Swans – To Be Kind


[Reviewed by Peter Marks]

‘The Seer’ was just them warming up. You often wonder how hard and how far a band can push their sound, wonder no more. With the release of this daunting new collection of songs, Swans have now gone well beyond where any kind of expectation could have predicted. The irony above everything is that despite the thunderous forces being harnessed and in some cases literally tamed throughout each piece, this is the most stable line-up the band have ever had. Consider that for a moment, pause briefly to let this detail sink in. It has now been three albums with the same six men at the core. I don’t know if things are mellowing or if the chemistry is too potent to break apart but the results speak for themselves.

We have some kind of mutant funk/blues which comes through here and there and then there are those cascading waves of pounding guitars. Who really shines on here is Phil Puleo, one of the band’s drummers and main percussionist. What he does on these songs is to slam them into the wall and then brutally pummel their delicate sense of melody into pulp. The guy’s kit must have been a fearsome arsenal to behold in the studio, never mind how imposing it’s going to come across live. But I digress. Christoph Hahn and Norman Westberg have most definitely gelled as a duo working together, listening to what they came up with it becomes quite difficult to tell them apart. Their playing wends in and out like snakes in the water deftly stalking prey.

Most people reach 60 and begin to consider retirement, more than a few are already dead but not Michael Gira. So before all muck-raking rags go off on a bender with their insights and ephemeral, fair-weather praise, allow me to ask one thing: how is this man still able to do this at all. He could have continued making charming records with his Angels or resigned himself to sitting at his desk with an acoustic guitar but he’s chosen to put himself in the cross hairs of fate. This cannot be easy to do for him and ‘To Be Kind’ is about the last thing this album is.

We’re taken out back and put through a punishing regimen for almost two hours, just getting through the first half of what’s on here is exhausting.

Jesus Christ you think, how much more of this can they endure? If there’s a breaking point, then this collection of players are eager to find it. You can literally breathe in the heat and sweat which brought about some of these performances. The music itself is given greater importance than the words and by doing so one is totally immersed in the swells and echoes of sound; Gira’s words are, naturally, less than complimentary when it comes to human interactions. “Some Things We Do” is completely stripped of any and all emotion, a cold and contemptuous meditation on getting through this thing we call life, the lie of contentment.

I hate to reference something I wrote earlier about him, but there’s a short piece in his book The Consumer where he described himself as “a very passionate dildo” and longed to heap gasoline on himself and his lover. He concludes by stating that “I make myself sick”. Maybe the aforementioned song is a continuation of this, maybe it isn’t but I’m grateful to receive more either way.

Far be it from me to try and glean any further nuggets of wisdom out of this thing, so I’ll just wrap it up by coming straight to the point. ‘To Be Kind’ is the sort of record you’d be a fool to pass up. It’s the product of massive effort and is a near-herculean undertaking, disregard the chatter you’re going to encounter in the coming weeks and months about what this song means or where that song was designed to take your thoughts. Take it in and hold that poisonous cloud deep in your consciousness. Let it stew, let it permeate, let it fill the air and most importantly:

Let it endure.

SwansTo Be Kind
Young God Records / Mute, YG46/CDSTUMM364
CD/LP/Digital 2014

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