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The Seer Alex Niven , September 11th, 2012 09:16

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Age is wasted on the old. Seriously. Imagine what our precarious, tough-as-nails generation could achieve if it was provided with the kind of cultural opportunities the post-war baby boomers enjoyed. Imagine if all those young artists, academics, media types, and computer geeks who spend their weeks generating reams of meaningless CV fodder just to get on the career ladder were suddenly told that full employment was going to be a priority for the next Labour government. Imagine if 1968 somehow happened again, with tech-savvy, self-reliant, extravagantly knowledgeable hipsters leading the charge instead of fey Dylan-quoting hippies. If the revolution happened tomorrow it would clean up.

But the sad reality is that fiftysomething white guys are hoarding all the money, jobs, and power, while the rest of us are stripping naked and pretending to be Prince Harry. With this dystopian thought in mind, it's heartening to encounter The Seer, the stellar twelfth album by Swans, an outfit fronted by a fiftysomething white guy intent on giving something back to society while showing the younger generation a thing or two. This is an album that vindicates maturity, long years of toil, cumulative effort, resilience, patience, wisdom. Michael Gira is the village elder we can learn something from, the anti-Tony Blair, the baby boomer who is, by the sound of things, even angrier than we are about the state of the world in 2012.

And what a formidable crescendo of anger. Mirroring the late-peaking trajectory of Gira himself, this is a work that builds and builds across the course of its epic two-hour cycle. 'Lunacy' is a demonically, ominously understated opener with clanging instrumentation redolent of the Suspiria soundtrack; Low's Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker intone a two-note motif that sounds like the Fleet Foxes being slowly, beautifully murdered. And after this appropriately portentous introduction – a visual analogue to the satanic-wolf-emerging-from-the-shadows cover art – things just keep getting better.

'Mother of the World' is a Slint-esque post-rock odyssey in waltz time; it's bolstered by a sublimely wayward vocal part that morphs after about four and a half minutes into a laconic Southern Gothic growl-hymn that evokes Beefheart attempting to clamber out of a tomb, or Iggy clambering back into one, or Lou Reed after he's been in one for a decade or two. 'The Wolf' – which clocks in at an atypical one and a half minutes – is an appropriately bluesy, sinister elegy.

But the unequivocal centrepiece and highlight here is the thirty-minute title track. Beginning with a flurry of brass drones and skittering cymbals, 'The Seer' careers through multiple stanzas of ambient waste and pulsating, supple improvisation before exploding in a paroxysm of guitar gore, after which it peters out in sputtering grooves over a luscious fifteen-minute period. If a braver, more substantial tune is released in any genre this year we can count ourselves lucky. A swampy, funky postscript, 'The Seer Returns', is the icing on the cake, surely the best blues-noise amalgam since Spiritualized's 'Cop Shoot Cop'.

Unlike countless of their younger noisenik peers, Swans know how to carve their jams into fluid, delicate birdseye shapes, so that even the most free-form moments on The Seer have a sense of context and place that rules out accusations of amorphousness. (Amongst other things, this is unified concept album of the highest order – though what that concept is remains shrouded in ambient smoke). Even better, the variety of registers on the album creates the powerful impression that this is a collective of people having delirious, exuberant fun as they hammer out their eclectic gothic experiments, hopping across genres and tones with drone acting as a suturing lingua franca. There are several interludes that come as startling surprises: the languid gospel-country of Karen O's guest vocal on 'Song for a Warrior'; hoarse balladry of 'The Daughter Brings the Water'; the unhinged abstract expressionism of '93. Ave B Blues' (this is a New York record after all).

Surely the most redemptive, unexpected moment on the album though is penultimate track 'A Piece of the Sky'. A nuanced city of variegated noise, 'A Piece of Sky' is a layered masterpiece that conjures images of Tortoise covering The Band in a Lower East Side speakeasy. Arriving at the pinnacle of this subtle, slowly building magnum opus, it has a feeling of ecstatic release, and should banish any suggestion that this album is a fetishized, doom-for-doom's sake horror movie. 'A Piece of the Sky' proves that all the wrack and wreckage on The Seer has a point: this is a violently purposeful American epic that charts a progress from sinister nihilism to utopian dreaming, a neo-classical work of sophisticated aggression and accomplished grace. Let us now praise older, wiser, angrier men.

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Sep 11, 2012 2:52pm

I like Swans when they sound as much like the future as they do the past... and on this one they nail that...

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Sep 11, 2012 4:02pm

this is the album of the year, from the greatest band on earth - without a doubt

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Sep 11, 2012 8:58pm

album of the year most definitely. a gorgeous, soaring, brutal arching fist of sound.

and don't worry darling, your generation will fuck it all up just like every other generation that reaches its 50s and can't be dissuaded that their generation isn't greatest and deserving of all its trappings. it's all bullshit of course, Gira and others can see through that fortunately.

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Sep 11, 2012 10:43pm

great review, and i argue that much like the album as a whole the songs (just as the individual movements thereof) are constantly in a state of flux and release. listening to the sounds as they come, not thinking ahead but willfully forgetting what comes next and in so doing focusing on what is there, yields the most potent experience. the music effects a sense of mono no aware, and an apparent climax or "pinnacle" (like the one at 11:39 of "The Seer") stops being a climax and starts being its own soundscape, the sequence in which it exists becoming just that, a sequence, but necessary, like the order of scenes in a film. and in this way the album seems a ongoing series of releases. that reminds me of the band Psychic Paramount, who have a similar approach.

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Sep 11, 2012 10:51pm

In reply to Mitchell:

*though Psychic Paramount is not so intense as Swans.

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Sep 12, 2012 3:52am

The thing that clinches it, for me, is how an album this long, this uncompromising and this heavyweight flies by so quickly and leaves you with such a desire to push play again afterwards. As nigh on perfection as Swans have recently done or anybody else this year.

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worthless recluse
Sep 12, 2012 5:55am

I don't agree that his album is about being "[angry] about the state of the world in 2012" at all.

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Elliot Newton
Sep 12, 2012 7:06am

Yeah really great Mars chocolate adverts halfway through your reviews, pasted directly over the text and with no way of closing it or getting rid of it. Sort it out.

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Tony Badgers
Sep 12, 2012 7:54am

In reply to Elliot Newton:

Seconded times one million

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Sep 12, 2012 10:16am

Haven't listened to this yet but it's definitely on the list.

The Quietus are still the best at writing reviews that make me want to go listen to the record... "a laconic Southern Gothic growl-hymn that evokes Beefheart attempting to clamber out of a tomb, or Iggy clambering back into one, or Lou Reed after he's been in one for a decade or two."

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lh I am not spam, god damn it
Sep 12, 2012 10:35am

Seconded on "A Piece of the Sky" being a highpoint, particularly with the contributions of Ben Frost, Akron/Family, and Jarboe (!) But then "The Apostate" rears its head and lays waste to all in its path with such glorious, joyful, reckless abandon that it seems as though Gira and company are ripping off the roof of your building and forcing an ultimatum on your unwilling creator.

It's almost unfair to call this album of the year. Unfair that it should have to compete with any lesser trifle released in 2012 and unfair that any other artist should have to compete with what is less a record album than a field recording of artists who have truly broken through, confronting the unknown and making it cower in the face of their mastery.

I've been a fan of Gira for over 15 years, and it's so exciting to see him doing the most vital, important music of his career. Can't wait to see them on Sunday.

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Sep 12, 2012 4:51pm

Hmm the vinyl track listing is pretty much the opposite of the cd release.. That's interesting

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Sep 12, 2012 9:07pm

Holy shit, that first paragraph is ridiculous - and to me sounds even more "dystopian" than our present state of affairs. I also don't see any such utopian dreaming - just Michael Gira doing his thing - as far away from "tech-savvy, self-reliant, extravagantly knowledgeable hipsters" as can be.

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Sep 13, 2012 9:55am

15th Nov KOKO - S W A N S with Sir Richard Bishop, now thats a night out.

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Sep 13, 2012 11:28am

record of the year, but not a angry one, an extremely happy sounding one.

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john p.
Sep 16, 2012 10:31am

Completely agree on the fact that The Seer feels like a 'concept-album', in the sense that it's completely self-referential: a world on it's own with its very own logic, very much like Scott Walker's 'The Drift' or Matthew Barney's 'Cremaster Cycle'. Fantastic stuff!

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