"To Be Kind" Review | NY Times
A crescendo is a simple idea, but if it’s done with a certain amount of integrity, patience and immersive power, it will not fail: It will bring you into a direct power relationship with the music.
Swans is interested in crescendos — and in repetitions, and smaller wavelike motions, too: currents of sound and energy that surround listeners and remind them that they are small and insignificant, or perhaps catch them up in its own ambition. There are perhaps things not to like about “To Be Kind,” the band’s new double-CD, triple-LP album: the grimness and grandiosity of its singing and subjects, its theatrical exorcisms. But Swans, led by the singer and songwriter Michael Gira, knows what to do with crescendos, and waves, and the physical force of sound, and “To Be Kind” continues a run of evermore committed, detailed and powerful work since the band formed again with a new lineup four years ago.
These songs need their length; they sound worked out from organic performance practice, of which the band has had a lot in the last four years. The tracks are often systematized chants or lists or psychodramas, conjuring traumas of children and parents, of oppressors and oppressed; the album’s half-hour centerpiece, “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,” includes the sounds of horse hooves and animal squeals and then an invocation of slave revolution: “Toussaint L’Ouverture! Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!”
There are droning and chopping guitars — and string arrangements on “Some Things We Do” — but the rhythm section and percussion arrangements remain central to it all. They take the form of a slow, dreadful stomp in “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)”; of an all-out, mesmerizing cymbal attack in the title track; of chimes and bell tones; of steady, propulsive grooves, spaciously recorded by the engineer John Congleton.
Because the band is so in tune with real-time physicality — and because most of its new songs are eight to 34 minutes long, requiring a sort of record-listening patience which should not be taken for granted — the Swans might be best experienced live. (The group will perform Sunday at the Bowery Ballroom and Monday at Music Hall of Williamsburg.) But “To Be Kind” is more than a snapshot of a band at a given point in time. It’s paced and detailed. It’s careful catharsis.
By BEN RATLIFF