To Be Kind Album Review
Young God/Mute Records
Released May 12, 2014
Genre: Experimental Rock, Art Rock, No Wave, Noise Rock, Post Rock
Describing a band like Swans is like describing the taste of water, it’s practically impossible. First off, the band has been around for more than THIRTY years, and, despite a few hiatuses, they have become one of the most well-known names in underground music. Second, if you do have the ambition and guts to listen to a song by Swans, you will be heavily overwhelmed, yet undeniably interested. Known for their experimental instrumentation (gongs, dulcimers, bells) and long, repetitive song structures, the band makes heavy, disturbingly loud and alienating music. Stemming from the no-wave movement in New York in the early 80s (For those who know nothing about sub genres, no-wave was basically a big “f*** you” to the synth heavy, commercial new wave (Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, DEVO) and punk rock (Sex Pistols, The Stooges, Black Flag) music in the 80s), Swans have been one of the longest running acts out there in rock music. Since then, the band’s music has intrigued many and garnered a large following (trust me, people, like myself, actually love this stuff). With their reunion back in the 2010, and their impressive twelfth album The Seer back in 2011, the band show no sign of stopping with their thirteenth release, To Be Kind.
Starting off the album, the eight minute long “Screen Shot”, an eerie, yet fun track, features frontman Michael Gira’s notable vocals, and a very, very creepy piano lead. Intertwining, swirling guitar leads and very primal drumming slithers in the background; Gira’s barks keep the song operating under Swans’ common motif: repetition. Now this isn’t repetition that bores you to death, this is repetition that builds on itself before culminating and swelling into an epic, visceral wave of noise, chants, and frilly instrumentation. But the brutality doesn’t end there; the rest of the album makes the intro seem like children’s music.
Another aspect of Swans music are the vocals, they vacillate between somewhat melodic (“Oxygen”) to nonsensical (“Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”) to straight up babbling (“Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)”). Swans’ last attempt to work melodically happened way back in the day when they recruited singer/songwriter vocalist Jarboe, culminating in an era that pushed Swans towards a more folky, country toned direction. However, with this new album, those folky influences (last seen on 2012’s The Seer) appear to be pushed far away, and for all the right reasons. For album number thirteen, To Be Kind is the heaviest of its nature, brutally cutting deep into our eardrums, all while piquing our interests The opening ten minutes of the 34-minute epic “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” is one of the most raw, gut wrenching, exciting and entertaining moments of music I have heard all year. A FANTASTIC way to build up a reformation period.
Age rarely comes into conflict with the pacing of this album. For a band that is more than 30 years old with a 60 year old frontman, the band is more exciting, intriguing and heavy than most acts out there.Now with a plethora of powerhouse musicians, and the forward thinking of Gira, the band seems to have gotten the hang of improving their music, shooting it up to IMAX screen proportions, with enough vibrant energy and brutality to back it up. In a strange and intriguing way, this formula they’re dealing with feels, new. Swans have discovered ways to branch out from their simple formula of music, towards songs that are incredibly heavy to songs that are incredibly meditative. In addition, most of the songs here focus a lot on groove. There’s the Primus-like “Oxygen”, a ferocious, teeth gnashing odyssey that trumps most of Swans’ discography; Gira’s maniacal screaming adds a ton of character and manic insanity to the track as well: “I CAN’T BREATHE!!”, “I STEALL ALL THE OXYGEN!!”, “OXYYGEEEENNN!” Complete with horns, the song is a massive kick to the face; and as insidious as it sounds, Swans sound like they’re having fun with it too.
As the album cover suggests, there’s tons of character to this album. “A Little God In My Hands” will support the cruelest, cartoonish villain out there with its cajun, funky-groove romp and “To Be Kind”, contrary to how it sounds, will be the soundtrack to the apocalypse. But with all this heaviness surrounding the album, there are moments of meditative tranquility. The track “Some Things We Do” follows the same lyrical structure of the opening track “Screen Shot”, with Gira listing all the things that ‘we” do: “we seed, we feel, we need, we fight, We seal, we cut, we seek, we love”; it’s creepy and hypnotic, yet slow and oddly reflective and pensive. In a way it works as a calm interlude, for the tracks preceding it are pretty brutal and dark. It also closes off the first disc sweetly, on a slow yet admirable note.
The opening bass riff to “She Loves Us” kicks off the second disc, further reiterating the groove-heavy nature of the tracks on To Be Kind as it builds up to a chaotic, bass heavy wonderland, which then closes off with cultist chants and Gira’s manic barking. Swans always strive to push their music as far as it can, even up to transcendent proportions. And they won’t hesitate, even if it means repeatedly hitting you over and over again with massive amounts of noise, riffs, and grooves to make you see stars and hallucinations. But they do know when to put an ice pack on the listeners, however it may be a numbing experience. The following track, “Kirsten Surpine”, inspired by the Lars Von Trier film Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst, starts off incredibly calm, with hypnotic post rock guitar leads. It then builds up adding drone, chants, and steady bass and drum arrangements that occur over and over again as if the metronome counts down the last four minutes of the song. It may sound horrible, but it was one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard Swans put out so far. It isn’t until the climatic closer “To Be Kind”, a track that’s been on their setlist for a few years now, which again slowly builds up to close the album off on an epic and grandiose note; and as it reaches the peak of its ever growing sounds, it gets so overwhelming that it’s just as affirming as it is unsettling. After almost two hours, this is the moment where we finally see that Swans can still orchestrate a malevolent, chaotic ending, that feels disorganized, but ultimately falls into its own place.
Granted, all these elements sound alienating and horrible: cult chants, disturbingly loud noise, long repetition, babbling, nonsensical lyrics, and incredibly heavy instrumentation. What makes an album like To Be Kind so intriguing is the power it contains; it’s presence can be felt when it’s played, yet it comes unexpected every time. Talk to any parent, a crying baby is one of the most volatile stages of childhood out there, and in a way it reflects the album as a whole. Not because they’re annoying, unpredictable, and unbearable, but because they represents much more than the beginning of new life. They represent the fears of new life, the fears of new experiences, and the fears of your surroundings. When you first listen to this album, you will be overwhelmed, but I just hope that you will grow more comfortable with To Be Kind ’till it’s as pleasing as life itself.
PRETTY NEAT MUSIC
FAV TRACKS: Screen Shot, Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett), Some Things We Do A Little God In My Hands, Bring The Sun/ Toussaint L’Ouverture, She Loves Us, Kirsten Supine, Oxygen,To Be Kind
LEAST FAV TRACK: Nathalie Neal