Release Date: May 13, 2014
Record label: Young God
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Experimental Rock, Art Rock, Noise-Rock, American Underground, Post-Punk
Rarely, if ever, is a band afforded as much praise, opinion, reverence – and time – as M. Gira’s Swans. Praise because more often than not they deserve it; opinion because more often than not different people hear different things in the music; reverence because there’s a significant lack of bands with such a monstrous catalogue (possibly only Nick Cave trumps Gira’s band in hit-to-miss ratio); time because, well, their last two records have – for better or worse – seemed to go on for an age.
In previous incarnations, Swans used to simply make albums—challenging albums that were sometimes grating and sometimes finely detailed, but they never felt like anything more than a collection of songs. The reincarnation of this New York-based band does not make albums. They make grand edifices, massive monuments to volume, melody, rhythm and raw power.
Swans were hardly the first 1980s underground-rock fixtures to resurface in the new millennium, and they’re not the only ones who've resisted the nostalgic trappings of reunion tours to make a respectable showing as a rebooted recording act. But they are the rare band of their vintage who seem less concerned with living up to or building upon a past legacy than establishing a completely different one. In retrospect, the 14 years that elapsed between 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind and 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky were less a break-up-induced hiatus than a gestation period.
To say that Swans have had a successful comeback would be the mother of all understatements. When Michael Gira reactivated the band in 2010, only the most hopeful of aficionados would have expected anything even vaguely comparable to the greatest moments of their original incarnation (1987’s Children of God and 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind). The comeback record, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky was somewhat understated, although not a disappointment, but 2012’s staggering The Seer was not only easily the equal of its illustrious forebears, it won Swans an impressive array of new followers in the process.
In 2010, after a 13-year break, Michael Gira resurrected his experimental post-punk outfit Swans. Avant-garde to the extreme, Gira’s music is an all-encompassing experience that somehow affects your entire sensory system. You don’t just hear it or listen to it, but feel it. This latest record is no exception.
Many critics have issued well-meaning but saccharine prescriptions against the cultural pandemic uncritically known as irony over the past decade, as if the acidity and diffidence witnessed in contemporary culture are symptoms of the consumption of unwholesome art rather than a response to the ever-deepening alienation into which modernity has thrust us. Although this nostalgia for lost sincerity contains a note of genuine belief in the power of art to heal our existential woes, it forgets the crucial vector of the virus. But at least one corrective to alienation has always existed, and it rarely takes the form of a critical pose or heartfelt sentimentality.
Prevailing logic is that the sophomore LP is one of the most daunting challenges of a band’s career. After defining a musical voice with one record that might have taken years of prep, a band is expected to either live up to or outdo that record, and in short order. That said, some records are so big, so impactful, so daunting that they more or less reset the odometer, redefining the expectation cycle in much the same way.
Swans are not a mainstream band; their music has only been heard by a minute percentage of the population. This is a travesty, for Swans are mind-blowing, and should surely be experienced at least by the number of people who are subjected to Nicki Minaj on a daily basis. To the uninitiated, the (currently) six-piece experimental New York–based noise-rock band can perhaps be broadly described as “a moody-voiced guy ominously droning/yelling over the sound of extremely loud, ambitious performance art.
At two hours and one minute, To Be Kind is almost two minutes longer than Swans’ previous studio album, 2012’s The Seer, and it accomplishes this task in 10 songs, not 11. That’s a lot of really ambitious work for a band fronted by a 60 year old guy. To Be Kind was recorded without William Rieflin, who handled piano, organ, and synthesizer duties on The Seer, marking a return to the Swans lineup responsible for My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the 2010 album that took the band out of a 14 year hiatus.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. Taken at face value, you probably have to assume that the name Swans was chosen at least as a non-sequitur and likely, more deliberately, as an ironic counterpoint to the racket that Michael Gira's men actually made. How poignant, then, that it would actually come to evince some genuine validity in the band's later years; their 'reactivation' - Gira doesn't like the connotations of the word 'reunion' - has seen them carry themselves with such grace, such elegance, that you wonder why anybody guilty of resurrecting their old outfit purely for financial reasons doesn't simply melt with shame at the mention of Swans' name.
The music of Swans following the band’s reconstitution in 2010 with the album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky has been steeped in myth, legend, and lore. That album, which draws extensive influence from frontman Michael Gira’s years in Angels of Light, speaks of generations “drifting through the wind” and of mythopetic “thrones” that penitents kneel before. There are lots of stories sung on that record, but they almost always address the most atavistic of human experiences; watching Gira really get into the music in a live setting, it’s easy to think of him as a kind of shaman.
You approach To Be Kind in the same way you approach the back end of a horse. Quietly. Circumspectly. With an air of respectful caution. Lest the calm posterior spook, rear and smash you in the face. They’re not a band to be trifled with, are Swans.If anything, since their return in 2010, their ….
Another set of pulverising epics from Michael Gira…In 2006, when asked about the possibility of a Swans reunion, Michael Gira was unequivocal. “Absolutely not, never,” he announced. “Dead and gone. I have more interesting things to do.” It certainly looked that way. Since Swans.
Let no one say Michael Gira doesn't have something to say and the will to say it: 2014's To Be Kind is the third album from the Swans since he reassembled the band in 2010, and it's his second album in a row that spans two discs and runs over two hours. Gira likes to work on a large musical canvas, and he gives himself all the room he needs on To Be Kind -- "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture" alone is the length of an ordinary album at a shade over 34 minutes. Gira's vision is a bit less dark in the 21st century than it was during the Swans' first run in the '80s and '90s, with fewer lyrical images of rage and torment, but he's no less intense as he barks and howls his lyrics of life in a fallen world, and his music is every bit as physically powerful and challenging.
Only when it's too late do you realize that "Screen Shot," the opening track on Swans' new magnum opus, is the sound of being stalked. Michael Gira begins calmly uttering a string of seemingly random words, and as they begin to take on a dark logic, his demeanor is that of one who has all the time in the world. By the end of the piece, the room seems drained of oxygen as the music has grown as a shrill, pounding presence and Gira's mantra becomes more direct: "Love now/Breathe now/Hear now." .
I'll begin by admitting that before To Be Kind I'd never heard Swans before. I've been fully aware of the band and some of its personnel (Michael Gira and Jarboe primarily) for many years, but in my formative years my impression was that they wouldn't be for me. It wasn't that I was scared of what I might have heard, hell, I liked Big Black and the Butthole Surfers so I wasn't a sensitive soul, but I thought that Swans might have been more discordant and noisy than even my ears could take.
Since their emergence in New York in the 1980s, Michael Gira's Swans have enjoyed a reputation for some of the most terrifyingly bleak music imaginable. While there's no shortage of spluttering discordance and merciless, single-chord bludgeoning on 13th album To Be Kind, when the clouds part Swans' default sound is a perfectly listenable – though funereal – swamp-blues. It can be affecting: the way Some Things We Do reduces life to a dismal list of pointless activities ("We betray, we serve, we regret, we learn"); or how Gira's voice is swathed in a ghostly reverb on Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)– the title is a reference to Howlin' Wolf – which skulks along at a deathly pace.
Experimental rockers Swans have only ever had one goal: to overwhelm. Like their last sonic saga, 2012's The Seer, their latest offers two straight hours of spook-house drones, battering-ram guitar blasts and Michael Gira's howled imperatives about love, sex and death. Songs last up to 34 minutes and alternate between jazzy post-punk ragers ("Oxygen") and trippy jams plucked from the dark side of Pink Floyd ("Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture").
Apparently Swans was not done with epics after the gleefully excessive The Seer. To Be Kind, the third record from Michael Gira’s iconoclastic outfit since reuniting in 2010, is also a double CD set with several tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes, though only one passes the half-hour mark. All the better to dive ever more deeply into Gira’s psychospiritual brood of an imagination, where emotional states translate directly into musical sound and the doors of perception open to reveal whatever you choose to see.
To be kind is not to love: love is an essentially violent act. Love won’t keep us together; love isn’t all you need. Love is evil. It’s the enactment of a cosmic imbalance—a forceful selection of one thing at the expense of everything else, overriding reason and justice alike. It is unique ….
Swans' grand new album, "To Be Kind," is a career-defining work that few could have expected from a 30-plus-year project considered by many to be well past its peak. At 122 minutes, it's as long as a movie and as densely heavy as a Richard Serra sculpture. Defying easy categorization, "To Be Kind" is a rock album, but it's not something to be taken lightly.
You’ve probably seen them; they’re everywhere these days: pictures of nice pleasant beaches, gently undulating hills, or soft dappled light flowing through breaks in a woodland canopy, all accompanied by some godawful pious quote about the singular importance of kindness. They spread through the internet like an outbreak of cholera. Kurt Vonnegut: ‘There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
opinion byBRENDAN FRANK It’s becoming increasingly clear that Swans, Michael Gira’s resurrected experimental rock project, are in it for the long haul. A tremendous influence on the genres of industrial and post-rock during their initial run, they’ve continued to raised the stakes with their return. They made it official in 2010 with the release of the entirely reasonable My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, a suitably bleak 44-minute proclamation of doom.
Around the halfway point of “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”—a 34-minute track on Swans’ new two-hour album, To Be Kind—the sounds of horses can be heard. They whinny, neigh, and clop in panic. This happens during a lull in the song, a nerve-jangling interlude that makes the noise breakdown in the middle of Sonic Youth’s “Silver Rocket” sound like a kazoo solo.
Swans — To Be Kind (Young God)Three full studio albums into their reinvigorated latest phase, and Swans’ ability to surprise remains as potent as ever To Be Kind might just be the most startling and uncompromising of the trio, although these qualities take time to unveil themselves. The first three tracks sound almost a mile away from the up-front claustrophobic density of predecessor The Seer; they are built around more conventional rock idioms. Opener “Screen Shot” is a moody rocker driven by a repeated bass line, slow-building rhythmic crescendos and Michael Gira’s mantra-like, often one-word, lyrics.
"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.
With The Seer, there was a feeling that the “rope to the sky” had been climbed to its last twist. A reminder that rock music still has the capacity to be incredible, Swans’ 2012 epic left the impression that band leader Michael Gira had reached a conclusion in his quest to find his place in the universe. To Be Kind is the wave rolling back, as all that existential rage and cosmic hunger subsides and becomes something different.
This month, in one of several low-risk stunts to promote their new album, “Turn Blue,” the Black Keys circulated a recording of a prank call to the offices of their label, Nonesuch. In it Patrick Carney, the band’s drummer, poses as a hopeful rube: He’s seeking a deal for his New Age act, Quartzazium, and assures the nonplused voice at the other end of the line that the label will want to release “our newest terrestrial feelings album.” Flogging easy targets, flaunting obvious privilege: It’s a smug, juvenile look for Mr. Carney and his only band mate, the guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach, who together have spent much of the last decade lugging the Black Keys from the margins into the mainstream.