The saying “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” comes to mind when diving into the new, completely engrossing two-hour-long double-album from Swans, The Seer; its boiling opening track, “Lunacy,” harnesses mounting pressure and intense repetition until its singers simply chant the word “Lunacy!” again and again. However, the aforementioned maxim doesn’t entirely hold true for Swans, which in its thirtieth year of existence has evolved gradually, first delivering harrowing and brutal amplified death-marches, then moving toward acoustic music and even sinister ambient styles, though with the same level of thematic severity as previous works.
The 32-minute title track alone would make for an impressive album, taking the listener on an exhausting journey, building its maelstrom with bagpipes, dulcimers, and chimes to supplement the rock instruments. Structurally, it seems to mirror a street slugfest, with its climax marked by crushing blows and a stirring tempo; its weakened fighters then muster their last bits of strength for additional punches, spaced-out for dramatic effect, leading to no-wave skronking, unsettling atmospherics, ambling electric death folk, and lyrical “indecipherable obscenities” as designated in the liner notes.
While longtime Swans member Jarboe was not present on the previous album, which had broken a 13-year hiatus, she contributes backing vocals and an eerie vocal collage for “A Piece of the Sky,” another evocative and compelling highlight that begins with foreboding campfire crackles and closes with front man and lead singer Michael Gira in country mode (explored previously with his hiatus-era band Angels of Light). Karen O’s (of Yeah Yeah Yeahs) appearance singing lead on “Song for a Warrior,” also in the vague country vein, is unexpected, with her dynamically compressed vocals a little out of place. The Seer closes with the explosive “The Apostate,” one hell of an ending that bridges the early Swans-style minimalist pummeling with a new direction featuring an energized rhythmic tug, closing a sprawling, ambitious, absorbing album that—like previous masterpieces like Soundtracks for the Blind and Children of God—can put a stranglehold on your attention.