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Swans - To Be Kind Album Cover
Author's Rating
Vocals 9
Musicianship 9
Lyrics 9
Production 9
Creativity 9
Lasting Value 9
Reviewer Tilt 9
Final Verdict: 90%
Member Ratings
Vocals 3.5
Musicianship 3.5
Lyrics 3.5
Production 3.5
Creativity 3.5
Lasting Value 3.5
Reviewer Tilt 3.5
Average: 35%
Inside AP.net

Swans - To Be Kind

Reviewed by: Ryan Reisert (07/14/14)
Swans - To Be Kind
Record Label: Young God Records
Release Date: May 13, 2014


New York outfit Swans has forged some of the most hellish and heavenly guitar music imaginable. Their long and impressive discography is glued together by ringleader Michael Gira and his artistic vision, yet, superficially speaking, the band has effectively thrived in three incarnations. Arriving on the scene in the early eighties was the confrontational No Wave invader of NYC, a nasty spittle of fury upon the urban landscape that made punk look like child’s play. Albums like Cop and Holy Money made an early mark, and Children of God expanded their musical reach. The Burning World, Swans’ final album of the decade, was the birth of something more melodic and pastoral. Gira’s new obsession with folk troubadours signaled a major change in sonic aspirations, leading to moments of pure pained beauty.

The third incarnation has existed as a careful regurgitation of past lives. From the mid-nineties to now, each new record has been a healthy exercise in Swans eating themselves and spewing out only the vital organs. Soundtracks for the Blind set the stage in 1996, and the band fell apart a year later. Swans reunited in 2010 and essentially picked up where they left off with that year’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, one of the most tasteful reunion albums ever released. 2012’s The Seer, a culmination of the past thirty years of Gira’s own blood and sweat, was the pinnacle of everything Swans stood for. Absurdly long repetitions, brutal rhythms and ambient passages were sculpted with the goal of spiritual transcendence, and somehow they succeeded. With its menacing face, The Seer was the kind of beast the band would be forced to confront were they to continue making music. Gira’s solution, grotesquely enough, was to stretch his imagination even further.

What we’ve been blessed with as a result is To Be Kind. Droning on even longer than its nearly 2-hour predecessor, the fact that the new album only occasionally disappoints is pretty incredible. As with The Seer to a significant extent, the new album observes and critiques human beings by playing around with childhood and the id (there’s a crying baby head on the cover for a reason). Gira’s singing style has changed accordingly, frequently exchanging his rich baritone for infantile cries, pleas and nonsensical proclamations (“Your name is fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”). Listeners will have to accept the fact that any line Gira yells or whispers in your ear may be totally meaningless. To Be Kind’s message? Accept it. Embrace it. Make something of it. Even in spite of the lyrical absurdity, the themes of sex, death and freedom remain regular checkpoints.

When all is said and done, the voice is just another instrument in a hotbed of sounds and textures. Every smack of the snare and every strum is employed to maximum strength and flexibility. The same looped riff chugs along unceasingly. Drums slam and break tightly over what feel like eons. When nearly every sound isn’t completely suspended, painfully slow increases of volume lie on the horizon. It’s safe to say that this album would have failed had every key player not mastered the endurance test with fierce muscle and focus. On paper, To Be Kind sounds like pure hell to listen to. Sitting through even the first track is due to cause an earache. Such relentless battering may be taxing, but the holistic experience is positive, lasting and nourishing.

Even the quieter songs drone on and on before crumbling into formless distortion. “Kirsten Supine” begins in a quiet calm. Gira’s croon cracks and whines. Little twinkles and guitar bends sound just wicked enough to presage the chaos coming in the third act. Many of Swans’ best songs are sleeping monsters, and the ones on To Be Kind are up there with the best. One of their most awesome moments is the title track, a throwback to the style of Soundtracks for the Blind and seeped in unnerving film noir tones.

Nowhere to be heard on this album is Jarboe, a key cohort in Swans for so many years. The lack of the nurturing anima she provided for the band’s male protagonist manifests itself in Gira’s various confused outbursts of fright and ecstasy. Listen to “Oxygen,” a crazed mutant that heavily recalls Captain Beefheart, to get the idea. Jarboe’s small yet impactful presence on The Seer left a heavy question mark in the air back in 2012. Would she ever return in full capacity? Knowing Michael Gira from the tiny fragments of daily expression we see captured on camera and in print, the answer should have been obvious: She’s out for good, and no further discussion. Various artists (including Annie Clark, Little Annie and Al Spx) attempt to fill the void here, but the old chemistry is missing. Instead of highlighting the new voices, Gira hides them deep inside the sonic collage, as if he’s lamenting the loss of his former foil by burying the remains.

Since The Seer had a half-hour-long centerpiece, it’s natural that To Be Kind should have one too. “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” is 34 minutes of melodrama the likes of which I’ve never heard in a Swans song. Divided roughly into two distinct halves and telling the tale of a freed Haitian slave-turned-revolutionary, the first half consists of a bare instrumental, gibberish, and a chorus of chants repeating the word “sun” in a cultish trance. The music slowly escalates in tension until reaching the same height as these chants, eventually overpowering them and drowning them in the ultimate fiery wall of noise. Then, almost comically, a range of sound effects from horse hooves to hammers clanging appears as if from a gladiator film. The ensuing second half is another slow burner that fails to distinguish itself from what came before, highlighted mostly by Gira’s incendiary screams in French and Spanish (“Sangre es amoooooooor!” literally translates to “blood is love”). The song as a suite simply fails to keep up the momentum “The Seer” maintained in its entire running length, though its heaviness and ambition deserves mountains of respect.

To Be Kind performs like a specialized machine, producing one monotonous assault after another, with quiet space in all the right areas. Once again, Swans have created something gargantuan, yet the sum is less impressive than The Seer. The album doesn’t quite flow like its predecessor did, but this qualm and others are minor. This indispensible band remains at the very top of its game.

Recommended If You Like Swans – Soundtracks for the Blind; Swans – The Seer; Godspeed You! Black Emperor; A Silver Mt. Zion; Pink Floyd - Ummagumma


9/10
 
Displaying posts 1 - 12 of 12
08:50 AM on 07/14/14
#2
Dustin Harkins
Go support Kony 2012 some more
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Great review, great album
10:14 AM on 07/14/14
#3
Bryan GribbIe
"Don't get hit"- Isai
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I haven't heard the whole thing yet, but from what I can tell, this is top notch for sure.
01:22 PM on 07/14/14
#4
swimmer9800
Tell me again its all in my head
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Really glad to so this be reviewed on the site. Such a hard album to get into. Ive been trying since it came out. maybe its just not for me.
01:40 PM on 07/14/14
#5
Quijiba
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Really glad to so this be reviewed on the site. Such a hard album to get into. Ive been trying since it came out. maybe its just not for me.
it's very difficult, took me a few tries before I could get through the whole thing at once. It finally stuck for me one night while I was laying in bed, too tired/lazy to even watch TV. So I just threw it on, closed my eyes and listened, then it stuck.
03:34 PM on 07/14/14
#6
Archael
listens to good music
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always surprises me how so many people like swans.
04:52 PM on 07/14/14
#7
Steeeve Perry
Pushin' th' little daisies
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Still haven't listened to this yet. Took me ages to hear The Seer too, but that album is incredible.

I love listening to that kind of music while I'm working -- as a writer, lyric-heavy music really fucks me up during work haha -- so I'll give this one a spin soon. Sigur Ros and Godspeed You are two other great bands to listen to whilst writing.
05:21 PM on 07/14/14
#8
swimmer9800
Tell me again its all in my head
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Still haven't listened to this yet. Took me ages to hear The Seer too, but that album is incredible.

I love listening to that kind of music while I'm working -- as a writer, lyric-heavy music really fucks me up during work haha -- so I'll give this one a spin soon. Sigur Ros and Godspeed You are two other great bands to listen to whilst writing.
I was writing a paper for school while listening to this. It was good until I got distracted by him yelling in a high pitched voice "Im just a little boy!"
05:24 PM on 07/14/14
#9
swimmer9800
Tell me again its all in my head
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it's very difficult, took me a few tries before I could get through the whole thing at once. It finally stuck for me one night while I was laying in bed, too tired/lazy to even watch TV. So I just threw it on, closed my eyes and listened, then it stuck.
That's what happened to be with Deafheavens Sunbather. couldn't stand it when it came out then a year later decided to put in on (ironically) while sunbathing and it just clicked. Ive been hoping that's what happens with To Be Kind.
06:10 PM on 07/14/14
Your Milkshake
...I drink it
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album destroys. will likely be on everyone's year lists
06:46 PM on 07/14/14
Quijiba
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That's what happened to be with Deafheavens Sunbather. couldn't stand it when it came out then a year later decided to put in on (ironically) while sunbathing and it just clicked. Ive been hoping that's what happens with To Be Kind.
haha, i'm still waiting for sunbather to click. Maybe i'll toss it on the next time i'm catching some rays
01:57 AM on 08/08/14
theartofbreakng
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This thing was incredible to hear live.
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