'To Be Kind' Review | Dots and Dashes

As was with The Seer now almost two years ago, there is much to admire in To Be Kind, not least its artwork. And Michael Gira’s Swans certainly aren’t without an army of admirers themselves, To Be Kind featuring cameos from the illustrious likes of St. Vincent and John Congleton, who also recorded this sprawling, two-hour opus (and did so, in part, at his Dallas studio). In addition, Swans have amassed a massive 121,141 Facebook likes at the time of our going to press (publish) – no mean feat for a band whose fan base have nigh on no interest, one suspects, in social media channels.

But if Gira et al. seem irreconcilable with this particular URL, then IRL, they’ve never quite seemed to belong, either. In short, they appear to be of a realm alien to this, and for that alone, they’re indubitably due admiration anew. However, if their live performances have become more and more like punitive rituals over the years, eardrums suffering in the name of ungodly dissonance, then in The Seer, and To Be Kind subsequently, they’ve realised a lucidity to belie, but never belittle, the brutish force for which they’re now renowned.

And this can be heard in the almost overwhelmingly compelling Screen Shot – eight pulsating minutes, propelled by thumping bass and cantankerous groans that make Les Claypool sound like a purring Katy Perry. The neanderthal thrumming of the She Loves Us, meanwhile, is surely thunderous enough to ensure even a more casual listener is left longing to return to a time of prehistoric primordiality, roaring hollers of “Hallelujah!” and maniacal yapping creating a grim, yet gloriously ominous cacophony.

Of the two pieces to have surfaced previously, A Little God in My Hands and Oxygen, the latter remains the more arresting, terse discordance and venomous drums creating an intense sensation that is not so much breathtaking, as what it must feel like to have your windpipe subjected to armed robbery, the demented lyric: “Eat my throat, eat my mind” thus assuming added gusto amid the grunts. And although his vocal may only rarely achieve that same barbed rasp as that of a certain James Hetfield, there can be no question as to which of the two loons you’d sooner bump into down in the doldrums of some abandoned, Upstate New York underpass.

But ultimately, To Be Kind is the sound of Swans at last spreading their metaphorical wings, and creating a work of striking immediacy – no mean feat for an album, as previously mentioned, itself spread out over two hours-plus. Because every one of these mantric, protracted jams – from the disquietingly, well, quiet Some Things We Do, to the monolithic, 35-minute Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture that serves as its Wagnerian centrepiece, and sounds as though it’s been freshly, so too furiously expectorated from the jaws of some godforsaken hellhole – is worthy of a journalistic thesis in itself. Most would, it goes without saying, draw upon a similar, if not the exact same adjectival glossary – ‘abrasive’, ‘hellacious’, ‘guttural’, etc. all terms commonly associated with Swans – although in truth, To Be Kind comprises not one piece that is any more, nor any less deserving of intense scrutiny, and subsequent praise than any other.

For with every listen, every last minutia to the album – no matter how unnoticeable it may be initially – begins to sharpen itself until not only unmistakable, but ineradicable to both ear and mind alike. Whenceforth, life may never be the same again, and so it seems Gira has a distinctly idiosyncratic take on what it is ‘to be kind’ indeed. Although then again, we should never have anticipated anything less of Swans…