Swans give singular and subtly affecting work
No Wave at its finest
Daft Punk, Animal Collective circa Merriweather Post Pavilion, that first Kanye West record and some early Beach Boys. I’m listening to the fun stuff that won’t destroy the indie credibility I’ve accrued in my head.
Swans aren’t fun, though. They’ve never been fun.
Frontman, Michael Gira, spent four months of his adolescence in an adult Jerusalem prison, and “To Be Kind,” the 13th album by experimental rock outfit Swans, sounds like I’d imagine time in a Jerusalem prison would sound. It’s dark, brooding stuff.
First, a quick history lesson.Swans formed in 1982 as part of New York’s No Wave scene.
The band played arguably the heaviest post-punk out there, and legend has it that the sheer volume of its early shows was loud enough to make audiences physically ill.
Swans eventually called it quits in 1997, but not before releasing the 2 1/2 hour post-rock touchstone, “Soundtracks for the Blind.”
It reunited in 2010 and has since released a steady stream of records ranging from great to excellent that Gira describes as “body-destroying and soul-uplifting.”
So what’s this one sound like? Well, let’s go down the old Swans checklist.
Spooky drones? Yep.Hypnotizing guitars and really freaking loud drums? You bet.
Disturbing vocals? Oh, yeah.
“Just a Little Boy” sports Gira’s most unsettling performance yet.
But for the business-as-usual Swans sound, there are still some amazing departures, such as the Eastern-tinged knuckle dragger of a bass line that opens “Screen Shot,” or the math-y drums and twisted brass section that propel the single “Oxygen” through its scorching eight minutes.
Then there’s “Bring the Sun.”
Good God, is this something else.
The 34-minute epic earns every second of its length, opening with pummeling guitars and drums and winding through deserts of feedback, e-bow, chimes and chants.
Listened to in the dark and with the proper mindset, the experience is nothing short of revelatory.
It’s really difficult to describe “To Be Kind” in any more detail.
The melodies on the record come and go as they please, leaving more of a vague feeling than they do an actual memory.
I’ve listened to it four times. That’s almost eight hours, and I still can’t say I totally get the record yet.
“To Be Kind” is a challenging, unsettling and uncompromising album.
The first listen might try your patience. The second might too.
But give it enough time, and “To Be Kind” reveals a side of Swans that previously has been pretty rare.
The first disc closer, “Some Things We Do,” sums it up nicely.
After a laundry list of humanity’s various failures, Michael Gira begins to chant “we love,” and once all the atonal strings and creeping guitar plucks drop out, there’s a real, humane tenderness to Gira’s monotone vocals, proving Swans isn’t all sound and fury.