Three full studio albums into their reinvigorated latest phase, and Swans’ ability to surprise remains as potent as ever To Be Kind might just be the most startling and uncompromising of the trio, although these qualities take time to unveil themselves.
The first three tracks sound almost a mile away from the up-front claustrophobic density of predecessor The Seer; they are built around more conventional rock idioms. Opener “Screen Shot” is a moody rocker driven by a repeated bass line, slow-building rhythmic crescendos and Michael Gira’s mantra-like, often one-word, lyrics. It’s deceptively simple, and not a huge leap from the kind of traditional, slightly gothic, alt-rock that dominates a lot the indie airwaves, although it preserves a lot of that strange ingredient that makes Swans so unique. For this jaded ex-rock fan, for whom Swans have long been one of the few remaining ties I have to the music I grew up on but have since left behind in favour of jazz, metal and the avant-garde, the first twenty-five minutes of To Be Kind had me nonplussed, but I of course should have known it would never a simple task to approach this album.
Swans don’t do convention, even in the frame of their own music, and this version of the band is surely the most musically flexible yet.
The overt rock influences (there’s a hint of Jesus Lizard here and there, and a fair bit of sludge metal at times) might have something to do with the Texas studio where To Be Kind was recorded, but probably mostly serves as a reminder that adjectives like “intense,” “loud” and “brutal” only paint part of the Swans picture. Indeed, not only can Michael Gira display a more mellow side both solo and with Angels of Light, but percussionist/drummer Thor Harris is also a member of moody alt-country outfit Shearwater. And to imagine that this fertile territory would not be allowed to creep into the Swans sound is naive.
Where The Seer was overpowering and mighty from the beginning, several tracks onTo Be Kind are punctuated by wide spaces and almost stripped-down arrangements. Gira, of course, burns with the same fitful fire as ever, as displayed by the psychotic delivery on “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett),” responded to by sinister chuckles and laughs from the other musicians, or the hysterical shrieks of “Your name is fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” on “She Loves Us.” Even when Gira injects some oxygen into Swans’ broiling miasma, the listener is never let off the hook.
This is increasingly obvious as the album advances. By the time the thirty-four minute maelstrom that is “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” reaches its midway point, it’s as if one has descended into an infernal, sun-blinded desert realm of pain and angst. In what may perhaps be the best sonic metaphor for Swans’ barely restrained fury, the sound of stamping and snorting horses emerges from the seething tides of feedback and drone, before the track pitches back into its roiling tornado of sound.
“She Loves Us” is no less ferocious, a quiet beginning giving way to an almost free-form barrage of competing instruments played at full throttle, rendered even more unstable by Gira’s unhinged vocalizations. “Kirsten Supine” is more nuanced, at times even quiet, but still sees Swans go for the jugular with repetitive percussive crashes over Godspeed-esque open-ended guitar solos and sinister roars and snarls in the background. “Nathalie Neal” may open with delicate chimes and mandolin sounds, but before long an insistent, motorik backbeat has kicked in and the guitars are fizzing and seething back and forth across the sonic spectrum, building into one of those crescendos of noise, light, darkness and beauty that only Gira seems to know how to do so perfectly. For music so loud, To Be Kind is fucking hypnotic.
The point, essentially, is that even when it sounds like Swans may be going down a more traditional route, with clear influences from the back catalogue of rock history, to assume so would be to chase the reddest of herrings. To Be Kind, precisely because it is so deceptive and is controlled by musicians of such superlative talent, is quite possibly even more assertive and imperial than The Seer, which is saying a lot. It’s scary to imagine where this band could go from here. Scary and thrilling.