While the previous studio album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky was seen as a cross between Gira's solo project Angels of Light and late Swans, the Seer strayed away from Angels of Light's more accessible songs and its focus on lyricism and focused more around sonic landscapes. The album features a variety of instrumentation and guest musicians from the post-punk band Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist Karen O to former Swans member Jarboe. The album is noteworthy due to its excessive song lengths, especially from its over thirty minute title track, as well as its unrelenting droning noise experimentation. The album garnered critical acclaim from mainstream publications and appeared in publications' best of the year album lists.
The album was funded with the sales of the live double album We Rose from Your Bed with the Sun in Our Head as frontman Michael Gira stated that the rise of internet piracy caused a need to fund records in this fashion. He described the album as taking "30 years to make" and is "the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I've ever made." Describing the songwriting process, Gira said, "The songs began on an acoustic guitar, then were fleshed out with (invaluable) help from my friends, then were further tortured and seduced in the studio, and now they await further cannibalism and force-feeding as we prepare to perform some of them live, at which point they'll mutate further, endlessly, or perhaps be discarded for a while." The songs "93 Ave. B Blues," "The Seer," "The Apostate," and "Avatar" were developed during tours and rehearsals while the rest of the songs were created in the studio. While their previous effort was seen as a continuation of Gira's folk solo project Angels of Light mixed with Swans' original elements, Gira stated that the Seer was more focused as a Swans effort due to touring.
The band started recording in Berlin after a hiatus during touring as Gira wanted to get it done while they were a live band. After a year of touring, they recorded in New York while Gira spent the next five months doing overdubs and fleshing out songs written on his acoustic guitar. While Gira sings on the majority of the songs, he enlisted Karen O to assist with singing "Song for a Warrior" because Gira believed that "Since the song is like a country lullaby, I thought it would be appropriate for a female. Chris [Pravidica, Swans' bass player] pointed me to a few of Karen's solo works where she sings in this really gentle, compassionate, soulful way." Former Swans member Jarboe also made an appearance on the album once Gira met her after an Atlanta tour as he needed "some female vocals doing these kind of drone chords." The name of the album and title track came from Swans performing the title track multiple times instrumentally until Gira soon sang, "I see it all, I see it all," which he thought fit the music. The artwork from the album was based off of a tempura wolf painting by Simon Henwood and featured Gira's teeth on the wolf.
At nearly two hours, The Seer is over twice as long as its predecessor. The album explores many drone and noise elements from previous Swans releases expanded into longer songs but also features acoustic and post-rock elements. Thom Jurek of Allmusic described the music as a "journey through post-rock, electronic soundscapes, haunting acoustic songs, punishing noise, and (lots of) percussion." Gira stated that the lyrics are based on his fascination with children and are themed around childhood and the id stage of life, although the lyrics are less apparent in comparison to their other records as Gira didn't want the lyrics to "detract from the experience."
Upon its release, The Seer was widely praised by music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from critics, the album received an average score of 87, based on 32 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim. Writing for Rolling Stone, Will Hermes called the album Swans' "grandest statement yet" and described the title track as "a season in hell, and then some." Also describing the title track, Jason Heller of The A.V. Club wrote, "It’s the most harrowing, exhausting, cathartic, transcendental piece of music Gira has ever put to tape. And that’s from a man who’s had many." Thom Jurek of Allmusic described The Seer as "the most sprawling, ambitious, thoughtfully conceived and tightly performed recording in the band's catalog."
Several music criticism websites included the album on their lists of the best albums of 2012. Stereogum ranked the album at fourth in their top 50 albums.Pitchfork ranked the album at fifth with Stuart Berman saying, "The Seer also evinces a magisterial grandeur and hypnotic allure, elevating Swans’ seedy, sewer-scraping depravity into an extravagant, cinematically scaled noise."Sputnikmusic staff member SowingSeason said that the Seer "could be the best album of Michael Gira’s thirty year career" and was the best of 2012.The A.V. Club staff ranked the album seventh in their best of 2012 list and stated that "Gira did the seemingly impossible and topped [My Father], however, with the Seer" My Father. Commercially, the album peaked at #114 on the Billboard 200 and at #22 on the Independent Albums chart.