Alright, so I’m going to go ahead and give it to you straight. The Seer, released in August by experimental rock band Swans, is a masterpiece. It is probably one of the most brilliantly constructed albums I’ve heard all year. It is a journey in meditation – a mental experience as much as an auditory one. And it becomes more and more enriching of an experience with each new listen. Every time I press play, I perceive it in even more detail, and pick up on more subtleties than I did the previous time. According to the band’s frontman Michael Gira, the album took “30 years to make. It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” This is something that becomes immediately evident. A seemingly carelessly-laid assortment of eclectic sounds, reexamined, becomes an elaborate array of intriguing sounds and samples, with each element in its proper place.
Now, I know what some of you may be thinking. You’re not really into the whole noise rock scene. You might even rather listen to a baby screaming all night long. But here’s the thing about post-rock. It’s about composing soundscapes. It’s not so much about writing catchy music or fast-paced songs. It’s about the cumulative experience. And with The Seer clocking out at the two hour mark, it’s definitely a thoroughly-thought-out experience. Thom Jurek sums it up pretty accurately in his review: “it is not an endurance test, but an argument for compulsive listening. It’s an exquisitely wrought journey through post-rock, electronic soundscapes, haunting acoustic songs, punishing noise, and (lots of) percussion.” This style of music is not one that frequently attracts the casual listener. It has a much more meaningful effect once you understand the philosophy behind it, and that can only be achieved by surrendering yourself to the music. Take in everything that you hear with an unbiased ear. Once you can do that, you can reap the pleasures of that artist’s creative mind.
The Seer, like other post-rock albums, is characterized by slow musical development. This concept is one that comes up frequently here on Audio Intimacy. Using such a technique does not merely make the composition longer and more repetitive, as is believed by many of the genre’s naysayers. It allows for musical revelation to happen on a much more analytical scale. Suddenly, the subtleties of that guitar tone become extremely aurally stimulating. The delay effect on those incoherent vocals is mind-blowing. The dark undertones added by the barely-perceptible distorted crackle is easily one of the most essential elements of the mix. When the evolution of your sonic environment suddenly becomes dramatically prolonged, it changes the way you mentally approach music. Your fascination becomes more fixated on independent components rather than focusing on overall composition.
By no means is Swans the kind of band to be taken in casual dosages. Their music is not the type to be listened to in small intervals. This album is meant to be experienced as a continuous flow, from beginning to end. It is a journey that gives the listener a glimpse of the band’s inner world of creative expression. The band takes a much darker and more theatrical approach to the experimental world of noise, and it has a profound effect on the way you think of music.
In musicology classrooms across the globe, professors like to ask their students one deceptively simple question: “what is music?” Although the answer may seem obvious at first, it is realistically quite the opposite. While most people enjoy a confidently harmonious and consonant type of music, there is a whole other world of music lovers who enjoy a much more discordant and experimental style. This begs the question: what sort of sonic textures must be present to define something as “music,” and how should they be arranged? Is a songbird’s call considered music? What about the spectrum of sounds that emanate from a construction site?
I will not get any deeper into that discussion, as that particular rabbit hole is very dangerous. The point, however, is that an album like The Seer has the potential to change the way you conceptualize music. As I have previously mentioned, this style is about creating soundscapes. The tracks can perhaps be considered more appropriately as “sonic experiences,” rather than songs. Their value does not lie in the catchiness of the hook, but instead in the completeness with which they establish their world. With this alternative approach to music, the emotional response is just as thrilling, but in a much more cultivated way. To listen to this album is not to empathize with the vocalist’s relatable lyrics, but rather to marvel at the tremendous potential contained within the sonic universe.
So I would ask you, dear reader, to approach this album with expectations set aside. Give yourself two solid hours to devote to the experience. You can either give it your full attention or set it as background music as you catch up on some work. Regardless, The Seer is a necessary addition to any musicophile’s library, and it deserves to be recognized as such. Take a listen, and seize the chance to expand your musical boundaries.