#5: Swans – The Seer

(Young God, 2012)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

I’ll come right out and say it: I HATE this album cover. If I could feasibly put another image up there I would, but it’s the cover of this damn album, so up it goes. My hatred of it, however, comes not from a critical place – it’s not that I think the execution is poor or that they didn’t try hard enough. As a matter of fact, the execution is excellent and I think it achieves exactly what it sets out to do, as well as encapsulating the album it stands for – it terrifies me. It’s a horrible, frightening image that’s meant to be horrible and frightening, and it hits me on an instinctual, visceral level. I can’t get to it critically, because I have to avert my eyes. Funnily enough, I feel very similarly about the first track of the album.

“Lunacy” is the song I previewed from the album before picking it up, and what a song to pick. It felt like something that I shouldn’t have been listening to before being indoctrinated – like I had stumbled onto a secret ritual chorus that would be the last thing I ever heard. It starts innocently enough, with some neat little chords chopping away on guitar, but then come the voices. It’s not long before they’re swiping at you out of the void chanting the title of the song over and over and over and over again, each time with more menace. You sense that it’s not a bluff, it’s not lunacy in the abstract. There will be consequences. It is legitimately frightening. For all these reasons and more, “Lunacy” is quite possibly my favourite track of 2012.

It’s probably no surprise that the track couldn’t be topped. Which song could compete with the gravity of the first? The model of repetition is played out over and over across the album, however, as phrases are in holding patterns with more and more layers heaped on top of them as the songs build to a climax, as Michael Gira’s Nick Cave-esque vocals make the occasional appearance, his lyrics and melody in flux atop the rock solid foundation of the riffs etched into the walls of noise that make up much of the album’s backing, which never lacks interest.

Feedback, quite liberated from the guitar at this point, swells and washes over much of the proceedings (in lieu of feedback, bagpipes are found to do quite well in a pinch, as on the title track), with the occasional King Crimson-esque free form drum doodle peeking out of the darkness, and mandolin and piano riffs circling over and over, drawing the ear in. The palette is well-stocked and scarcely less than full. In absence of vocals, guitars are wont to muse about and do so amidst adhering to the drone they set forth for themselves. The atmosphere is so thick you could spread it on toast, and is wonderfully creepy. The adherence to repetition becomes almost fatal in the middle of “The Seer” as a back and forth between two chords blasted by the band in unison at varying tempos seems to go on for what seems like ages, but I will always err on the side of self-indulgence in music and the guitar histrionics in between make it worthwhile.

The album moves through a few different moods, though none of them will ease the nausea, and the band makes no apologies either way. “A Piece of the Sky” spends approximately half its considerable running time with the sounds of a crackling fire leading to a wave of noise akin to a folk band having been thrown into a blender, at which point they begin to actually pick up the main thrust of the song. Regardless of whether or not their approach suits you, you trust them in that they have not censored themselves one iota – their vision is seen out to its last. Apart from Karen O’s relatively straightforward turn on “Song for a Warrior”, the rest of the guest vocalists here star as the devil’s choir, evoking the ghoulishness and avoiding the cheesiness of horror movie soundtracks with their sinister harmonies on “The Seer Returns” and “93 Ave. B Blues.”

Though I personally feel that a couple of tracks might have been excised in order for the album to sound a little tighter/more cohesive, this is a triumph of vision. It’s a journey through an almost unremittingly dark world, with a two-hour tour given by its mad prophets with no stone unturned. I’ve not heard a band successfully captureĀ  the kind of immediacy and raw emotion found here in quite some time.

9/10

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