Friday, May 23, 2014

album review: 'to be kind' by swans

There are certain rock bands that if you mention them in polite conversation, you'll have pegged yourself as a hardcore music nerd. Bands that critics love but who have never scored a hit on any chart of which you've ever heard - or you know, maybe just the one song, but it's a song that the fans will swear isn't representative of the band at all. Bands that have vast discographies of albums critics and hardcore fans will talk about for hours while everyone else in the room shrugs and goes back to their beer. 

And as a newer critic who's always hunting for more music, it's always been a difficult and yet vastly rewarding challenge to go through these discographies. Last year for me was Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and Push The Sky Away ended up on my list of favourite albums of that year. And this year, the challenge looked even greater, as I was now tackling a band with a monstrous reputation in a genre up to a few years ago I wouldn't have even called music. 

The band was called Swans, originating the early 80s as an act in the no-wave scene, focused less on cohesive melodies and lyrical songs than crushing percussion, musical textures, and guttural phrases repeated into a mantra. It was a musical philosophy that flew in the face of what I liked in music... and yet by the time I got to Children of God, they had won me over wholesale. Perhaps it was the moment they opted for a slightly more melodic approach, but Swans' brand of punishing viscera was effective beyond that, primal, emotionally gripping, and genuinely unsettling, but also nuanced and frequently beautiful and outside of a brief moment on a major label with The Burning World, some of the most inspired compositions I'd heard in a while, with the biggest highlights for me being the thought-provoking Children Of God and the damn near inspired The Great Annihilator.

And thus I can only imagine how it felt for Swans fans in the late 90s when the band broke up after Soundtracks for the Blind. And yet in 2010, the band reformed with a new lineup and released My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, which was a decent return but not quite up to the standards of their truly amazing material, just feeling a little underweight. Thankfully, Swans kicked things into harsher gears with The Seer in 2012, and now they're back with their newest album To Be Kind, which is so far one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year. So with that in mind, how did it go?

Well, this will be a tough one. Because of all of the albums I've listened through this year, To Be Kind by Swans is one that really resists easy analysis and categorization. Not just because it feels like a culmination of Swans' eclectic career to this point and fused into a massive cacophonous, gleefully profane and altogether terrifying soundscape, it's also revealing of so many inherent contradictions that the album becomes impossible to label. And thus even with the factor that this album is amazing and easily one of Swans' best releases period, it's also a record I am in no position to recommend - because how can you approach this? How do you articulate such methodical madness, an album hellbent on primal ecstasy and making it sound so compelling and yet so deeply terrifying? 

Well, in a deeply twisted way, Michael Gira did it in the same way he always does: he infuses the music with the human element, sinking into blackened blues rock that could almost be considered conventional and swaggering, perfectly articulated grooves to feed the frenzy and continuously keep the balance eschew. On tracks like 'Oxygen' and 'A Little God In My Hands', Gira sounds more unhinged than he ever has, spitting and spraying with a visceral style I haven't heard from him since the no-wave era in the mid-80s, and the way he howls commands on the 34 minute epic 'Bring Up The Sun/Toussaint L'Overture' makes him sound like he's on a battlefield. And placed opposite that are songs where his more familiar measured, grimy cadence sounds like the recitations of a cult leader, with the female backing vocals of St. Vincent, Al Spx, and Little Annie falling in behind him to create the choir. 

And make no mistake, the contrast is jarring - but that's the point, the uneasy and ever-shifting balance between order and anarchy, driven home time and time again by the instrumentation. The rhythmic bluesy riffs anchored by meaty guitars or tightly regimented keyboards eventually build into titanic crescendos that send every sound screaming and ricocheting off each other in a cacophony of distortion and noise - and yet somehow, it feels cohesive. The percussion in particular has its own brand of thunder, and yet there are moments where it becomes more and more brittle before breaking altogether. And that's contrasted over hazy soundscapes, all mood and soft focus that nevertheless have their own hidden structure, or songs that seem to be all demented energy and noise before crystallizing into a shape that was there all along. And there are so many instrumental moments strewn throughout this album that deserve acclaim for their variety and colour on nearly every single track: the picked bass riff, spiky guitar riffs, and off-kilter piano in 'Screen Shot'; the mocking laughter in 'Just A Little Boy' at Gira's squawking calls; the hollow drum and tight groove of 'A Little God In My Hands'; the jittery guitar bouncing off of the unstable strings section in 'Some Things We Do'; the killer riffs, slow acoustic strum, the fluttery synths, and the rumbling bass drum waves in 'She Loves Us'; the roiling percussion and echoing bells in 'Kirsten Supine'; the insane horns in 'Oxygen'; the sampled digression's beautiful transition into the guitars in 'Nathalie Neal'; and how the dark nursery rhyme tone of the title track builds to the most crushing moment of the album. And that's not talking about 'Bring Up The Sun/Toussaint L'Overture' and all the moments in that track alone: the sudden opening burst of sizzling guitar that somehow only gets harsher as the song goes on, the marching beat of the drums around the 8 minute mark that builds into a wave-like cadence, the galloping of horses, the sleigh bells, and the eerie synth line all come together to create a song that's damn near cinematic.

Now some would make the argument all of this instrumentation is indulgent and over-the-top - and combined with the fact that the majority of the songs on this album are over seven minutes, it's an argument with significant evidence. And even though Gira is the master of the slow building crescendo and building ambient atmosphere and somehow managing to keep something new happening throughout every minute of these songs, even if its subtle, there are moments where this album could have been trimmed a bit. Even some of the better grooves begin to lose some of their staying power if they overextend their welcome. And there are noisier segments that even with my fondness for the groove can get hard to handle, even for me. 

But now we come to the big questions: lyrics and themes, and what this monstrosity of an album is trying to say. Because at first glance, it's an album that seems to play in much of the same realm of Swans' earliest work - exposing human nature on its most primal level and every base and bestial thing about it. And when viewed outside of context, very few of the lyrics even pretend to make sense or tell a cohesive story. They sound like words that would be screamed by the baby on the cover of the album, overloaded wiith profanity and without any real knowledge of what they mean. And for a while, I really struggled with what it all meant on a thematic level, if anything at all.

But then I read an interview where Gira seemed annoyed that people considered his music depressing. To quote him directly, 'My goal is ecstasy'. That, combined with the odd focus on words talking about love and passion and motherhood and kindness on this record, finally clicked for me: my interpretation of To Be Kind is that of an album exploring a very young child's view of the surrounding world. The album embraces maximalism because at that very basic level, that's all the child can articulate and understand. The words spoken hold power, but the child doesn't understand what that power is or from where it comes. The child has no comprehension of consequences, so he simply does things. When the child sees war on a song like 'Bring Up The Sun/Toussaint D'Overture, he sees a conflict of such epic scale he can't understand it beyond words echoing over the field. It's a reason why the name 'Nathalie' was used in 'Nathalie Neal' - a name that has a root in nativity, meaning birth, imagery that is evoked multiple times throughout the record. In short, Gira seems fixed on capturing the sense of being in that sensory overload of being so young that everything seems huge and epic, and in this regard, he does an incredible job capturing that wondrous force - even if at points it proves more than a little terrifying or overwhelming to hear.

So here's the follow-up question: what is Gira aiming to say at the end with To Be Kind? His goal may be ecstasy, his protagonist might desire love, but the album seems designed to take that earnest aspiration and obliterate it utterly. And yet, at the end of the album, I get the funny feeling that Gira managed to find a fragment of that primal ecstasy - and though it starts quietly, it has the power to crush everything else in its path. Kind of cosmic and out there, but considering how many times Swans have written extensively about the awe-inspiring power of the divine, I'm not denying it might work.

In the end, on a purely aesthetic note, this album is goddamn incredible. The production is flawless, the vocals are visceral, the instrumentation is ridiculously complex yet simply powerful, and all of it is overloaded with more emotional and power than most bands could ever bring to the table. I won't say it's quite perfect or my favourite Swans album - Children of God and The Great Annihilator stand pretty tall in my books, and I can't help but feel a bit of a tighter edit might have helped this album a little more - but it's damn good and one of the best and most thought-provoking albums of the year. An easy 9/10 from me and definitely a recommendation - but let me stress that you may want to look at other Swans records before checking this out. This album is intentionally overwhelming and is over two hours - and you'll want to pay attention for every detail - but it's not a record the average pop listener will be able to take in on the first, or even second listen.

Either way, make time to check out To Be Kind by Swans - you're not going to hear another record like this for a long, long time, and it really is something special.

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