SWANS: TO BE KIND
When asked how he came to choose the name of his band, Swan's Michael Gira explained: "Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments." Gira is now 70, but he and his band still live up to their name. Those who have heard 2012's The Seer will not easily forget it, so it's amazing to find out that this year's To Be Kind more than holds up to it.
Screen Shot opens the album simply enough: a jangling, repeating acoustic guitar riff. Few things in music have sounded as disquieting. The percussion kicks in and a hypnotic tempo is established, and in the background strings swoop in and out. Gira begins to chant seemingly unrelated words, soon prefaced by the word no: 'No knife, no words, no lie, no cure.' It sucks you in, as the volume and tempo begin to accelerate and Gira starts to yell and the tension explodes as the instruments pound and shriek, cresting and cresting. Gira's lyrics simplify: 'Here. Now. Here. Now.'
Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett) is a tribute to blues legend Howlin' Wolf, which at first sounds like a slightly creepy delta blues song but soon becomes something much, much stranger. The vaudeville villain swagger of A Little God in My Hands is the closest the album comes to a truly catchy song. Don't get the wrong idea though: synths that sound like the deathcries of moorfowl, strange laserbeam battles, and some very creepy vocal work are all over it. After the inevitable shrieking crescendo, the song quietens down to end and usher in the central, 34 minute track of the album.
The first few seconds of Bring the Sun are quiet. Then Swans beat the cack out of their instruments. The initial assault gives way to something... altogether different. Distant orchestral flourishes. Quiet, insistent synths. Vast string movements. Then Gira's voice rises up like a celestial body, and sinks back into the night. The song flows like a ritual. Something is being summoned, and as Bring the Sun draws to a close the volume draws steadily up and the tempo rises and it is pure, blissful, sonic annihilation. Climax, anticlimax... we have entered the second half of the track -- Toussaint L'Ouverture. Named after the leader of the Haitian Revolution, this is simply frightening to listen to. A madman hammers a broken piano in the distance. Saws cut wood. Hooves on cobblestones: the neighing of terrified horses. Guitars screech tensely and then explode in a frenzy, drowning out all else. Gira comes back on, growling, chanting and barking, amidst deranged whistling. Eventually he can no longer take it and he goes mad, outdoing even the instrumental climax accompanying him.
Some Things We Do is more of a bridge into the second half of the album, but even Swans' filler is interesting. She Loves Us rips right out of your speakers. Words alone cannot describe this track and its ebbs and flows. This is just pure, aggressive insanity. The signature instruments, beating, the cack out of, is accompanied by Gira just losing it and yelling filth and gibberish, with a choir chanting 'hallelujah' in the back. Oxygen is quite similar, though it's faster-paced and much punkier and Gira says actual words for the most part. She Loves Us and Oxygen are bookended by Kirsten Supine and Nathalie Neal respectively. They start off gentle and hymn-like (Kirsten Supine is particularly lovely), but if you've read this far you can tell it doesn't stay that way for long.
The two-hour journey is closed off by To Be Kind. Quiet guitar strumming, Gira crooning gently, some great synths in the background. It can't last, of course. The crescendo is huge, the longest in the album, its swooping, stringed majesty and almost martial tone sound like nothing less than something by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Does it deserve the title spot? Definitely.
To Be Kind easily ranks right up there with Swans' best work. Michael Gira is a septuagenarian with an acoustic guitar, and might well be the scariest, most intense man in music. His deranged vision has lost none of its potency, and one can only anticipate and dread where his mind will take us next.
Rating: 10/10. If you can handle the album's demands, you won't find anything quite like this on the market.