Swans – To Be Kind | Album Review

When: 12/05/2014
Where: Young God/Mute
Like/Love: LOVE
In recent years it appears that being a fan of Swans is one of the most testosterone heavy statements anyone can make. It’s up there with tackling bears or punching sharks in the face for sure, and that’s not because Swans have entered a slump after a near twenty year career, it’s because Swans are performing their best material yet and it just so happens to be at the extreme of musical euphoria.
When the band returned in 2010 with My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, Swans were somewhat close to the sanity line. There were no thirty minute epics thrown in the middle of the record, no sign of synths powerful enough to blow your speakers, there was an anger and tension that reflected in song titles like You Fucking People Make Me Sickbut that was about it. It was only until 2012’s effort The Seer where the true personality of Swans came out, as it was hellbent on delivering repetition after repetition of the same disjointed rhythms and hooks that weren’t so much catchy but more like an actual hook stuck in your back. It’s two hours of the best worst listen of your life, but it definitely propelled Swans right at the top of many listeners’ anticipation for what was to follow The Seer. The result is To Be Kind, a double album that looks to deceive it’s audience with brightly coloured album art and a picture of a baby instead of The Seer‘s feral dog, but once you get into this thing, you’ll realise babies are just as bad as feral dogs.
The first two tracks that were dropped prior to the release of To Be Kind suggested that Swans had adopted a poppier approach to their sound, as Oxygen and A Little God In My Hands both featured riffs that were immediately engaging, which is traditional for Swans generally, but in this case it was engaging it the sense that it was catchy, accessible, something usually left untouched in Swans’ material. However, despite the unexpected glimpse of mainstream Swans, both songs definitely retained a lot of the usual tricks the band use to keep their songs far and away from the pop genre. Oxygen‘s riff becomes the only riff present for eight minutes, and A Little God In My Hands pretty much ruined our eardrums the first time around.
So it was clear we were going to be in for a real treat with To Be Kind even if there were just slight hints of poppy sentimentality. Opening track Screen Shot is a fantastic introduction into the album as it ticks everything needed in the perfect opening song. It’s slow fade into an off-kilter instrumental that sounds like thick, metallic guitars deliver this riff that meanders its way through Michael Gira’s subtle vocals. This provides the perfect tone of tension to be made as the song continues to build with extra percussion and melodies that put the listen in a sense of danger, waiting with bated breath for the whole world to be turned upside down. It finally lets go and just rips the airwaves with repeated vocals that becomes a mantra, and the guitars kick in to deliver an intense instrumental that just sounds nothing short of fucking awesome. This is Swans in their element, and they’ve only just started.
Michael Gira’s vocals seem at their best too as they give incredible performances throughout this record. Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett) includes a wonderful shift from slightly groggy into beyond insane as Gira directs the track into this strange section full of being just a little boy and having a crowd laugh at him. Once the rejection of the crowd becomes apparent Gira howls out for love and once again the laughter starts up again; possibly creating the cruelest moment ever heard in a Swans record. Oxygen sees Gira erratically deliver his words in a frantic, chaotic manner to really put across the instrumentation’s carthotic atmosphere. It’s intense drumbeats alongside the meandering, explosive bass and guitar parts definitely begins to seep into the mind and it’s hard to escape it. It’s suffocation done right.
To Be Kind is definitely Swans’ best work yet. Despite following the same trend as The Seer Michael Gira and co have managed to perfect the balance between accessibility and insanity. It’s still hard to become a fan of Swans, but it’s that fight towards earning that statement that makes it all worthwhile, and once you’ve battled through the many obstacles they throw in your way after luring you in with brightly coloured album covers and poppy, catchy guitar intros it becomes clear why you just sat through two hours of your life wondering what the hell is going on. This could be album of the year, or at the very least in the top 5. It’s mindblowing.
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