First things first: I didn’t buy this album for a long time because of its artwork. It is bloody awful.
I know Swans have a reputation for being confrontational, so, suspecting a deliberate move, I won’t call this visual aberration a misstep, but if I could, well, I would.
Anyway. Having enjoyed Swans’ 2010 album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky last winter, but feeling that it was an album well–suited for watching the night go by whether in trickles of sweat or in plumes of misted breath, I felt it would be interesting to compare and contrast that with some of Swan’s older material, with the reputation of legendarily harsh albums Cop and Filth preceding them. This is one of the top search engine hits for Cop:
An Open Wound: Swans’ Cop Revisited – ‘Catharsis was just another word for sonic dismemberment […]’ (The Quietus)
You get the idea. This sounded perfect for the deepening cold and damp weather. However, my lack of knowledge and any kind of research beyond ‘Hmm, Swans, they’re good’ resulted in me buying To Be Kind, their most recent album, released in 2014, instead. I consequently wondered how similar a listen it would be to that of My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (also released on vocalist Michael Gira’s Young God records), which I first listened to in very similar settings, and as mentioned concluded that it was an album of the night rather than just that of winter. Although it seemed quite derivative and maybe even counter–intuitive to seek out the same circumstances, when another big fire, four pack of beer and double album present themselves at the same time, who was I to ignore the aligning of these celestial bodies?
Sitting by the fire in silence, I felt the quiet and each noise and every second as Swans took their time. A sliding bass brings Screen Shot into life, grooving and building. Layers of electric guitar, percussion, and then a switchblade of a piano refrain enter. The primal content of the lyrics, their understated and universal essence, combine the sensual and the otherworldly in monosyllabic, imperative, anti–everything in their exist–in–the–moment demands:
Sun, come, sky, tar
Mouth, sand, teeth, tongue
Cut, push, reach, inside
Feed, breath, fetch, come (Screen Shot)
A dark quality lurks throughout, into the long, quiet intro of Chester Burnett, amongst the bass, guitar and drums, morphing into a presence ten times the size as the minutes trickle by. Swans love to simmer, using free time and extending and expanding upon riffs as they imperceptibly crank up the tension; what should be repetitive, such as the heavy use of a single chord, is instead enveloping, with the atmospherics crawling yet never dragging. There is a telepathic quality, a flow and an unstated communication between the six Swans (Gira, guitarist Norman Westberg, lap steel guitarist Christoph Hahn, bass guitarist Christopher Pravdica and drummer and percussionists Thor Harris and Phil Puleo, also on dulcimer and piano) and the 11 guest musicians on this album. I began to wonder if Swans improvise, then realised it was not a question not of if, but of how much. And much like the riffs, Gira’s lyrics are repetitive in a way that is a kind of poetic logical progression:
Take me now
Peel My Skin
Scrape my vein
Seal me in (Oxygen)
Within two tracks in I felt that in some ways To Be Kind is similar to My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky; the lyrics, the riffs, the atmosphere not being appropriate for the light of day, but at the same time not really a cold or harsh album. One notable difference between My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and To Be Kind is that the song writing goes further down the rabbit hole, with the intro riff of Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture ploughed, ploughed into discord, beyond expectation, into endurance, and then the main riff begins. It grows in slow motion while ‘Bring the sun’ is chanted. By 12.17 it’s edging out onto a thinning beam at a great height, and when I thought it could go no further, and I could not go on, I found I could, and kept climbing, edging further out, waiting for that last moment, while it kept on going into uncharted territory. Two minutes later it was still going somehow and taking me along with it and when it finally finished at 14.28, I felt strangely exhausted, like I had been tested. After Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture I was a bit out of breath and words, but Some Things We Do serves as a kind of a gentle outro, with pulsing violins, swooping strings and steady, almost spoken lyrics. Disc one done, and as I had assumed, I wasn’t thinking of this album as cold or barren. Why such long songs and with such a heavy repetition of riffs? It’s certainly part of Swan’s ethos of rewriting of the book, but just as importantly, it contributes hypnotic and transcendent qualities. Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture itself is 34 minutes long, and there is a painful intensity to it, like standing in the snow or in pouring rain.
The second disc starts with the dark magic trance of She Loves Us. It strike me around 11 minutes in, which just so happens to be around the same time as when I am convinced that both cosmic and personal destruction lurk just seconds away, that Swans are like a black hole, their atmosphere sucking everything in;
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
The lengths of the songs, pushing past the conventions of music with the second opening track still writhing at 15.50, makes the songs feel as though they are reverting to a primal level. When silence arrives after the 16 minute mark it feels strange; during the noise, something changed. Swans hint and work behind a veil, and there is an enduring impression that that they are wise, and I found myself trying to see what it is that they see and what they envision. This music really has to be absorbed; it’s dense, it’s rich, it’s clever.
This second side grooves less, with third track Oxygen starting with a garage rock riff followed by an off–kilter drum beat, and turns into the harshest track thus far. Closing track To Be Kind remains tense for the best part of 5 minutes, exploding into two minutes of scraping and smashing and subaqeous piano chords before shrieking into nothingness.
There is a strong element of creepiness to Swan’s music, in the poetic threats of the lyrics, the long and intense song structures, the use of repetition to suck listeners in, and I think this is why they work really well in the dark; before the opening track was over I was thinking of the end of Apocalypse Now.
Given that I concluded that My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky wasn’t a winter album, I’m not surprised that I’ve come to a similar conclusion for To Be Kind. The adversity that comes with listening to their music is at the root of why I automatically thought of them as a winter band, and even with the revision of that opinion, it nevertheless remains an important part of their sound. Yet despite this, To Be Kind is a very listenable album, and as sonic experiments go, very natural. I had sat by that fire absorbed, not able to tell where I was in that soundscape or where it was taking me, and enjoying every moment.