Saturday, May 17, 2014

In Which The Swans Ask If Too Much Is Enough: A Review Of To Be Kind

I started listening to Swans seriously in 1987 or so. I had dropped out of Bible college twice so Children of God appealed to me. I couldn't figure out if the religious lyrics were Michael Gira being a snotty NYC punk, his words meant ironically, or if they were the cries of a lost soul in an empty universe? The record sounded like both, actually.

Jarboe was a huge part of the appeal of Swans to me but she's gone now. She eased me into this sort of music and gave me a sort of bridge to the work of Michael Gira. After disbanding the group and then reforming it a few years ago before the release of The Seer, he is one of music's true visionaries. It's just taken most people 25 years to see that. Part Nick Cave, park Stockhausen, he's on another wavelength entirely.

To Be Kind is more than 2 hours long with 1 song that is 34 minutes long. Scared yet?

I was. It's a heavy record. Not always oppressive, this is serious music that remains direct, immediate, and accessible. There's no higher praise I can give To Be Kind than that.

"A Little God In My Hands" struts in like a Bad Seeds song with Gira all Nick Cave in his delivery. Still, there's something high art about Swans. Nick Cave mines the same territory but he seems to have some trace of the legacy of the blues and garage rock nearby at all times. Gira is stripping rock back into its most primal shape. It's what the Stooges would have sounded like if they had gone to art school.

From the 17 minutes of "She Loves Us!" with its surging and pulsing musical undercurrent to the deranged-but-channeled rage of "Oxygen", To Be Kind demands a listener's full attention. If it is not necessarily easy music to enjoy, it's music that is relatively straightforward and easy to appreciate.

Whatever dark emotions these tunes may unleash, they also reward a fan who pays attention with his or her mind. This music -- and I say it like that 'cause this is a form unlike any other -- is sure to stir the intellect of anyone within earshot...and I dare say that that could be many people if you crank these tunes up too loud.

The final moments of "Screen Shot" will surely get your neighbors pounding on the walls and the crescendo of "Kirsten Supine" will then get the cops at your door.

Whatever lightness -- Ha! -- Gira and co. lost with the departure of Jarboe, they have regained by relying on melody. I don't mean to imply that the Swans are going all McCartney on us but that the songs have melodies. If the Swans from 1987 relied on power -- the fist of "New Mind" -- then now they are relying on creating tunes that they can coat in musical treatments and instrumental touches that produce the desired measure of awe in the listener.

There are hints of Throbbing Gristle and even Non here -- the 34-minute "Bring The Sun / Touissant L'Ouverture" -- but Gira is, I think, trying to reach a wider audience then those guys. Uniquely full of emotion, these "songs" also aim for something higher, some spiritual understanding of the void...or a simple scream into it.

To Be Kind is out now on Young God Records. I urge you to get the album and give it your full attention.