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Swans – To Be Kind Album Review

The album cover for To Be Kind by Swans

This is a very different later Swans record from the beginning. “Screen Shot” is lacking in the fuzz and colossal builds of The Seer and My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky. But build it does and with this palette of sounds it reminds one of the earlier Swans albums that surely inspired Liars. It is a clean tone menace that swirls around you like Goblin’s soundtrack work for Dario Argento.

“Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)” has the haunted atmospheric turns of a post-apocalyptic spaghetti Western with shades of the type of sounds David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti have woven together. Except that Gira’s voice gets under your skin and evokes the sense of a fever dream especially when the seemingly multiple voices babble nearly incoherently and chuckle—not unlike a Pacific island shaman channeling spirits. Which is simple one element of this long record. It sounds like an anthology of stories rather than an overarching concept both musically and thematically as had seemed to be the case with the band’s two immediately previous albums.

“A Little God In My Hands” is so musically unlike the first two songs it takes you by surprise even amid its repetitions before introducing an alien micro siren sound to interrupt what sounds like a bluesy chant before all goes into a maddening cacophony that drops out into a chiming melody. If not for Gira’s voice, it would be difficult to state with any certainty that it’s a Swans song as it sounds like something Crime and the City Solution might have done.

“Bring The Sun Toussaint L’ouverture” returns to more familiar territory but introducing a ghostly synthesizer tone at the beginning of the song before guitars come cascading down and flowing into a shifting wall of sound. Kudos to the band for name-checking the leader of the first successful slave rebellion in the history of the world. The rhythmic hammering of dense sound resolves into a droning space and flutters of harmonic synth like birds hovering around a tree at sunrise. When all the sounds swell into a majestic nimbus of dissonance and roil into sun-dappled clouds of drone, it’s like the band is establishing a syncretic music part western and avant-garde and part Qawwali and Turkish classical. When Gira cries out it’s like he’s challenging would be heroes to live up to the spirit of their convictions and not submit to their lower nature. In the past Gira has made abstract philosophical and political statements and this is one in which he may even be commenting on the nature of nations crying out their status as liberators but in the end acting as the monsters they decry, not unlike L’ouverture himself when it came time to establish Haiti as an independent nation. Swans capture that existential tension and contradiction well in this song with the shifting emotional colorings and drifting, tortured rhythm.

“She Loves Us” takes us further into the realm of the band’s development of what might be called avant-garde industrial Qawwali. Establishing a hypnotic repetition of sounds layered to create a sense of hyper reality and otherworldliness it’s arc of development parallels that of the sorts of musical constructions best exemplified by Nursat Fateh Ali Khan’s delving into combining Western musical concepts with his more traditional musical instincts. The nightmarish and the transcendent co-mingle in this song in a seeming attempt at expressing a spiritual experience more closely than anything a mere rock band could fully accomplish.

“Kirsten Supine” reels us back in through a bright, sparkling ether grounded by Gira’s nearly mournful declaration of contradictory statements of not being able to detach yet doing so. The bending and swelling tonal shifts in the middle of the song sound like what it must be like to walk between worlds, between the secular and the sacred. To hear the stringed flurries of the host of heaven and the crashing percussion of the underworld, or something near it, must have been the band’s goal with this song’s denouement.

“Oxygen” shatters the sacred imagery with an almost profane, mutant blues worthy of This Heat or Captain Beefheart. It is nearly jarring when listened to the context of the past several minutes of the album but it gets weird enough with echoing vocals and the sheer urgency of its repetitive riff.

“Nathalie Neal” takes us back into a kind of musical spiritual realm like Fellini circa the filming of The Satyricon but taking the sounds and subjects of Tibet and its Book of the Dead as materials for inspiration. The eddying flow of sounds and spoken words like something you’d find on a reel-to-reel recorder found at a thrift shop transports you away from the immediate moment and gives a sense of looking across periods of time happening all at once, one superimposed on the other. Then the song goes into direct and strident motion with swaying dynamics and spiraling builds within a steady, overall build. Like three things happening at different time signatures and resolving at distant but powerfully effective points.

The concluding, and title track, finds us drifting into the void with only Gira’s voice an anchor like Alejandro Jodorowsky telling us a darkly surrealistic bed time story about the nature of existence and our place in it. When the song escalates into the classic recent Swans clashing of sounds and crashing of percussion like hammer blows to the head battering out mundane reality and blowing the rust off your psyche, one can only imagine seeing this stuff live and it feeling like a mythological experience for real but even on the record it works on that level. When you get to the end of the album, listened all the way through, it is like the musical equivalent of 1,001 Arabian Nights with all the harrowing journeys, personal perils, heroic adventuring and mythic, cross-cultural storytelling combined into two hours, one minute and seventeen seconds of one of the band’s most completely satisfying albums.

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