The Agit Reader | "To Be Kind" Review

It’s an inevitability that any band that broke up in the ‘90s will reform sooner rather than later. But of all the groups to reunite in recent years, not even the most wide-swinging speculator could have predicted the roar of approval and delight that has greeted Swans’ reformation. From their emergence in the No Wave scene through the 15 years that followed, they were never a band to settle on one sonic style. Besides the use of repetition, they dabbled in a variety of styles and moods. The one thing you could say that was Swans’ signature was the presence of emotionally and sonically brutal songs. Not exactly the soundtrack to swinging Young America. Yet, their return in 2010 was greeted as if they’d spent the better part of the ’90s yucking it up on the couch next to Kennedy. However, their reemergence wasn’t just a one and done victory lap. Instead, they’ve maintained a fairly steady stream of new releases, mixing studio records with live albums. In keeping with that momentum, the band has released its 13th studio album, To Be Kind (Young God).

Produced by Swans leader Michael Gira, To Be Kind follows the format of its predecessor, The Seer, as a two-disc release breaking the two-hour barrier. With only 10 songs, it’s something to prepare for when the shortest song on the album is five minutes long. Generally speaking, it’s not the type of record that you’ll throw on shuffle, but rather the sort that demands your attention. But it’s not as indulgent as it might sound. The key is that Gira and his collaborators know to keep it interesting both sonically and compositionally. Even amongst heavy repetition, the band knows how to add and subtract before it starts to become a bore. It’s best compared to having a bunch of different movements in one song that are going to a specific place. As a result, the record doesn’t feel as long as it is, and the canny blend of traditional instruments, found sounds, and aggressively manipulated sonics helps to keep things from becoming stagnant.

Vocally and lyrically Gira howls, growls and coos the darkness into being. But there’s a twist as “love” also gets time to shine. It’s generally not the Hallmark card type, but an attempt to connect and perhaps cut a swath of light through all of the gloom. Yet To Be Kind isn’t an unrelenting doom cloud. It’s more steely-eyed and fixed jaw than wallowing. Make no mistakes, Swans won’t be the soundtrack for a Memorial Day BBQ but it’s not all, “dark room with a handle of bourbon” either. For the uninitiated and the fateful, To Be Kind may be one of the best documents of Swans, encompassing nearly everything the band has been about during its career. It’s also a damn fine and challenging record.

by Dorian S. Ham