Swans – To Be Kind
Swans make Old Testament music. As deep and as wide as it is, its power lies in its ability to evoke a fathomless Beyond, coupled with an ability to convey a dread of said Beyond. And yet, it is sufficiently punishing to trigger a yearning for release, collapse. Easy listening, it is not.
Swans were always a punishing band, but since Michael Gira reformed his long-running project for 2010’s Our Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, the sense of eternal weight has settled in Gira’s throat. 2012’s The Seer was extraordinary, exploring hitherto unknown emotional and psychological reaches. No mean feat for a sixtysomething.
For all this, though, the Swans make very simple music, and To Be Kind, their latest, is no different. Everyone knows that repetition can generate a hypnotic effect, but no-one in their right mind would stretch that idea this far – the median track length is over ten minutes. Everyone knows that the sound of a lot of people playing as loud as possible all at once is exhilarating, but who would summon white noise for minutes on end? Well, outside of the noise underground, just about no-one except for Swans.
As for the question of why, the answer might lie in the brief moments of respite. On ‘Kirsten Supine’, Gira duets with St Vincent, and the celestial, bell-sweetened effect is reminiscent of the band’s best work with pre-hiatus member Jarboe, and a reminder that the Old Testament did have some happy bits. Then, however, the darkness descends yet again, before the syncopated, airless scronk of ‘Oxygen’ bursts to life.
After 10 songs, two discs and over two hours of this, you’ll feel like you’ve lost a layer of skin. Suffice to say, To Be Kind isn’t much fun. At times, it isn’t even that good – the 34-minute ‘Bring The SunToussaint L’Ouverture’ is frustratingly fragmented, more of a sketch than an overture. So why do this to yourself? In a word, catharsis. By the end, you will also feel as though you have touched something profound, something elemental. If this sounds enticing, good luck, and be careful.