When Michael Gira announced that he was reactivating Swans (not a reunion, remember?) it came as a bit of a surprise; albeit one that garnered some excitement. The album that followed showed that the band had fleshed out the folk trappings of Gira’s Angels of Light project; instilling some of Swans heaviness onto the Angels’ southern twang. Some people liked it, some didn’t, but it was still an announcement that Swans were indeed back. Now, two years on, we have a second release from the ‘reactivated’ Swans: a double CD that clocks in at two hours. Straight off the bat it’s worth pointing out that this reviewer believes that this could have been pruned somewhat, but we’ll come to that in a bit. The sound that Swans had mustered back on 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky is back in full effect here, with some added elements of swagger and funk (in the style of Can) that comes as a small surprise. There is no doubting that since their return, Swans have a lot more air in the mix, although there are moments where the tight, constricted heaviness of yore is apparent.They start with a very strong track: “Lunacy” has a bombastic opening before the folk chanting kicks in. It’s a beautifully eerie piece that takes in a little more bombast before ending with the lyrics “your childhood is over.” We’re firmly in Swans territory then? The next track, “Mother of the World,” is a touch patchy. It starts off with noodling organ over a constricted groove (for want of a better term) that outstays its welcome. Some humming/whining joins proceedings, but in no way improves them. Then there is a short stop for breath (quite literally) then back into some bombastic Swans rock before edging into country ballad trappings reminiscent of My Father. The centrepiece of the first disc is the title track, “The Seer,” which is 30 minutes long. It’s fitting that this is the title track, as like the album, this could have been done with some editing. It starts off really well with what sounds like bagpipes amongst the discordance. A light, skipping groove starts up and the band start to build some simmering menace with Gira entering into proceedings with the refrain “I see it all” repeating over and over. The whole thing breaks down 13 minutes in, and then we are taken into a dull and ponderous section that sounds like the band have run out of ideas; and this really does go on for far too long. The final portion of the track sounds almost exactly like “One More Night” by Can, except a tad slower. Good for Can fans, I suppose. Surprising for Swans fans and, it makes you wonder, is this deliberate homage? The resemblance is more than a passing one.
“The Seer Returns” carries on with the loose rhythm that closely approximates ‘funk’ ( a loose term these days, dear readers, so let’s not quibble). Again, we can see that the band have definitely added something to the sound ushered in by their return and are not merely regurgitating their past. “93 Ave. Blues” brings to mind Swans in their Industrial heyday (if it is appropriate to mention the ‘I’ word), and recalls the harsh soundscapes that the likes of Foetus and Einstürzende Neubauten indulged in. Disc one ends with the sombre Angels of Light-esque “The Daughter Brings the Water.” This is a lovely piece that could have easily been on My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky.Karen O makes an appearance on the first track of disc 2, and that’s probably the most notable thing about “Song For a Warrior;” it’s a song where a vaguely alternative rock star does a bit of singing. “Avatar” starts with the sound of bells that opened My Father two years back, with the track “No Words/No Thoughts.” This track lacks the intensity of “No Words”however, and seems to come and go without leaving much of an impression. The majority of disc two is taken up by two tracks, “A Piece of the Sky” and “Apostate.” The former starts with the sound of a crackling campfire, then builds up a drone of voices and violins; humming and whining. It gets almost Penderecki before the drums appear. When they do, they bring with them light, ease, and even a hint of Tortoise. This is a loose comparison (unlike the Can one earlier), and is probably lazy shorthand to describe a track that has a melancholic post-rock feel to it. The final section sees “A Piece of the Sky” become a song; a country ballad-tinged song, to be precise. “Apostate “begins with abstract noise that stretches out for some time before any semblance of a rhythm makes itself known. When ‘rhythm’ shows itself, it’s very minimal, very slow. Then all descends into chaos with stuttering drums and subdued feedback. After build ups and bombast we are back in the loose grooves that brought up talk of Can earlier. This is indeed a much more mantric Swans that we’ve been used to, and the term Krautrock does actually rear its head as a desciption.
There is no doubting that The Seer is a statement from a band who are continuing to forge ahead without clinging on to their past. However, it really could have done what it intended to in maybe two thirds of the time. We didn’t need the full two hours.