When Swans released their debut album in 1983, the no wave genre was in full swing, countering the mainstream of music. ‘Filth’ was no exception, featuring the usual abrasive and repetitive style common to the genre but Swans had created something brutal and intense. From here, Swans only grew, incorporating post-punk, industrial and even folk styles leading to the climax of their sound on ‘Soundtracks for the Blind’ in 1996. At over 2 hours, the album was Swans’ most ambitious album, containing many musical styles such as minimalism, musique concrete, post-rock, ambient and even a dance track. And then frontman Michael Gera disbanded the group.
But nearly 15 years later Swans reunited and released the post-rock influenced “My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky” heralding further change in the band’s style which continued to develop on their 2012 release “The Seer”. Few would have guessed the radical change from their debut, but how could Swans follow their sprawling epic? Simply, by producing a logical successor.
The soft-loud-soft aspect of the band’s music is still to be found and track’s revel in their experimentation. Gira and the band sound as if they are crafting the music as it is being recorded, and with the songs’ lengthy runtimes, it is likely that they are. Gira himself expressed a dissatisfaction at not being able to emulate the band’s live sound on their studio recordings, but “To Be Kind” expertly captures the raw energy of their performance with Swans’ nature to surprise shining through.
However, the key to success when it comes to Swans is repetition, and To Be Kind reaches almost hypnotic levels, escorting the listener to places in their mind they didn’t know existed. And the repetition only benefits Swan’s immense climaxes, particularly on tracks such as Toussaint L’Ouverture where the music peaks at a frantic point, fulfilling all expectations.
The excellent drumming by member Thor Harris keeps the music’s pace and brings a primal feel to the album, but it is Michael Gira’s voice that really creates the album’s anger. He screams and wails, sometimes not even in any language. “I need love” he exclaims on Just a Little Boy, only to be laughed at by a chorus of aggressors – one of Swan’s harshest moments. Yet, the question surrounding Gira’s lyrics is whether he is putting forward a positive or a negative image. When he details humanity’s actions on Some Things We Do, is he detailing life or dismissing it?
Perhaps this is an album of positive portrayed as negative? Lyrically Gira has a childlike mentality, but ultimately he uses this aggressively. “We fuck” he states, angrily dissecting this basic idea. Furthermore, beautiful concepts are brought in to be portrayed as ugly: bells and whistles are used to create fear in their surprise. Even the French language, associated with love and splendour, is abused and made violent.
Alas, Swans have managed to create an album that perfectly follows the progression they have made since their inception. One may argue that to track Swans is to track underground rock music itself. From the early days of no wave to post-rock and industrial, Swans have tackled many experimental styles, but the thread that connects them all is their horrific and intense nature and To Be Kind continues this tradition. The album, albeit lengthy, is a rewarding listen, allowing you enter not only the mind of Michael Gira himself, but your own too. Dismissive as it is there is an empowering feeling to it too and through its hypnotism, positivity can be found. “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes” Gira states at the end of the album and after such a powerful 2 hours, Swans try to restore some hope.