Since Michael Gira’s reactivations of Swans in 2010 (he doesn’t like to use the word ‘reunion), it’s been more difficult than ever to categorize, or trying to describe their music for someone who haven’t hear it. And even as I write this review of To Be Kind, Swans third album since 2010 and 13th in total, I struggle more than usual to put thought and feelings into words. That is possibly also the reason why it took me about two weeks after its release before I finally sat down to type this review. That and the fact that its length, scope and gravity take many hours before it settles in. With its 2 hours and 1 minute running time, To Be Kind even surpasses 2012’s colossal The Seer in length, which up-until-then was Swans most hair-raising and challenging listen. Now, as Gira stated back in 2010; “the reunion is not repeating the past”. Staying true to his words, every post-reunion release have seen Swans moved forward and perfect on their singular, non-compromising vision of apocalyptic – and often unsettling – post-rock. And better production, more overwhelming crescendos, richer guitars, heavier bass and an intense, lively and highly cathartic atmosphere, puts To Be Kind at the pinnacle of it all; the experience when the after-shock is even more calamitous than the actual shock that was the outstanding – but now in comparison – much more scattershot The Seer.
A partial credit should go to John Congelton, who certainly had a great deal to do with the richness and heaviness of the sound and production, especially the absolutely amazing drum sounds throughout the record. He already had a fantastic year with St. Vincent’s self-titled, Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness (and some might count Cloud Nothing’s Here And Nowhere Else here as well, even though I found the production to be the weakest link on an otherwise respectable album), but I would go as far as to count his work on To Be Kind amongst his very best. Then there is Christopher Pravdica, whose bass play stands in the foreground throughout almost every single track. Especially on “A Little God In My Hands” and “Oxygen”, Pravdica reveals this sort of repetitive hypnotic funk riffs that add a density and richness to the overall sound that I never before heard on a Swans track. But at the center of it all is Gira and his sprawling, epic compositional visions that you feel at least as much as you hear. But unlike The Seer – an album that actually felt its length – time flies much faster when listening to To Be Kind’s tighter and more aggressive arrangements.
The more energetic tracks takes their cue from “Mother of the World”, the most intense and violent track on The Seer, in the way they’re built around stuttering repetitive riffs that piece-by-piece keeps building their pace with more layers and more instrumentation, constantly ascending towards their final inevitable release. The two tracks touched on above definitely lines-up amongst these. Especially “A Little God In My Hands” – with its filthy, menacing groove and gnarly vocals – is Swans at their most straightforward. In a way, it harks back to the bands earlier days with a primal, aggressive heaviness, but more refined and complex. The track catapults forward until reaching its synth and horn heavy crescendo; a full-out discordant mayhem of noise that eventually has no way to go but crumble under its own weight.
“Oxygen” on the other hand is constructed around an almost manic annular rhythm pattern – a sense of orderly chaos – that unravel the most explosive and visceral moment on the album. For nearly eight minutes Gira’s animalistic yelps collect a furious amount of tension, all the while Westberg and Pravdica trade of melody lines that rarely change a key. The drums are manic, horns and guitars scream with anger, the atmosphere is swelling and – for a lack of better way of putting it – everything sounds so damn marvelous. “Screen Shot”, one of my absolute favorites on the album, starts with a quiet and sinister repetitive riff that move fluently and seamlessly until reaching yet another extraordinary crescendo. But some songs are also quietly meditative or even fearful. “Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett” quickly settles into a sinister, folksy groove that eventually unfolds as the single most unsettling, spine-chilling moment of Swans entire career. There is a moment when Gira shouts “I need loooooove” in a desperate cry, but are only met with a devilish, resentful laughter – all the while the sliding, dissonant guitars sound like all the eeriest moments of Eraserhead combined.
Another meditative piece is “Kirsten Supine”, the albums most – and possibly only – outright beautiful moment. Sitting between the albums two most frantic songs, the tingling bells, strings and lovely back-up vocals courtesy of St. Vincent’s Anne Clark create a momentary relief, all the while Gira croons “I won’t let it go, I can’t let it go”. But as so often on To Be Kind, he finally does, and what once was organized is soon turned into chaos and destruction. The albums closing title track – that some might recognize as a staple on Swans live sets the last two years – have a similar pattern; starting out with a slow-boiling, minimalistic texture with this very beautiful, angelic synth pad haunting in the background. The first half of the song plays out like a religious (or sacrilegious) song about love and humanity; “The fallen son, the fallen one / in a bed painted blue, touching you / listening, just listening / to the wind and the rain in a fiel / to be kind / to be kind / to be lost / to be lost … there are millions and millions of stars in your eyes”. All this before a violent wall of overwhelming drone-y noise destroys every last piece of beauty.
Like The Seer’s over half hour long title track, To Be Kind’s gnarly, monstrous centerpiece “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” is similar in length. It almost plays out like an album within the album; a narrative detour from the main synopsis. The “track” starts out as crushingly heavy with piles of instruments on top of each other, before revealing a drone-y, almost ambient side where different sounds come in-and-out in the most insanely freakish way. But “Bring The Sun” also presents some of the weakest, least dynamic moments on the album. As one review put it; “a song that’s longer than most sitcoms needs to make every second count.” Conversely, that is exactly what the second longest song – the 17 minute – “She Loves Us” mange to do. The track has this strange, trance-y middle-eastern vibe with Gira sounding like his possessed, or at least speaking in tongue; all the while a bunch of Oompa Loompas are cheering him on by chanting “Now! Now! Noow!! Noow!! Noow!!”. It’s another insanely strange moment that only a man like Gira could possibly have thought of. But “She Loves Us” also reveals one of the best arrangements on the album – dissolving and rebuilding itself into an entirely different song – all the while Gira shouts “Hallelujah” as if trying to exorcise demons.
Even if The Seer in Gira’s own words was “the culmination of every previous Swans album”, I think there’s something about To Be Kind impact that hits even harder. Swans have created music with astonishing density before, but this album deconstructs blues, rock, free-jazz, drone and a variety of noise- and dark- genres before assembling it back into the most crushingly discerning soundtrack to the apocalypse in ways The Seer or My Father Will Guide Me never reached. But this, their longest and most complex work so far, is bizarrely also their most accessible. You’ll need an entry point, and you’ll have to find enough time, but if you had difficulties getting past Swans thick, greasy walls in the past, this is the best place to start. And perhaps in time, this could well become one of the most extraordinary musical experiences of your life. It certainly is one of mine. I just wish I had the words to better explain why.