After a decade of understated twee folk, ascetically bland and nostalgic psyche rock, the general rise of “indie” rock to Grammy status and the dubstep um… dubstep, the aughts reanimated a band that absolutely never ever fucks around. That said, My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky was a slightly disappointing, if handsome, first effort for the new version of the band; it favored tightly structured songs with reserved running times over the timeless drones of past albums. This won them a legion of new fans and cemented their elder statesmen of rad music status but left a lot of long-time fans like myself with a sense of, “Cool that they’re back, but meh!”
It was louder and a little more intense than the Angels of Light material, but just as underwhelming considering Michael Gira’s past work. Then came the live shows and then came The Seer, and then came the real return to form. Not that the sound is exactly the same as any previous era, though it is reminiscent of the live bands captured on Omniscience and Swans are Dead minus the 90’s verb’, but the expansive dynamic was back. On tour for The Seer, the band played sets that stretched past the two-hour mark without stopping to breathe or collect or even their instruments, and it was awesome. Now we have To Be Kind, a record similar in sonics to The Seer but more polished and inviting — if one can really be permitted to say that about a Swans record — but every bit as epic, ugly, beautiful, pretentious, tasteful, serious, hilarious, terrifying and compelling as that album or their classic works. This is the sound of a band who have thoroughly felt out their palette over years of touring and are comfortable enough with moving around within the confines of their strengths to keep things interesting over the course of a double, triple LP record.
If I sound like a bit of a fanboy right now its because: a) I am, and b) I always find it impressive when an artist in any medium is able to tie together elements spanning their entire career in a consistent and sensible product without coming off as stale or repetitive, and I especially appreciate it when they manage to find something new in the evolutionary process. To Be Kind may not represent a revolutionary step forward for Swans, but it does manage to be the most comfortable synthesis between the live band and their more experimental recorded efforts, potentially satisfying both the fans of My Father… the ’90s noise rock guitars they loved and those of The Seer and albums of old the far out studio-based loops and drones they love.
Case in point is the 34-minute centerpiece “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture”, a track which hits just about every incarnation of the band’s sound, from their no wave roots to the mid-’80s goth-folk, the ’90s post-rock, and sample manipulation. One could argue, and many already have, that this song is a bit um, over the top. And it is. But thats exactly what I love about Swans, goddammit. If I wanted restraint, I’d listen to a Wilco record or something like that (though I probably wouldn’t do that, fyi). When I think of Swans, I imagine Michael Gira in full-on fiery pastor mode, along with that huge blonde guy who keeps popping up on all kinds of strange records from Bill Callahan and Devandra Banhart to Shearwater and making amazing faces in the music videos for those albums, while pounding away at a huge set of bells and drums, sans shirt. And I imagine that going on and on and on until I’ve forgotten how long I’ve been listening to or watching it, until the theta waves kick in and the experience takes on a deeply meditative vibe. The whole thing is an incredibly overwhelming and stupidly huge and masculine affair, especially without Jarboe in the mix to balance out the archetypal forces, but Gira, Thor, and company pull it off with a Nietzchean intensity and attention to natural dynamic and rhythmic shifts which keep everything moving forward.
If there is anything missing in this new incarnation of Swans besides Jarboe’s witchery, it is the unique sense of dread so prevalent in their early recordings. Songs like “Hypo Gurl” and pretty much anything on Filth (1983), Greed (1986) and Holy Money (1986), the latter of which was my harrowing introduction to the band, were laced with a brand of negativity that was repulsive but oddly transcendental, as if it were expressing a grief that went beyond any individual experience. In its place, we now get a shamanistic sense of knowing, a wisdom akin to a mystical Leonard Cohen at his most reflective. And lest it sound like I lament this shift, I actually feel that it makes things more interesting by expanding the band’s emotional arc and into a new leg of the journey with Gira and co. It makes this record a bit more fun to listen to than their past efforts. I love me some old stuff like “Time Is Money (Bastard)”, and the right person in the right place might get away with throwing that down in a crowd, but I think its pretty safe to say that Gira’s ’80s work was a bit of an ordeal to listen to. You have to be willing to go to some pretty gnarly places to get through those records. But new tracks like “A Little God in My Hands” are interesting and far out without the weighty vibes, and they even manage to fit in a bit of funk. Funk. By Swans. Granted it’s in the vein of early Can or No Wave, so we’re not talking George Clinton zones, but it totally works, keeping the proceedings from remaining entirely head and hearty and infusing the album with a bit of joy. Joy. By Swans.
These new elements, subtle as they may be in reality, are likely the result of the fact that most of To Be Kind was developed on The Seer tour. I caught one of those shows and it was incredible, the band just jammed for like two-and-a-half hours. That much improv on a nightly basis will take any band to some new places, but it is particularly awesome to hear it play out within the house of Gira. He was clearly the man behind the desk as the sound design and atmosphere are all his, but this is tightest and most fully realized that this incarnation of the band has been, allowing0 the album to serve as an overview of the project while still welcoming new developments.