Listen, I will fully admit that I am a hopeless Swans fan boy and might even listen to a record filled with sounds of the members defecating and giggling to each other while doing such a dirty deed; so imagine my immense surprise that not only did To Be Kind not immediately blow me away with its intense two plus hours of amplified heat and feverish rave ups, but my only initial reaction was my mystified feeling that I was not connecting with this album in any way at all, and this disturbed me in some ways as I was hearing others’ reactions to the record as well as hearing a small coterie of other dissatisfied individuals that were left in a similar state of shock; coming to grips with To Be Kind has been a rough journey of discovery that led me to appreciate this album in vastly different ways than some of the more recent efforts by Swans.
Hot on the heels of The Seer (a terrific and massive triple album that pushed the music of Michael Gira and company to new heights) comes To Be Kind (an equally ambitious and voluminous work in it of itself) from Swans that has been conjured through the torrid touring schedule that the group has been maintaining of late as evidence by the fundraising (for this album) live document Not Here / Not Now, and based off of those live emanations, my anticipation for this release was a near feverish wait for whatever those new sounds would be translated in a studio environment; so the sense of shock at my initially muted reaction to hearing To Be Kind for the first time and then the second time and the third time was almost as intense as the anticipation and only questions remained as to why this was not sticking to my ribs or kicking me in the guts the way that their two most recent studio efforts did and continue to do, and maybe this was part of the problem because I was (and still do) comparing To Be Kind to its immediate predecessor, which I loved The Seer from the word go based in part on what I had heard from seeing them perform the songs on tour and the preceding live record (We Rose From Our Beds With The Sun In Our Heads).
Alas this would not be the case with To Be Kind as the live versions of some of its songs that were crushing and devastating now seem a bit tame (seeing the band live recently also confirmed how I felt about the songs) and lacking some of the visceral power that this incarnation of Swans has , but through sitting down and intently listening to the album, To Be Kind took on a subtle life of its own as Swans inundated my mind with their well honed madness and willingness to get caught up in the great swell of emotion and spirit, which is there in spades as you can hear how much Gira and company’s collective hearts are imbued throughout these bleats and blasts and blows as heard on the immense “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” (an thirty plus minute movement that has more in common with the “1812 Overture” than with most modern music) even as songs like “Screen Shot” (hypnotic bass lines and rhythms dominate this track with some exquisite background vocals) and “Little God In My Hands” (seeing them play this live looked suspiciously like a crazy dance club scene while the song itself sounds like a warped version of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”) sound almost dance-able at times or the sublime beauty that is enmeshed in “Kirsten Supine” (one of my favorite pieces to be found on To Be Kind).
There certainly seems to be some sense of Swans overload with this release, and while I do not share any such sentiment, I certainly understand people’s trepidation at staring down back to back creative monuments such as The Seer and To Be Kind and wondering if they should plunge headlong into such a swirling abyss of such a heady and robust looking batch of records; my big issue stems from the way in which the songs here seem to not push the envelop like their last few releases maybe not quite treading water while certainly not the monolithic statement of The Seer, but in any regard, To Be Kind is a strong album that demands to be directly listened to instead of passive playing as there is a great deal to be missed.
Considering that many of the group’s earliest albums were sometimes described as being unlistenable, it’s odd that Swans have garnered increasing critical acclaim and notoriety some thirty years on in their history. Led by Michael Gira, the only player remaining from the group’s earlier incarnation that was declared as “dead” following 1996’s outstanding Soundtracks for the Blind (an album I still believe is the group’s best), Swans unexpectedly reformed around 2010 and immediately re-positioned themselves at the forefront of the experimental rock scene. 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky and 2012’s The Seer presented a more refined version of Swans, one that was not so much trying to brutalize a listener with sound but was seeking to place him in the middle of a desolate, harrowing, but fascinating sonic landscape. Clearly influenced by the noticeably less abrasive music Gira had been producing under the name Angels of Light during the 2000’s, these albums nonetheless still have that slightly creepy, disquieting quality that one would expect coming from Swans.
The 2014 double album To Be Kind, like the two releases immediately preceding it (and anything in the Swans back catalog for that matter), is likely to divide listeners. This is probably an album that any given individual will either “get” and appreciate or legitimately dislike. It’s extraordinarily well-performed, sprawling and extremely atmospheric but, to put it simply, this album isn’t meant for those who like instant gratification out of the music they listen to. No track here is under five minutes in length, with half of them being more than ten minutes long and since one has to suffer through lengthy, repetitive tracks to get to what most would consider a modest and underwhelming payoff, To Be Kind has the potential to be frustrating to the extreme. While the album certainly won’t appeal to those with more mainstream tastes, it also may prove challenging even for those who are familiar with the Swans brand of experimental rock since it’s very different from the albums Gira and crew were making prior to their 1997 hiatus. Those who can approach it with patience and an open mind are likely to discover a cathartic work that represents the singular vision of its iconoclastic creator, but as good as it is, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it Swans’ best.
Over the years, the one element virtually guaranteeing that Swans albums sounded like nothing else were the trademark, low-register vocals from Michael Gira. Perhaps the most puzzling element of To Be Kind then is that, even though it plays much like a downbeat commentary on human nature as only Gira could make, his vocals aren’t honestly the focus of many of the tracks here. More often than not, Gira’s unique voice is used in the sporadic manner that vocals were utilized by groups like Slint and the related project The For Carnation, and I’d say that To Be Kind as a whole has a feel that's consistent with the odd but compelling music that those groups created. The album has moments that are downright sinister to be sure (album opener “Screen Shot” for instance, with its ghostly incantations and alternately weepy, spacey, and jarring instrumental parts), but this album exists more to have an unsettling effect on a listener than anything else.
To Be Kind consists of two discs that each run around an hour in length. The first of these discs is the more strange one since, after the gradually intensifying “Screen Shot,” it continues into uncharted territory starting with the dark blues of “I’m Just a Little Boy,” a track that (if none of the others here does) confirms that this is the same Michael Gira who created some of the most downright disturbing music I’ve ever heard. Written for legendary blues singer and guitarist Chester “Howlin Wolf” Burnett, the song includes deranged stammering and squawking vocals chattering in a menacing manner over sparse instrumentation. The haunting and nerve-wracking vibe continues with “A Little Got in My Hands” which features a stomping rhythm and finishes with the sort of free jazz freakout that this album seems to have been building towards all along. “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” (which references the leader of the Haitian Revolution) plays as an expression of unfulfilled desire but is the most potentially divisive piece here as it drags on for more than half an hour. Arguably the most blatantly experimental track present, it has a painfully slow buildup that would test many listeners’ patience, working through pseudo-religious segments and pitch black ambiance reminiscent of Bobby Beausoleil’s Lucifer Rising Soundtrack before ending in an aggressive and tortured climax. The final track on the first CD is “Some Things We Do,” a tormented commentary on human dissatisfaction consisting of a repeating, spoken cycle of typical human activities.
Like the first disc, the second has a nice flow from start to finish, perhaps more similar to music that groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor might make with its sections of swirling guitar and purely atmospheric instrumental work. Initially noisy and formless, “She Loves Us” eventually transitions into a trance-inducing and catchy middle section with “hallelujah” choruses echoed over screamed profanity and bizarre statements. “Kirsten Supine” overflows with a sense of impending doom and may be the track here that sounds the most like vintage Swans due to the prominence of Gira’s thunderous voice while “Oxygen” is To Be Kind’s most comparatively atypical track since it uses a more traditional construction of guitar and rhythm elements. The tension-fueled “Nathalie Neal” builds to a serene and peaceful conclusion, and the album’s chilling title track escalates from a quiet beginning into a rhythmic, loud, and violent conclusion.
To Be Kind could be called many things, and it is an album that seems to go everywhere and attempt almost everything. There’s a lot of diversity on this album, but I suspect that some listeners may be turned off by the heavy repetition and might not be willing to give it the attention it demands. It’s true that many of these tracks operate in the own way and at their own pace, continuing in much the same way for long periods of time. It’s definitely not for all tastes but still, I’d have a hard time calling this album anything less than a remarkable achievement for Michael Gira and his collaborators. The way that these tracks often share musical and lyrical elements with one another ensures that this is a captivating, consistent listening experience. Although it may require some listeners to adjust their expectations, this is definitely one of the highlights of the year.