Swans: To Be Kind – album review. “A Masterpiece. 10 / 10” says Louder Than War’s John Robb.
Swans – To Be Kind (Mute)
CD / DL / LP
John Robb reviews the new Swans album and hails it a masterpiece.
Swans are a band on a roll.
To Be Kind is this years first masterpiece. A stunning, sprawling record that stands tall in a yer surrounded by the yapping mice of attention seeking chancers, a stunning work of art in a gallery of fools and the totem release in a year that’s also full of intriguingly ground breaking records.
With this album Swans truly break on through to the other side with a long and intriguing work that combines the beauty and darkness of their best music and somehow makes sense of their command of noise and subtlety. To Be Kind is so many things at once from their neo classical swoops of emotion and imagination and a work that is the closest they have come to making a classic rock record in all the best ways and it really works.
If their original eighties albums were powerful for whom the bell tolls works of grinding so called noise their recent records have been adding elements of a musicality to their personal vision to the point where they have now created a record that utilises the classic shamanic rock of the likes of the Doors and the Stooges and updates it into their own 21st century world and still remains powerfully a Swans record.
Michael Gira has always been an original and one of rock”s last visionary frontman- the high IQ and intensity that searches to destroy and also creates great and beautiful art at the same time. The intensity of performance that deals with the holy stuff like god and sex and death that destroyed so many seems to not only enthral and envelop him but drive him to new heights of creativity. This kind of glowering shamanic power destroyed Jim Morrison and almost devoured Iggy Pop who backed away into a world of thrilling showbiz instead of dealing with the demons full on like Gira who has also created a stunning music from the brawl.
To Be Kind is the kind of record that Jim Morrison never lived long enough to make- a record of maturity after the madness, a record of exploration, extremes and subtle beauty and is the kind of record that the modern loveable Iggy is too scared to immerse himself in. It’s also a great glowering, rumbling two hours plus of music that you can get lost inside. A perfect soundtrack for late night drives and the solitude of the soul and also a very listenable journey into a heart of rumbling darkness.
The third album since their return to the frontline sees Swans further explore the very boundaries of music in a brilliant and enthralling record that drips wisdom in a subtle shape shifting of moods and textures that is so far ahead of the rest of the pack that it is already in pole position for album of the year.
Where Swans once were once extreme- playing a type of noise slowed down to a grinding and deathly extreme of volume and power they have morphed gradually into a beautiful butterfly. Sure they still don’t compromise, there is a 30 minute long song and some ten minute pieces, they still go beyond the rules and structures of rock composition and out of the other side that is very much their own.
They still deal in extremes but this time they seem to have tempered them with and almost classic feel- there are echoes of the lysergic eggshell Doors in this stunning work- the communal mind of Morrison’s droogs when the band just instinctively knew how to work a riff or a piece of music swaggering with all the emotion they could put into it with Mr Mojo Rising’s sexual poetry rampaging over the top.
Michael Gira saw the Doors as a chemically rearranged 13 year old and they had some kind of effect on him then. There is also a touch of the prog era Pink Floyd in here- that sense of out there ness and breaking on through into a music that has more in common with classical than the blues. Music that builds and builds with an intensity and a cascade of ideas.
This album has everything- from the off kilter hypnotic riffing that nods at krautrock like on the opening Screen Shot, which builds from these smouldering embers and sets the scene with its building avalanche of sound.
There are the shamanic, loping, deep space desert blues with the stark slide of Just A Little Boy (for Chester Burnett) – a homage to Gira favourite the great Howling Wolf. There is the grunting almost vaudeville from hell riff of A Little God In My Hands, the epic classic new Swans of 30 minute pieces with the neo classical Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture with its classical swoons and bombastic brooding noise and sections of droning mediative calm. There is the intimate beauty of Some Things We Do, the bass driven, wide eyed madness of She Loves Us with its almost Turkish percussion, the endless landscape ambience of Kirsten Supine and the almost funky, driving Oxygen, the chanting drones of Nathalie Neal and the storm clouds and beauty of the To Be Kind title track.
The album is beautifully produced- there is a pristine clarity on the music and great drum sound, Gira’s vocals are his best yet utilising several voices from blues howl to crooning to meditate Yohawa 13 style drone chants to the sound of madness and the wide range of musical styles is collected into a whole with added horns and even sitar style drones – no mean feat when you consider just how wide the range of music on the album is.
Yet again Swans have set the bar.
Everyone else who stalks the edge of rock and wants to wrestle with its possibilities instead of being trapped by its fetid rules, its ‘radio formats’, its hokey- verse- chorus rules and regulations better up their game.
When bores tell you that rock has stopped moving guide them to this album – an album that draws a line in the sand and raises the stakes, an album that signposts where we are right now and mirrors not only one mans emotional sea storms but also the dark, seething and dangerous modern world with its unlikely beauty with its music, its meaning and its lyrics and its power.