Music Review: Swans, To Be Kind

Published on May 16th, 2014 in: Current Faves, Music, Music Reviews, Reviews |

By Jeffery X Martin

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I have an irrational fear of Swans leader Michael Gira. I imagine him striding through the desert at sunset, taking impossibly long steps, heat shimmering from him in mirage waves, impossible to look at directly. He holds out his arms and silently begins to absorb the encroaching darkness, holding it somewhere deep within himself, perhaps in the fetid abyss he calls a “heart.” He moves through the world like the Walking Man and, in my mind, he sounds like Werner Herzog when he speaks.

To Be Kind, the third album from Swans since their reformation in 2010, does nothing to alter that vision.

It’s never been a matter of simply making music for Swans. They do not play for their audience; they fight against them. They push against the boundaries of their listeners, like a riot squad, shoving people back against the wall, assaulting them with whatever crude weapon available. Swans do not just want you to listen. Swans want you to submit.

To Be Kind is the perfect example of what Laurie Anderson once called “difficult music.” Most of the songs begin deceptively soft and alluring, drawing the listener in. Just when you think you have a handle on where the song is going, something terrible happens. Walls of noise come crashing down around you, chants and incantations rise up, layers upon layers of harsh, indefinable sounds close in on you. Each song is a Venus Flytrap, and you don’t realize there’s no escape until it is far too late.

“Screenshot,” the opening track, sounds like a Tool song when it starts, with its multiple bass parts and polyrhythmic drumming. It feels safe and comfortable, until it turns into a monster and eats your face off. Gira, who doesn’t sing as much as he intones, goes through a list of threatening commands. “Breathe/Reach inside/Touch/Come.” It is an insidiously catchy song, like the most fun you’ve ever had being brainwashed.

“A Little God in Our Hands,” the first single released from the album, breaks down into an impenetrable wall of screeching horns, dissonant guitars, and all the cymbals from every marching band in the world. It’s a terrifying shift in tone, so oppressive and prolonged that it seems to suck all the air out of the room.

Gira’s high pitched, sneering, mocking vocals on “Just A Little Boy” are the purest nightmare ingredients on the record, and the song itself the strongest track on the record. His mentions of love and omniscience seem incongruous with the music accompanying them, hideous overdubbed male laughter and the scariest slide guitar this side of True Detective.

Listening to any Swans album is a commitment. The song “Sun-Toussaint” itself is 34 minutes long. The shortest tune runs around seven minutes. Yet, To Be Kind feels like anything but a task. It takes a crazy kind of passionate joy in watching things circle the drain. There’s a sardonic streak running through the album, a not unexpected meanness. When Gira says, “Oh, Universe/Sing in reverse,” calling for it all to come down into that teaspoon-dense singularity, there’s an anti-Pentecostal fervor there that sends chills down the listener’s spine.

Look. Plain and simple, Swans is an acquired taste. To Be Kind is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is abrasive. It leaves bruises. It does not care if you like it. It sounds like what you imagine being waterboarded feels like.

In that respect, To Be Kind is a minor masterpiece. It is self-indulgent and repetitive, but never gets boring. It’s probably the most sonically fascinating album I’ve heard since, well, the last Swans album. On the second leg of their career, Swans have recaptured and updated the anger of their past work and turned it into the perfect hypno-circle of modern paranoid angst and spiritual malaise.

To Be Kind is an incredible piece of work that a lot of people are not going to like. It’s not easily accessible and practically every song ends up in a dread-filled bukkake of sound. I loved the record, even though I’m pretty sure I’m going to wind up with a case of PTSD after repeated listening.

You’re taking your sanity in your own hands with this record. But take comfort in the fact that, after it destroys you, it will deliver your soul safely into the dark hands of Michael Gira, who waits for you silently in the desert.

To Be Kind was released in North America through Young God Records on May 13 and for the rest of the world, through Mute on May 12.

Tour Dates:
May 17 – Boston, MA, Royale Nightclub
May 18 – New York, NY, Bowery Ballroom
May 19 – Brooklyn, NY, Music Hall of Williamsburg
May 22 – Manchester, UK, Academy 2
May 23 – Newcastle, UK, Hoults Yard
May 24 – Glasgow, UK, The Arches
May 25 – Aberdeen, UK, The Lemon Tree
May 27 – London, UK, Brixton Electric
May 28 – Bristol, UK, Trinity Community Arts
May 29 – Reading, UK, Sub89
May 31 – Birmingham, UK, Supersonic Festival – Custard Factory
June 1 – Leeds, UK, Cockpit
June 2 – Brighton, UK, Concorde 2
June 17 – Quebec, QC, Le Cercle
June18 – Montreal, QC, Theatre National
June 20 – Toronto, ON, Yonge-Dundas Square Stage- MNW Festival
June 21 – Detroit, MI, St Andrews Hall
June 22 – Chicago, IL, Lincoln Hall
June 24 – St Louis, MO, The Ready Room
June 26 – Dallas, TX, Trees
June 27 – Austin, TX, Mohawk Austin
June 28 – Houston, TX, Fitzgerald’s Upstairs
June 30 – Nashville, TN, Exit / In
July 1 – Charlotte, NC, Neighborhood Theatre
July 2 – Louisville, KY, The New Vintage
July 3 – Pittsburgh, PA, Rex Theater
July 5 – Buffalo, NY, Tralf Music Hall
July 6 – New Haven, CT, Toad’s Place
Sept 2 – Denver, CO, Bluebird Theater
Sept 4 – Seattle, WA, Showbox
Sept 4 – Vancouver, BC, The Venue
Sept 6 – Portland, OR, Roseland Theater
Sept 8 – San Francisco, CA, Independent-Bluebird Theater
Sept 11 – Hollywood, CA, The Roxy Theatre

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