Swans are one of the few bands that stands out as being truly one-of-a-kind. Sure, the individual styles that make up the full picture of their sound have all been done a great many times before – post-punk, no wave, and noise rock are all clearly present within their unique approach – but no one makes music quite like Michael Gira and co. have since the group’s inception in 1982. Swans’ lack of contemporaries has been extremely apparent, especially after they returned to making music in 2010. It seems as though no one wants to make even the smallest attempts to imitate their sound, presumably because they’d end up embarrassing themselves.
If you’re reading this and have never heard of Swans before, yes, I assure that they’re THAT good. Even if their abrasive, oftentimes morbid style isn’t exactly pleasing to your ears, ever-ardent frontman Gira’s creative talent is more than likely to entice your mind. The sonic landscapes (the term “song” almost seems beneath them) formed by the band, can be eerie, relaxing, and at times even terrifying, but in the end always manage to satisfy anyone with a long attention span and a thirst for something out of the ordinary.
As a follow up to their 2012 epic The Seer, there were obviously a lot of heightened expectations for To Be Kind, the latest Swans release. In fact, it might have been their most highly anticipated album to date. However, Gira handled the attention with poise and confidence. To Be Kind is the best album Swans has ever released, and even after 20+ years of creating music, the band shows that they still can find ways to improve and build upon what they’ve already done.
“Screen Shot” serves as the opener for the record, a haunting guitar riff serving as the basic, recurring theme for the track. It’s a nice introduction, instantly drawing the listener in with its surprisingly catchy instrumentation, as well as Gira’s eerie chanting that comes and goes throughout. The next two songs serve as slight thematic deviations, with “Just A Little Boy” going for a longer, more experimental feel, and the more concise and musically active “A Little God In My Hands” clocking in at just seven minutes, making it the shortest song on the album.
“Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”, on the other hand, doesn’t hold back. It’s not quite the climax of To Be Kind. In fact, it’s more of the buildup to the real meat of the LP. Over the course of its thirty-four minutes and five seconds, the record showcases how far Swans can really take things, a more complete exploration of the band’s talent, reminiscent of one of The Seer’s deeper cuts. It sets the listener up for the album’s more driven second half, providing them with a more expansive sonic journey as preparation for what’s to come later.
The second side of the record is where it truly shines. Gira’s seemingly out of control yelling/screaming remains pretty high in intensity throughout its five distinct tracks. The group’s intense creativity runs rampant with many a musical moment coming across to the listener as unsettling or even scary – as if you’re taking a peek inside the mind of lunatic, and are seeing something you’re not necessarily supposed to. It all gets resolved in the end, though, with the closing title track. The ending, while not necessarily happy, brings the album to a conclusion that seems satisfying in comparison to the rest of the second half, which may leave certain audiences feeling a little uncomfortable. The raging, torrential noise heard in the closing seconds is somewhat akin to a person in a fit of emotional rage “letting it all out”. Gira, as well as the rest of the group, releases whatever pent up energy they had left over from the first hour and 50 minutes of the record, and lets it all rest there for a moment as everything draws to a close.
To Be Kind is a truly amazing, one of a kind work, but those not familiar with the particular style of music that Swans has seemingly mastered here should take caution before pressing play – you all might really, REALLY, hate it. But, as with the rest of Swans’ discography, when it’s looked at as more of a piece of art and less of a traditional collection of songs, then the real value of To Be Kind begins to reveal itself. As both their most high profile release ever, as well as a follow up to The Seer, it couldn’t have done a better job.