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swans tobekind
Artist: Swans
Title: To Be Kind
Genre: Alternative/Experimental
Release Date: 12th May 2014
Label: Mute Records

Album Review

It’s a real testament to the enduring fascination with New York’s SWANS that they have never sounded like anyone else, and despite their hugely influential sound, no-one has ever managed to sound like them. Starting life as an impossibly loud and confrontational no-wave band, early songs like ‘Raping A Slave’ and ‘Time Is Money (bastard)’ moved with the pace of a lazy snail, albeit one 60 foot tall, bristling with youthful anger and armed to the teeth with bile and fury. This was an aural nightmare, every aspect of song and performance taken to absolute extremes. As the music mellowed somewhat, the lyrical content didn’t, and neither did the almost psychotic need to experiment, push boundaries, and explore every dark, forbidden corner mainstay Michael Gira had the time to visit. Amongst the murk, menace and frankly terrifying moments scattered throughout 1987’s magnum opus ‘Children Of God’, there were moments of beauty and fragility, as if the band were gently peeling back the layers and gazing in awe at what lay beneath.

When Mr Gira eventually decided to lay SWANS to rest, he was far from idle, immersing himself in various side-projects. This included ANGELS OF LIGHT, which saw an almost playful side to his discovery and reinterpretation of Americana and esoteric musical genres. There was never any doubt who that darkly seductive drawl belonged to, but it seemed the journey with SWANS was definitely over at this point. So reforming the band in 2010 after 13 years away, raised many an interested eyebrow. What followed was astonishing. The slavish adherence to volume and extremity was now channelled into something that seemed to transcend any known genre, thrusting SWANS once more into the vanguard of thrilling experimentalism. Third album ‘To Be Kind’, in this latest reincarnation of the band, promises to take that final step and be everything SWANS could possibly be, merging all their pasts with the bold, more recent direction of the last few years into a stand-alone body of work. This was never going to be just an album. And indeed it isn’t.

First of all, it’s over two hours long. This isn’t something that can be rushed, and to approach it wanting some instant gratification is to miss the point. Take opener ‘Screenshot’. The menacing, trancelike repetition here is what SWANS do best, taking an idea and just going with it, waiting until instinct tells them what to do next. The singing similarly follows this pattern, a monotone of repeated words over an increasingly urgent backing. This doesn’t build up in a traditional way, you hardly notice it happening, but by the end it’s a furious head-fuck, insane percussion and squally guitars over Michael Gira’s barely measured mantras. How do you follow that? With thirteen minutes of similarly patient spookiness of course. ‘Just A Little Boy’ employs so many different sounds it’s as far from ordinary rock dynamics as it’s possible to get.

A sinister improvisation to be at work here, but it’s totally coherent, the doom-filled echo of the vocals making the whole thing seem at once very far away, an agoraphobic’s nightmare, and yet clawingly claustrophobic. “I’m just a little boy” spits the vocal, with hideous laughing and mocking slide guitars cemented this one as a truly nightmarish piece. ‘Sun Toussaint’ is more the SWANS of old, ear-splitting waves of guitar breaking down into soft passages of trance-like playing and singing, before the drums start hammering this back up to its earlier incantations of insistent noise-making. It’s breath-taking in its scope, and at over half an hour in length gives the feeling it could have happily continued for another hour. Not an easy ride, by any means, but the exhausting feeling when it finally shuts down and leaves you bereft is nothing short of genius.

‘Kirsten Supine’ is beautiful and calmly measured in comparison, although as always in the world of SWANS, there’s something edgy and dangerous here, hovering just out of earshot. ‘Nathalie Neal’ sounds weirdly celestial, like the assembled orchestras of heaven and hell got together for a jamming session and this was the result. And final song ‘To Be Kind’ once again delivers the SWANS blueprint to devastating effect. There’s the hushed vocal of ‘To be kind’ to start with, over floating, patient instrumentation, but you just know that the storm is coming. And it breaks, not all at once, but in increments, as Mr Gira hollers like some rain-drenched preacher over the growing cacophony. It doesn’t so much end, as explode, an utterly absorbing riot of white noise.

Stepping back from this truly epic album, there’s a real sense that finally, and they’ve come close before, SWANS have produced their masterpiece. This near faultless body of work represents everything that should be celebrated in music. It sits proudly on its own, untouched by outside influences, indifferent to current trends and genres, a catastrophic and violently beautiful self-contained universe, and it’s a privilege and an absolute joy to be immersed it.


01. Screenshot
02. Just A Little Boy
03. A Little God
04. Sun Toussaint
05. Some Things We Do
06. She Loves Us
07. Kirsten Supine
08. Oxygen
09. Nathalie Neal
10. To Be Kind


Michael Gira – Voice, guitar
Norman Westberg – Guitar
Christophj Hahn – Guitar
Phil Puleo – Drums, percussion, dulcimer
Chris Pravdica – Bass and gadgets
Thor Harris – Drums, percussion, vibes, dulcimer, curios

Website /

Cover Picture

swans tobekind


Music: 9
Sound: 9
Total: 9 / 10

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