opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Swans, Michael Gira’s resurrected experimental rock project, are in it for the long haul. A tremendous influence on the genres of industrial and post-rock during their initial run, they’ve continued to raised the stakes with their return. They made it official in 2010 with the release of the entirely reasonable My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, a suitably bleak 44-minute proclamation of doom. After Gira found his footing, his ambitions ballooned. The Seer followed in 2012, a formidable, 119-minute score for the end of the world, recalling the format of the final act of Swans’ first incarnation, 1996’s double-album Soundtracks for the Blind. The Seer was an ugly, gripping, and singular piece of artistry, introducing Swans to a new generation while establishing them as a modern act with no equal.
When listening to a new piece of music, prior to articulating my thoughts on it, I have a general rule that I should be able to commit the majority of it to memory. This tends to work for two reasons: The more challenging the music, the longer this process takes, which seems fair. Second, if the lyrics, melodies and the general structure of a song or album are on recall, it makes the writing process much easier. But when you have a two-hour-plus album, in which half of the songs run over ten minutes and as long as half-an-hour, adhering to this principle can bankrupt your reserves of time and energy. And so it has. Swans have thrown a wrench into my regimen.
Though similar in length and format to The Seer, To Be Kind wields its own form of eerie, demented power. Over the past two weeks, I’ve committed more time to To Be Kind than I have to sleeping. I’ve listened deeply, passively, in its intended sequence, on shuffle and song-by-song on repeat. An album that attempts so much while actually giving itself adequate space to do so requires unabridged immersion.
It’s a hell of a lot to unpack, let alone make sense of. More driven by electronics than The Seer, To Be Kind deals in the same bleak Jacobi convictions. Let’s start with the easy pieces. “Oxygen” and “A Little God In My Hands”, debuted earlier this year, and are probably the most song-like pieces on the album. The former maintains a stranglehold for its entire run, with a stop-start guitar motif that seems to gasp for air at every bar and panicked drumming that slowly vacillates in tempo, a combination of mayhem and precision under duress. The latter is bellicose, flesh-eating funk, with the walls of noise that blare out like a continuously firing synapse. The title alone is some indication of the scale Swans are working on here, and Gira’s pinched nasal tone proves unsettlingly catchy.
Gira’s voice is the inconstant constant on To Be Kind. Wary and weathered, but mutable, somewhere between Tom Waits, Black Francis and Lou Reed, conversing in hammy drawls, spoken word and amelodic tones. The lyrics are fragmented, often two-word phrases that function as some sort of larger motif, often touching on sexuality, religion and nonsensical impressionism. On opening track “Screen Shot”, instruments clamber over each other, converging uncomfortably while Gira rasps through carefully chosen words: “No pain/No death/No fear/No hate… No wound/No waste/No lust/No fear/No light/No cure.”
To Be Kind deals largely in drones, though no two frames are identical. Despite the occasionally improvisatory feel, this album was clearly practiced to death before being put to tape, and it’s astonishing how hard it is capable of hitting while still sounding compositionally loose. As on The Seer, the payoffs after several minutes of agonizingly slow progress make the journey not just worthwhile, but worth retaking. Some of the more harrowing passages, like the middle third of “Bring the Sun/Toussiant L’Overture” or nearly all of “She Loves Us!” (“Your name is fuck!/Fuck, fuck, fuck!) are the musical equivalent of a sweat lodge. The passages of drone and noise extend long after you’re expecting them to relent. Needless to say, To Be Kind is challenging, often uncomfortable listening. It is certainly not for anyone, or even most, but those with the stamina and patience will soon discover the upside of their investment.
If To Be Kind falters anywhere it’s on “Bring the Sun”, which matches its predecessor, “The Seer”, for intensity but lacks the same dynamic edge, and a song that’s longer than most sitcoms needs to make every second count. But on the evidence of To Be Kind as a whole, Gira has plenty of gas left in the tank. The man just turned sixty, and his work is continues to pack on muscle and take creative leaps that few other bands would have the balls to conceive, let alone attempt. To Be Kind is a loving ode to chaos, full of deranged, mutant energy and even more brilliant for it. A-