Time Out London | "To Be Kind" Review

The New York noise veterans have created an awe-inspiring monster of a triple album – again

When apocalyptic alt rock warriors Swans toured around the release of 2012’s monolithic triple album ‘The Seer’, one might conceivably have expected them to play a bunch of tracks from 2012’s monolithic triple album ‘The Seer’.

But such petty concerns as ‘promotion’ do not bother band lynchpin Michael Gira, a granite crag of a man who gives every impression that he was in this world before the dawn of history and will continue playing thunderously upsetting rock right until the point the sun explodes, and probably after.

It is very easy to get carried away when writing about Swans – their music isn’t so much unrecognisably ‘other’ as recognisable rock music blown up to an almost unimaginable scale. For instance: ‘To Be Kind’, the album from which Swans mostly played while touring ‘The Seer’, is ten tracks and 121 minutes long. Gira has commented that MP3 is the best format to listen to it on because it gives no pause or respite.

Where ‘The Seer’ was a rich, organic work that explored the breadth of Swans’s sound, ‘To Be Kind’ is almost monomaniacal in its focus on huge, grey slabs of noise, blank roars of guitar sound and punishing bottom end. Those elements are all stacked up into vast, hostile edifices running from five minutes in length – ‘Some Things We Do’, more an unsettling prologue for the 17-minute firestorm of ‘She Loves Us’ – to 35 minutes: ‘Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture’, unsettling passages of quiescence and weird chanting followed by torrents and torrents of obliterating noise.
There is contrast and subtlety here; there are calms before storms, haunting sweeps of keys and the drift of Thor Harrison’s intricate percussion. But there’s little warmth or humanity. Next to ‘The Seer’s broad palette, ‘To Be Kind’ is monochrome, with the copious special guests (St Vincent, Cold Specks, Little Annie) subsumed within Gira’s babbling, cackling, sickly vocal exhortations.

It is a literally awesome record, huge, stark songs that explode with tectonic immensity. But its immensity is such that it never quite gets its hooks in the way ‘The Seer’ did: there’s only so much howling feedback the mind can absorb before it starts to drift and wander. Nonetheless, ‘To Be Kind’ is another remarkable achievement from a band that deals in nothing else.

By Andrzej Lukowski