Swans: To Be Kind – You’d think that by this point a group that’s been around as long as Swans has would inevitably lose some of its magic. I’m sure Michael Gira’s decision to discontinue the experimental, industrial rock outfit back in 2006 helped him pop back onto the scene 14 years later with a rejuvenated sense of creativity. Their first post-hiatus record, 2010′s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope, was a respectable and valiant effort that merely scratched the surface of the musical triumph that was to come two years later. It was Swans’ 2012 monument, The Seer, that effectively propelled this vintage creative vehicle into massive amounts of acclaim and reverence, the likes of which the band had not seen before. It’s rare that such a niche band like Swans to completely reinvent themselves so late in the game, but Gira has assembled a much more grandiose Swans for these latter albums and its paid off tenfold. Their latest, To Be Kind, is a continuation of its 2012 predecessor, all the while being every bit as broodingly impressive.
Be warned: you might as well clear an entire evening if you want to really delve into everything that this double album has to offer. To Be Kind is a dark affair that shows little light at the end of the tunnel. And, that tunnel is long as all hell. Clocking in at a minute over 2 hours, it’s gonna take some stamina if you want to feel your way through that entire tunnel and make it to the other side. That being said, the moods on here are so perfectly crafted that it’s easy to get lost in them and forget that one song is basically an EP. ‘Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture’ in particular is a doozy; a 30-minute epoch that flicks off the confines of typical song writing structure. It kicks things off right away with a brutal two-note breakdown/intro and then makes its way through everything from cold, empty, spatial textures; metallic, ambient sounds; and distorted harshness. Everything feels organic and genuine, though. This beast of a track definitely takes its sweet ol’ time but there’s a natural flow to the movement that keeps you entranced and even allows you to be surprised at times.
There are definitely more straightforward moments on the album that cleanse the pallet, if you will, and give your brain a break from being constantly challenged enough to just enjoy the ride. The opener, ‘Screen Shot’ is pretty digestible even if it does clock in at just over 8 minutes. There aren’t many twist and turns here nor is there a lot of downtime. This song just builds and builds until it reaches a shrill, distorted climax that without a doubt will get your heart racing. ‘A Little God on My Hands’ is another moment on the album that nods to a more accessible sound (sort of). The main motif is a little funky and dare I say danceable? But it’s not long before the song jerks into a synth frenzy that is absolutely mental. Not to mention Gira’s vocal delivery sounds straight up demonic at times.
If you haven’t caught the drift yet, To Be Kind is anything but kind. This album ventures into American Psycho levels of fucked up on numerous occasions. But, its brilliance lies in the fact that Gira takes it there with interesting textures and harrowing effects and not the usual in-your-face cliché of employing loud volume to represent high intensity. Don’t get me wrong, there is enough volume here to beat you into submission. But, Gira most definitely has more than one trick up his sleeve. ‘Oxygen’ is a circus of a track that is what would happen if Heath Ledger’s Joker crashed the set of the original Batman TV show with Adam West. The horn blasts are very reminiscent of those old school comic book fight scene hits while the arrangement is so repetitively chaotic that it sounds like you’re running through a hall of mirrors on LSD. There’s a hint of playfulness and humor here but it’s the equivalent of Stephen King’s character Pennywise the clown.
The female guest spots here are also add so much to the layers of this album. Musical schizophrenic Annie Clark of St. Vincent contributed a number of vocals, as well as art-rocker Little Annie and Al Spx of Cold Specks. Little Annie’s contribution to ‘Some Things We Do’ is perhaps the most prominent female presence here though. The sensation of Gira and Annie slowly duetting on such odd lyrics like “We fuck, we rage, we weep…” is horror perfection. Gira is arguable a master of everything dark, doom, and gloom. And, he makes no bones about exploring those themes to the fullest and then some. To Be Kind isn’t for the light at heart. But, if you want to be challenged and walk away having witnessed truly bold and brave art then this album has the exact recipe for that…9.4/10