sky,” but mainly as ghosts moaning through 10 minutes of windswept ambient loop-pedal noise.

If anything, the album’s “everything goes” sprit most closely resembles the noise-rock grab-bag of 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind if it were given Rhys Chatham’s sense of ecstasy and Townes Van Zandt’s sense of agony. Stretching their legs for 30 minutes at a time, Swans are no longer a “no wave band” or a “noise band” or an “art-metal band” or anything else they’ve been pegged as in the last three decades. They’re as much an experimental concern as Stars of the Lid or Stockhausen now. And so, granted the luxury of not just being some dumb rock band, they can think beyond long run-times and horn sections — they can get downright existential. The lyrics turn Gira’s punished/punisher figure into a more apocalyptic, worldly, big-picture, life-as-pain concern. (Sample lyrics that emerge from the maelstrom include “Your childhood…is over,” “Where are you now, oh mother of the world?” and the excellent visual “The sun fucks the dawn.”) It’s all willfully abrasive, unflinchingly depressing, occasionally tedious, and intermittently triumphant — but, hey, that’s life.