By Christopher Nosnibor
Swans aren’t dead. Not by any stretch. As we all know by now, they’d simply been in hibernation, and all the time Michael Gira was releasing delicate, acoustic-led albums with Angels of Light, poison was festering in his veins until Swans were, through artistic necessity, reborn, a magnificent chimera of malformed beauty. To Be Kind, the third album since their return in 2010, is their most staggering yet. It does, naturally, bear all the hallmarks of Swans from throughout their lengthy history. It also very clearly belongs to the era that began with the emergence of My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope to the Sky. Yet it also very definitely represents a further evolution. And, clocking in once more at a colossal two hours, it’s fucking epic. But the fact To Be Kind spans a time in which empires rise and fall, wars are won and lost and new species evolve and become extinct is a mere detail of the bigger picture. The weight, the depth, the intensity… To Be Kind feels somehow beyond human scale.
It begins in vintage fashion. ‘Screen Shot’ is hypnotic in its repetitions. Gira’s vocal is familiar, yet somehow different, his monotone delivery sounds strangely distant, at once deadened and flat but liberated from all earthly bonds, as though he’s drifting on another psychic plane. The effect is disorientating, a sensation that the music is somehow compressing the skull… and then the volume slams in, a whirling maelstrom of sound that cannot be pinned down to any simple configuration of instruments built by human hands.
It’s not often that a song by Swans stands in comparison to anything by another artist, but there’s a heavy hint of The Doors to the swaying psychedelia of ‘Just a Little Boy,’ which is a slow, opium smoke-filled dream of a song that transitions from the fugue-like to the nightmarish, with outbreaks of hysterical laughter and Gira gibbering in tongues to forge a taut, paranoid atmosphere that becomes hard to shake.
‘A Little God In My Hands,’ released as a taster ahead of the album’s release is manic, claustrophobic, unsettling. Before ‘Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture’ explodes with a monumental crescendo that lasts an eternity and only builds in intensity as it continues… the first three minutes alone are draining in their sheer force, the repetition delirium-inducing, and a truly headspinning way to open a track with a running time of 34 minutes. The storm force is reduced a little as Gira embarks on a long, mantric drone that begins once to more to build and intensify, with wave upon wave of sound on sound, the percussion assailing the listener from every angle. As yet another crescendo glides down like a terrestrial mudslide, a trance-like plateau is attained… and then as the bass undulates woozily like a drunken serpent, Gira begins to enunciate. ‘Liberte! Egalite!’ he screeches maniacally like he’s possessed. It climaxes in a cacophony, Gira sounding like he’s being subjected to disembowelment or an exorcism. It’s uncomfortable, it’s fucked up, and it’s painfully intense. It’s the absolute encapsulation of Swans in their current incarnation.
I can’t help but returning to that word, intense. This is an album that’s blinding in its intensity. It’s so intense at points it HURTS. Swans have come a long way from the bludgeoning racket of Filth, Cop, Greed and Holy Money, but they’ve lost none of their capacity to inflict sonic and emotional torture on listeners of their albums. If anything, the softer, subtle passages only render the crushing crescendos even more violent in comparison… and then there’s the fact they sustain those periods of molten volume for periods of time that test the endurance of even the most hardened self-flagellator. There’s nothing kind about the execution.
The album’s shortest track, ‘Some Things We Do,’ is brooding, delicate, atmospheric, but there’s a restless tension simmering beneath the surface… and then after a lengthy intro (reminiscent of the The Great Annihilator and featuring the vocal talents of Jennifer Church sounding not entirely unlike Jarboe) the seething cacophony bursts once more, prefacing a motorik drum and thumping bass / guitar grind (only Norman Westberg can make a single chord have such impact… here’s a guitarist who truly understands the power of minimalism) that drives it all home as Gira again floats free of earthly shackles, hollering and possessed. It’s brutal, agonising, Gira’s howl of ‘Hallelujah!’ anything but joyful or celebratory, its purgatorial mania the closest to the gut-churning sound they were producing circa 1984 that they’ve been in 30 years.
It really is staggering to realise that Michael Gira recently turned 60. He possesses more violent energy than many hardnuts half his age, and I suspect that To Be Kind would send many a death metaller running to their Mummy for comfort. Granted, ‘Kirsten Supine’ is as close as Swans are going to get to a pastoral folk song these days, and it does come as a welcome relief after the bludgeoning assault of ‘She Loves Us,’ but make no mistake, there’s not a comfortable, relaxing moment to be found across the two hour span of To Be Kind. ‘Oxygen’ is frantic, suffocating, and frankly punishing. It’s the sound of panic-fuelled insanity, distilled and amplified to an unbearable volume and it goes on and on until you want to tear your brain out of your skull just to find some respite… but there is no respite. This is what Swans do best.
The barrage of percussion on certain tracks – not least of all ‘Nathalie Neal’ – is impressive, and I suspect Bill Rieflin’s contribution (alongside the powerhouse dual assault of regular band-members Phil Puleo and the mighty Thor Harrison) is significant here. While of comparable length to its predecessor, and following a similar format in terms of being centred around a monumental half-hour epic, To Be Kind feels more acutely focused, more angry, more forceful, more fierce, more deranged, and – incredibly – louder, as if they’ve found more juice and cranked the amps up another couple of notches.
The title track closes off the album: a trickling ambient folk backing to Gira’s cracked drone shuffles forward toward a precipice before the cliff edge crumbles into a crescendo of cataclysmic proportions. It feels like the end of the world. It feels like the birth of a new star. It feels like a sonic supernova on a scale only Swans could create. It feels like words are entirely futile.