In previous incarnations, Swans used to simply make albums—challenging albums that were sometimes grating and sometimes finely detailed, but they never felt like anything more than a collection of songs. The reincarnation of this New York-based band does not make albums. They make grand edifices, massive monuments to volume, melody, rhythm and raw power.
The three studio works conceived by this sextet are almost dares, goading you to try to make it through every last second of their epic running times in one sitting. It’s a Sisyphean task, though. Just as soon as you think you’ve made it to the end, you are nowhere near getting to the root of these songs. Next thing you know, you’re straining against the boulder once again.
As on the previous two studio releases that Swans has brought to bloody, wailing life since the group reconvened in 2010, To Be Kind provides a wide array of emotional responses. The stabbing horn bleats and vicious barks from band leader Michael Gira in “Oxygen” and the masterful, half-hour expanse of “Sun-Toussaint” provide the fist-clenching anger, while “Kirsten Supine” and “Some Things We Do” are there for pensive reflection. Creeping dread hangs over the title track and “Just A Little Boy” (if you can find any more discomforting moment in music this year than Gira disturbingly singing the song title followed by stereo-panned laughter, I don’t want to know).
To be fair to the band’s legacy, Swans used to be an assaultive force on record and on stage. Their earliest works were the first flickers of the industrial music flame, complete with scrap metal percussion and Gira looking for a way to both immolate himself and the listener at the same time. There’s just something about the impact of this new material that hits even harder.
I think the brawn of To Be Kind resides in the idea that Gira put forth in the notes that accompanied their last musical structure, 2012’s The Seer, that the mutual goal of this band was ecstasy—not a sense of pure delight, but the meditative, trance-like state.
This is obtained most readily by way of the band’s use of repetition. For the nearly eight minutes of “Oxygen,” guitarist Norman Westberg and bassist Chris Pravdica trade of little melody lines that rarely change keys, egged on by the unceasing beat set down by the band’s two percussionists, Thor Harris and Phil Puleo. It creates a hypnotizing swirl of sound that damn near sends you floating. So too are the patterns set forth on “Nathalie Neal” through an Eastern-inspired melding of piano, hammered dulcimer and what sounds like a pungi. But in that case, you get lulled into a meditative calm before the full band washes over like a slow-moving tsunami.
Your greatest challenge will be to try and make it through To Be Kind in one sitting. I declare that it can only be done once. No, that’s not an encouragement to treat this album as a “one and done” listening experience. You’ll be back for more, but likely in little bite-sized chunks for easier consumption and digestion. That is the beauty and wonder of a massive work of art like this. There is no end to the nuances and subtleties that lay within. Find your starting point and start exploring.