Usually when I write anything for Metal D, it’s out of a desire to make other people laugh or tell a story. There will be none of that here today. I consider Swans to be serious business, because they definitely are.
If you aren’t familiar with the band, 1) you’ve missed out and 2) I don’t know even how to begin to tell you to start getting familiar. Diving in to the Swans blindly is beyond ill advised, but it’s probably the only way you’ll find your way into the concrete thick and abyss deep catalog of the band. Everyone I know who listens to the band has a story of how they found them. I scored a cassette copy of Love of Life from a gospel music shop in a small town in South Carolina for a dollar. They told me they ordered “Swan Silvertones” and got “Swans”. I didn’t have a cassette player in my car, I had to wait til I got home to play it and I was about 50 miles from home. I get in, put the tape in the deck, and started reading something. Within 5 minutes I had quit reading and was just staring at the counter on the cassette deck amazed. When side 1 ended, there was that big loud ugly pop and I jumped about 3 feet off the couch and ran to turn it over before I lost the feeling. That made me a fan forever. It’s probably one of my least favorite records by them now, but that was all it took for me. I played it for friends, it was received like a glass of warm piss and still is by almost everyone who I try and put on to it. The Swans were and are the most intimidating, uncomfortable, hypnotically repetitive, heavy, cerebral, and difficult band but at the same time, if you really get it and let down your guard they can be the closest thing to an ecstatic experience that an album can give you almost every album out.
The Seer is a double album. I would usually break this down by song and talk about things in those terms. You can’t do that here. It’s one solid single piece. You have to stay with it- 15 minute build ups to the same chord hit super hard as the peak of the mountain, droning passages, choir chanting (not gang vocals, don’t make a mistake), layer upon layer and layer upon layer of arrangement, and trance like repetition aren’t there for no reason, they are all part of the whole and that whole is glorious and amazing. Every thing I just listed sounds like knocks on the record- they aren’t. This is a piece of art, plain and simple, and every single note has a purpose and leads you somewhere. You kind of just have to let it take you and be prepared for the challenges that it presents and there are a few. I don’t really have the words to do justice to the album’s mood. I will say that it is dark, not a black metal dark. Not a doom metal dark. To a degree, that’s all snake oil; tacky comical bullshit that you can market to kids as a packaged rebellion complete with a free key chain or poorly made knit cap attached to the shrink wrap. It’s the kind of dark that you can’t acquire artificially, it’s not tangible and it’s not for sale. It’s the kind of heavy looming darkness that breaks people if they’re weak. Michael Gira lets you test those waters and see what you’re made of. It’s not easy listening. You aren’t going to put this on and ride to Taco Bell with your friends smiling, you aren’t going to get laid to this, you aren’t going to be motivated to change the world by this, it’s not going to contain your favorite song. It’s something more and bigger than that, it’s an experience.
Swans are not a metal band, not by any of the millions of liberal sub categories or sub genres that you can apply, they are quite simply just the heaviest thing you can imagine. It’s very barely a rock record by the most loose definition, they are just what they are. Swans lives and breathes, it grows constantly, changes overnight, it writhes and moves and ignores it’s own rules regularly. The Seer proves that’s still the path they’re taking. I love it, I hate it, I’m scared to start the record because I know that I have to finish it and by that time I won’t want it to end. The Seer is a trial by ordeal. There are moments where I wonder how many bands they influenced and how many of them have had the nuts and fortitude to push something as far as the Swans have in 30 years. There’s sure a lot of bands who haven’t, a hell of a lot of them.
I’m going to break the fourth wall here- If you are expecting riffs, traditional song structures, choruses, verses, guitar solos, or even something so basic as melody in places- you might not get what you’re looking for. If you are looking for something different, something more, something you know is out there but you just haven’t been able to put your fingers on it to grab it- you might be at home here. I don’t recommend this for everyone. It’s just not for everyone. You are not anything less if you don’t get it, but if you do…the keys to the hidden and long locked kingdom of underground music can be yours. I won’t even rate this album, it’s beyond those terms. It was streaming on NPR’s website (I know, I know…) and it may still be. I suggest you dip your toes in a little before going all the way. However, with no question in my mind at all- this is the starting place for the novice. Everything beautiful and terrifying about the Swans is right here, out on display, for the whole world to hear, see, and feel.
If you’ve ever wondered about the Swans, the time is now…right now…to find out what it’s all about.