Pumpehuset, Copenhagen, DEN - 15/4
To Be Kind
Written by: LF on 12/12/2014 14:16:01
To begin with I was only lured by this release because Swans is a band name that has been appearing in recent conversations with various friends, and thus it's no secret that I'm pretty new to the band. They're hailed as one of the biggest experimental rock bands in history, centering around singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira who has been the main constant member of the band through the years. After a longer hiatus, Gira started the band back up in 2010 and they have since then released three records, all of which have received endless praise from critics and fans alike. Their most recent effort "To Be Kind" sees them hone their craft even further and has been described as their most quintessential album yet. It's roughly the same length as its predecessor "The Seer" from 2012, that is two full hours. While it is an intriguing record, it's not exactly an easy listen despite its deceptively simple approach to songwriting that is more than anything based on repetition.
The songs of the album lash out in different directions being at times droning, at times very rhythmic, but they all have a certain ominous vibe that is both threatening and fascinating. Listening to and trying to figure out this record has been like trying to find your way through a sudden dark mist that lets you see sinister silhouettes out the corner of your eye while never revealing the exact nature of what it is you see around you. Most of the songs are as mentioned repetitive in trance-inducing ways, both in the riffs and the lyrics. For instance the first song "Screen Shot" seems like a big associative link that rolls on and on through lyrics like "No thought, no hurt, no hands to reach / No knife, no words, no lie, no cure / No need, no hate, no will, no speech". The music sounds almost tribal through its many but subtly overlaying rhythms and background chanting, and Gira's voice is itself entrancing in its relentless repetition of the words. This is one of the shorter compositions, mind you, clocking in at around eight minutes after having escalated from being dominated by subtle guitars and rhythms to a full-blown distorted climax that cycles repeatedly through the words "Love! Now! Breathe! Now! Here! Now!".
And that is only the beginning. Describing an album as ambitious as this seems almost futile as there are so many little things hidden on it that somehow deserve mention but would make for a tedious review. The entrancing quality of the first song is shared by all the following ones. Especially fifth track "Some Things We Do" seems to go back to where "Screen Shot" left, by building a new strand of sentences in a similarly repetitive and entrancing way, but on a backdrop that's much more eerie and floating than the tribal intensity of the former. Gira's voice sounds like he's lost in sleep while he sings things like "We grow, we take, we eat, we break / We hunt, we hurt, we seize, we kneel /We heal, we fuck, we pray, we hate". The album features guest appearances by among others the singers St. Vincent, Cold Specks, Karen O (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Little Annie, but these contributions are mostly in the background providing extra harmonies, but the more noticeable of them include Little Annie as she accompanies Gira on "Some Things We Do" and St. Vincent on "Kirsten Supine". "Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)" develops into an illusion of some strange stage show with crowd laughter intertwined with Gira making strange voices while he yells "I'm just a little boy / I need love / I'm not human", and in similar ways does the massive noise-filled 34-minute opus "Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture" include among other things sounds of horses, police flutes and sirens, and has Gira exclaim the lyrics in overly dramatic fashion.
The devious sound on the entire album is alluring as it investigates the darker sides of human nature, but I am definitely more at home with the shorter compositions of the record than for instance the aforementioned "Bring The Sun..." or the aggressive return to tribalism of "She Loves Us". That being said, this is a record that should only be listened to in full, and thus I find myself reluctant to point out single tracks for you to listen to but not because I don't like some much better than others. Rather it's because the entrancing qualities of the record only really shine on a full listen as the big movements of the album are more in the going from repetition to repetition rather than in just one repetitive song itself. This makes it a demanding record to spend time with and while it has paid off for me in the end, it's definitely not for everyone. It's an overall solid album that is both outstanding and inventive in its own way and if you're intrigued by any of the descriptions you read here, listening to this album could be the most cathartic experience you have in a while.
Download: Screen Shot, Some Things We Do, A Little God In My Hands
For The Fans Of: The Angels of Light, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sunn O))), Slint, Boris
Release date 12.05.2014