[sic] Magazine

Swans – To Be Kind

According to malevolent-in-chief Michael Gira, Swans’ last LP, The Seer, was “the culmination of every previous Swans album, as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined”. It reputedly took 30 years to make. So, just two years later, what do they have up their sleeve with To Be Kind? A paradox, of course. Their thirteenth studio LP (another really long-player that again weighs in at 2 hours with a single track accounting for more than a quarter of that running time), it isn’t quite as evil as the near-perfect The Seer, yet it takes more time to warm on you. And, while it perhaps lacks a little of its predecessor’s bleak beauty, it manages to match it blow for blow in intensity no matter how (relatively) accessible it may seem on a first listen.

To say then that To Be Kind is a much anticipated album is an understatement. Seven of these ten tracks, though now substantially reworked, have nevertheless seen the light of day before on last year’s live/demos collection Not Here/Not Now. Some of the band’s fearsome, bewildering live energy does, mercifully, make it to this record though, albeit in typically patient Swans style. That, of course, translates as plenty of repeats with few rapid changes. Be that as it may, there’s still more excitement in the opening bars of “Screen Shot” that most will ever achieve. Compositional gloom builds through an insistently thumbed bass riff. Skittering drums, creaking synth buzz and fraught piano keys are added in layers as Gira sneers his way through a shopping list of menace and a muscular climax. Managing to be both solemn and exhilarating during its 17 minutes, the quick-fire crunch of “She Loves Us” is pure adrenalin too as Gira muses maniacally on religion and sex. As with elsewhere, segues to experimental noise and female backing mantra (courtesy of Cold Specks, St. Vincent and Little Annie) help keep things fresh, the track precisely as long as it needs to be in order to accommodate its blunt-force chords and ferocious finale.

Swans have never been all brawn though and To Be Kind’s generous running time comfortably allows for the minimalist doom-folk of “Some Things We Do”, the delicate chimes of “Kirsten Supine” (a song for Kirsten Dunst, no less), as well as the tender title-track, which sounds suspiciously like a love song until its predictably noisy outro. You’ve then got the middle order, melodic bruisers like “Nathalie Neal” and the funky, out-of-nowhere strut “A Little God In My Hands”, a track which brings Nick Cave to mind circa Abattoir Blues despite its usual Swans-brand bells and whistles (read braying brass and extreme synth). In the heavyweight category, “Oxygen” is an abrasive smash-and-grab that rampages like a runaway elephant trampling a bandstand, while “Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” is a spectral blues shuffle dedicated to Howlin’ Wolf that develops under the guidance of drummer Thor Harris, a man who’ll beat his kit with metal piping when the mood takes him, into a nasty questioning of sanity. If guys like Burnett and Robert Johnson ever did sell their souls to the devil it would unquestionably have been for an unhinged dirge like this.

To Be Kind’s unavoidable centrepiece, however, is all 34 minutes of “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”, a concept suite about an 18th century Haitian revolutionary in which Gira and pals invoke his battling spirit through intense experimentalism, horse hooves clattering around the cobbles, lyrics substituted for barks, trills and screaming. It and the album as a whole is delivered in a language unique to Swans and, along with The Seer, To Be Kind should hereby be considered that tongue’s sacred text.

Best track: “Screen Shot”

~To Be Kind is out now on Mute.~