'To Be Kind' Review | The Quietus
Swans - TO BE KIND
"I love you!" reads Michael Gira's address to his listeners, signing off the note announcing the release of Swans' thirteenth studio album. The open warmth of the sentiment might contrast with their agonisingly intense early music, but it captures the most striking aspect of this latest phase of his group's life cycle - its generosity. After a few seconds of near-silence - save filigree-fine electronic tones lingering in the air, eddying gracefully upward like sunlit dust motes caught in a draft - To Be Kind's centrepiece 'Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture' explodes to life with a series of cosmic shockwaves, each struck chord's impact greater than the last, causing the atmosphere to tremble around you. Even though it's expected, the shock is exquisitely tactile, enough to suck the air out of your lungs. Percussion lances through your body cavity like the shudder from a skipped heartbeat, guitar textures ripple like fingers dragged hard across the skin, the music's weight presses firmly yet gently against your chest and back. Then, surging in almost immediately afterwards, a mass release of pleasure hormones triggers off sheer, clear-minded exhilaration.
These emotions will likely be familiar to anyone who's seen the reincarnated Swans live over the last couple of years. Even at their most claustrophobic and confrontational, there has always been a splendid, unsettling beauty to Swans' music, with rock instrumentation and lyrics wrenched into jagged configurations often intended to sandpaper away at the nerves. But recent Swans performances, with Gira centre stage as conductor of ceremonies and Thor Harris hammering the hell out of his drums with plumbing piping, have felt more like ecstatic collective experiences - or, to grab a quote from the man himself, "evolving orgasms of sound". Expansive, texturally dense and physically powerful enough to still set the senses aflame, the music's force and pressure is now a unifying presence, bringing band and audience together in a state of shared immersion.
These experiences of playing live have clearly fed back into Swans' recorded music. While still characteristically huge-sounding, 2010's 'comeback' album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky still felt like the work of a group of individuals playing together. By comparison, on 2012's epic The Seer, they sounded increasingly like the connected unit of old, with each player reacting so instinctively to the others that their contributions became tough to pick apart. By this point they've further coalesced into an inseparable entity: on To Be Kind we experience Swans as totality, all seething ebb and flow, crafting music that seems to breathe of its own volition. On opener 'Screen Shot' and ferocious garage-punk snarl 'Oxygen', taut, caustically funky drums twist and shudder before finally - inevitably - buckling under the pressure and unleashing volcanic torrents of white-hot noise. The fractured blues of 'Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)' sets guitar lines to arc around each other, as delicate and free-flowing as plumes of smoke from an extinguished candle. The title track's translucent opening half offers precious minutes of blissed-out reflection before the music surges ever-higher amid a mist of cymbals, like spray off an ocean swell.
In terms of pure sound alone it's the most organic and forceful Swans have ever sounded. At times it's hard not to just take a deep breath and marvel at the density - electric guitar and drums, but also dulcimer, lap steel, bells, brass, strings - that they pack into limited sonic space. This sense of unified action in turn heightens the impact of Gira's lyrics - characteristically enigmatic, mantra-like evocations of sex, God, the body and the ritual dissolving of the self. He plays the role of wild-eyed spirit guide, both reacting to and reshaping the tempest gradually unfurling around him: unflappable amid 'Nathalie Neal''s riptide of guitar magma, meditative on 'Screen Shot', and sexually ravenous on the sprawling 'She Loves Us', which reaches its climax with Gira's shrieks growing progressively more feral: "Come to my mouth! Come to my tongue! Your name is fuck!"
Their ambiguity can also turn sinister. In line with Gira's stated interest in creating experiential works - environments to become immersed in - at times you're made to feel oddly complicit in whatever hidden horrors are unfolding beneath the surface, One particularly wonderful, shiver-down-the-spine moment arrives during the middle of 'Just A Little Boy', when Gira's self-flagellating taunts ("I'm just a little boy!") are met with a grotesque chorus of canned laughter, pointing and grinning from the sidelines. Quite who they're aimed at is left unclear, puncturing the barrier between the drama performed onstage and its witnesses. As with the canned guffaws punctuating Lynch's Inland Empire's quietly unnerving rabbit living room scenes, we're left with the disconcerting sensation that it's us, the audience, who are under scrutiny.
Despite clearly being intricately crafted down to the tiniest gestures - musical feats at this level of intensity and control don't emerge from half-arsed noodling - To Be Kind's songs also feel more fluid and open-ended than before, expressive and rich in possibility. That's perhaps unsurprising, given that many of them evolved during live performances. Several appeared in their emergent forms on last year's live album Not Here / Not Now, which also captured exactly how 'The Seer' sprawled outward into what became 'Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture'. The latter, which ends To Be Kind's first disc, is the album's highlight. Thirty-five minutes long, it's an astonishing feat of sustained intensity, wandering through rock-strewn desert landscapes and craggy canyons of sound whose depths feel like they could have been shaped over millennia through natural forces of erosion. The song's loose narrative is centred around the life of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution in the late 18th century that led to the then slave colony's independence from France. Eight minutes through, the atmosphere's density starts to thicken, layer by layer, as Gira leads a chanted invocation summoning the heat of the sun to strip the flesh from your bones; the temperature increases as its full force bears downward, and you're struck by a compulsion to ratchet the volume up until you're simply annihilated in sound. "Freedom from harm," Gira intones, after the storm recedes. A woodsaw shreds through the mix, horses whinny in a panic, suggesting the heat of conflict. Later his delivery turns to a guttural bark: "Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!"
I do often think of this latter incarnation of Swans as music that strives towards liberation. As if, having violently wrenched rock's structures and songwriting free of many of their formal restrictions during the group's earlier years, they're now expelling all their physical energy to tear their music free of earthly constraints - and to bring their audience along with them. Gira's lyrical concerns have long dealt with aspects of life that take us out of ourselves - religion, sexuality, ritual, structures of control and power, the certainty of death and fear of the beyond. On The Seer, but even more so on To Be Kind, he seems to be striving to mimic those effects, to subsume himself - and us - in music that celebrates our physicality and mortality. Certainly recent Swans shows have been among the very few rock concerts I've seen that have provoked sensations of being utterly lost in music alongside a few hundred others, akin to the best rave or sound system experiences. Perhaps that's one reason why the group feel as potent now as ever, thirty years after first forming and at a time (like back then) when dividing lines are again being drawn across society to maintain a toxic status quo. That drive to create states of shared ecstasy feels like at least one small sonic riposte to austerity: Swans as a joyful collective fuck-you in the face of divide-and-rule politics.