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To Be Kind Rory Gibb , May 10th, 2014 06:51

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"I love you!" reads Michael Gira's address to his listeners, signing off the note announcing the release of Swans' thirteenth studio album. The open warmth of the sentiment might contrast with their agonisingly intense early music, but it captures the most striking aspect of this latest phase of his group's life cycle - its generosity. After a few seconds of near-silence - save filigree-fine electronic tones lingering in the air, eddying gracefully upward like sunlit dust motes caught in a draft - To Be Kind's centrepiece 'Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture' explodes to life with a series of cosmic shockwaves, each struck chord's impact greater than the last, causing the atmosphere to tremble around you. Even though it's expected, the shock is exquisitely tactile, enough to suck the air out of your lungs. Percussion lances through your body cavity like the shudder from a skipped heartbeat, guitar textures ripple like fingers dragged hard across the skin, the music's weight presses firmly yet gently against your chest and back. Then, surging in almost immediately afterwards, a mass release of pleasure hormones triggers off sheer, clear-minded exhilaration.

These emotions will likely be familiar to anyone who's seen the reincarnated Swans live over the last couple of years. Even at their most claustrophobic and confrontational, there has always been a splendid, unsettling beauty to Swans' music, with rock instrumentation and lyrics wrenched into jagged configurations often intended to sandpaper away at the nerves. But recent Swans performances, with Gira centre stage as conductor of ceremonies and Thor Harris hammering the hell out of his drums with plumbing piping, have felt more like ecstatic collective experiences - or, to grab a quote from the man himself, "evolving orgasms of sound". Expansive, texturally dense and physically powerful enough to still set the senses aflame, the music's force and pressure is now a unifying presence, bringing band and audience together in a state of shared immersion.

These experiences of playing live have clearly fed back into Swans' recorded music. While still characteristically huge-sounding, 2010's 'comeback' album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky still felt like the work of a group of individuals playing together. By comparison, on 2012's epic The Seer, they sounded increasingly like the connected unit of old, with each player reacting so instinctively to the others that their contributions became tough to pick apart. By this point they've further coalesced into an inseparable entity: on To Be Kind we experience Swans as totality, all seething ebb and flow, crafting music that seems to breathe of its own volition. On opener 'Screen Shot' and ferocious garage-punk snarl 'Oxygen', taut, caustically funky drums twist and shudder before finally - inevitably - buckling under the pressure and unleashing volcanic torrents of white-hot noise. The fractured blues of 'Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)' sets guitar lines to arc around each other, as delicate and free-flowing as plumes of smoke from an extinguished candle. The title track's translucent opening half offers precious minutes of blissed-out reflection before the music surges ever-higher amid a mist of cymbals, like spray off an ocean swell.

In terms of pure sound alone it's the most organic and forceful Swans have ever sounded. At times it's hard not to just take a deep breath and marvel at the density - electric guitar and drums, but also dulcimer, lap steel, bells, brass, strings - that they pack into limited sonic space. This sense of unified action in turn heightens the impact of Gira's lyrics - characteristically enigmatic, mantra-like evocations of sex, God, the body and the ritual dissolving of the self. He plays the role of wild-eyed spirit guide, both reacting to and reshaping the tempest gradually unfurling around him: unflappable amid 'Nathalie Neal''s riptide of guitar magma, meditative on 'Screen Shot', and sexually ravenous on the sprawling 'She Loves Us', which reaches its climax with Gira's shrieks growing progressively more feral: "Come to my mouth! Come to my tongue! Your name is fuck!"

Their ambiguity can also turn sinister. In line with Gira's stated interest in creating experiential works - environments to become immersed in - at times you're made to feel oddly complicit in whatever hidden horrors are unfolding beneath the surface, One particularly wonderful, shiver-down-the-spine moment arrives during the middle of 'Just A Little Boy', when Gira's self-flagellating taunts ("I'm just a little boy!") are met with a grotesque chorus of canned laughter, pointing and grinning from the sidelines. Quite who they're aimed at is left unclear, puncturing the barrier between the drama performed onstage and its witnesses. As with the canned guffaws punctuating Lynch's Inland Empire's quietly unnerving rabbit living room scenes, we're left with the disconcerting sensation that it's us, the audience, who are under scrutiny.

Despite clearly being intricately crafted down to the tiniest gestures - musical feats at this level of intensity and control don't emerge from half-arsed noodling - To Be Kind's songs also feel more fluid and open-ended than before, expressive and rich in possibility. That's perhaps unsurprising, given that many of them evolved during live performances. Several appeared in their emergent forms on last year's live album Not Here / Not Now, which also captured exactly how 'The Seer' sprawled outward into what became 'Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture'. The latter, which ends To Be Kind's first disc, is the album's highlight. Thirty-five minutes long, it's an astonishing feat of sustained intensity, wandering through rock-strewn desert landscapes and craggy canyons of sound whose depths feel like they could have been shaped over millennia through natural forces of erosion. The song's loose narrative is centred around the life of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution in the late 18th century that led to the then slave colony's independence from France. Eight minutes through, the atmosphere's density starts to thicken, layer by layer, as Gira leads a chanted invocation summoning the heat of the sun to strip the flesh from your bones; the temperature increases as its full force bears downward, and you're struck by a compulsion to ratchet the volume up until you're simply annihilated in sound. "Freedom from harm," Gira intones, after the storm recedes. A woodsaw shreds through the mix, horses whinny in a panic, suggesting the heat of conflict. Later his delivery turns to a guttural bark: "Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite!"

I do often think of this latter incarnation of Swans as music that strives towards liberation. As if, having violently wrenched rock's structures and songwriting free of many of their formal restrictions during the group's earlier years, they're now expelling all their physical energy to tear their music free of earthly constraints - and to bring their audience along with them. Gira's lyrical concerns have long dealt with aspects of life that take us out of ourselves - religion, sexuality, ritual, structures of control and power, the certainty of death and fear of the beyond. On The Seer, but even more so on To Be Kind, he seems to be striving to mimic those effects, to subsume himself - and us - in music that celebrates our physicality and mortality. Certainly recent Swans shows have been among the very few rock concerts I've seen that have provoked sensations of being utterly lost in music alongside a few hundred others, akin to the best rave or sound system experiences. Perhaps that's one reason why the group feel as potent now as ever, thirty years after first forming and at a time (like back then) when dividing lines are again being drawn across society to maintain a toxic status quo. That drive to create states of shared ecstasy feels like at least one small sonic riposte to austerity: Swans as a joyful collective fuck-you in the face of divide-and-rule politics.

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May 9, 2014 3:41pm

It's a great album, but I think it's lacking some of the melody that The Seer had. There's more screaming and shouting, which is exhilarating but gets a little tiresome after two hours. I kept waiting for it to break out into a beautiful expansive section like the second half of Mother of the World, but it never quite arrived (some snatches on Some Things We Do and To Be Kind). Still, some great tracks on it and I'm looking forward to seeing them on the 27th

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Beep Beep
May 9, 2014 4:11pm

Well, it certainly beats The Guardian's review, which was of the typical "Oh my, some parts are, like, you know, unlistenable, mate"

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May 10, 2014 12:27am

I'm glad you mentioned Inland Empire. When I first listened to the Seer (and more recently To Be Kind), I immediately thought about that film. Like Lynch, Gira really is taking everything that was phenomenal about his previous work and mashes it into a horrifying beast.

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john p.
May 10, 2014 11:36am

After playing the hell out of the NPR-stream this week, I bought the real thing on cd... not on vinyl, because that would mean splitting up 'Bring The Sun/Toussaint l'Ouverture' in two parts. It was something that bothered me with The Seer also. I mean, why not limit one's compositions to 25 minutes if you know that otherwise they don't fit? Feels like inappropriate for such a perfectionist as Mr. Gira... Apart from that: To Be Kind is fantastic!

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May 10, 2014 5:26pm

Overall better than The Seer, which didn't do much for me (perhaps time for a relisten). But lengthwise it's as unnecessarily bloated as a Peter Jackson adaptation.

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May 10, 2014 7:00pm

Excellent review. Far better than the Guardian's, as someone else pointed out. I agree on all fronts, and firmly believe this is the best Swans album to date

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May 11, 2014 8:02am

In reply to :

Did you post the same thing on the Guardian, or did you just think it was terribly witty?

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May 11, 2014 4:28pm

Rory and John - as I'm sure you guys are big vinyl heads, I'm wondering what you think is the ideal format for listening to this album? Do you think having to break up one of the tracks is a dealbreaker for the LP? I don't really buy CDs anymore, but I'd like to have this one in physical form and imagine it would sound great on the turntable...

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John Doran
May 11, 2014 9:22pm

In reply to TDC:

I've got to say that I would have listened to the Seer more than I actually did if I'd had it on CD (I had it on my iPhone/iTunes and on vinyl). Again, the days where I've got time to be sitting at home listening to a treble album attentively and changing it six times are pretty much behind me… although it does make me appreciate it even more on the odd occasion when I've got enough time to play the whole thing. I have been rinsing To Be Kind on my phone for the last two months though.

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Mochael E.
May 12, 2014 10:37am

Ritual music. Sophisticated review. The Seer and To Be Kind, two masterpieces in a row, though this one relies more on noise on texture, less on melody.

My fave records of 2014 ffirst half) - forthcoming albums included, legal promos!)

1) Eno/Hyde: Someday World
2) Swans: To Be Kind
3) Sun Kil Moon: Benji
4) Fennesz: Becs
5) Janek Schaefer: Lay-by Lullaby
6) Owen Pallett: In Conflict
7) Polar Bear: In Each And Everyone
8) Charcoal Owls: Tin Roof
9) Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots
10) National Jazz Trio of Scotland: Standards Vol. 3
11) Bill Callahan: Have Fun With God
12) Arild Andersen: Mira
13) Ensemble Economique: Interval Signals
14) Current 93: I Am The Last Of All The Field That Fell
15) Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra: Live on Planet Earth
16) Fire! Orchestra: Enter
17) Bonnie “Prince” Billy: Bonnie “Prince” Billy
18) Arve Henriksen: Chron / Cosmic Creation
19) Timber Timbre: Hot Dreams
20) Kelis: Food

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May 12, 2014 11:52am

Yeah I think I might have to go with the CD version of this one. Splitting some of the tracks on the vinyl release of The Seer ruined the flow of those compositions for me and has left me wishing I'd gone for the CD pressing of that release. Not going to make the same mistake again.

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May 12, 2014 12:14pm

The main thing leaping out at me after three complete spins is how quickly two hours passes in its company. For such a big, bold album it's surprising just how subtle some of the work is.

On a number of occasions through the album it's that wonderful thing of a long track finishing somewhere very different from when it started yet not noticing the change happening - it's a very 'in the moment' listening experience.

From the play so far it's an absolute winner but I'd wager a lot more thoughts will be on the horizon as it unfolds over time.

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Michael E.
May 12, 2014 5:31pm

In reply to Carpathian:

Totally agree. So many surprises during a single track, some shocking, some subtle, some hidden (very subtle)....

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Tim Barlow
Jun 3, 2014 2:55pm

In reply to :

I agree with the remark from May 10th, 5.26pm (no name)about the bloated length, or what Gira and Pink Floyd fans would call "experiential works". When they were touring the "My Father..." material, I saw them supporting Portishead in London at Ally Pally and they were a revelation. At around the 50 mins-1 hour length their set (and that album) were the perfect length. Since then we've had not one, but two triple albums (is this what we fought the punk wars for?!) and the gig in Manchester the other week reflected these albums' length. Frankly, after 75 mins I got the feeling we were watching a self-indulgent, post-rock Roger Waters and by 90 mins was looking at my watch. When I had to go for my train another 15 mins later, it was something of a relief. The worst sin you can commit onstage is being boring and that's what the gig became for me. If I want an immersive experience at ear-bleeding volume, I'll go for My Bloody Valentine every time, thank you very much...

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Glorified Guest
Jun 9, 2014 9:49pm

There's a reason why most of the over-bloated 70's art rock bands never did 2 hour albums with 35 minute songs... just saying.

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Poison Cup
Sep 11, 2014 4:30am

Outstanding review

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Oct 19, 2014 11:11am

I saw them in Krakow yesterday. It was like a mass exorcism.

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Festa Infantil
Jul 31, 2015 2:34am

Did you post the same thing on the Guardian ?

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