swans-to-be-kind[xrr rating=4.25/5]In a recent interview, Swans’ Michael Gira indicated that his songs are more inspired by films and books than they are by other musicians. Given the brute physical force of his music, both in terms of lyrical and instrumental content, not to mention the frequently expansive length, and that statement makes a whole lot of sense. Through extraordinary noise, maniac vocals and hysteria-inducing textures, few bands have been able to use sound to illustrate terror, pain, sex and gore with such raw intensity and detail. At 60 years old and three records into one of the more prolific, not to mention impressive revitalizations we’ve seen, Gira has written a record with more cinematic plot than anything Swans has recorded, and 32 years in, it just might be their masterpiece.

It may sound crazy to describe an album as restrained when it has 10 songs and clocks in at over two hours in length. Those two hours are remarkably unhurried, moving over the landscape like a menacing cluster of dark clouds spewing a hurricane, sparing some areas while destroying others. Every cluster of noise, every vocal detonation, every repetitive rhythmic pattern is perfectly pitched to simulate a journey, to elicit sensation. In many instances, that trek is as heavy and punishing as anything in Swans’ canon, while others offer a surprisingly ethereal perspective. To be clear, To Be Kind isn’t soft in the slightest, but it is immersive.

“Screen Shot” opens things up with the crescendo of a psychedelic riff, as one-by-one additional layers are brought into the fold. Reminiscent of prison labor, percussion taps come across like a hammer repeatedly connecting with a nail while droning guitar foreshadows the incoming heaviness. Gira sings “No dream, no sleep, no suffering,” almost as a threat to prey before erupting into a spiral of electric madness. The record’s centerpiece, however, is the 34-minute opus, “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture.” Starting with the shotgun intensity of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” “Sun” morphs into a deserted dream world, with Christopher Pravdica’s bass thumping like a heartbeat while synth sounds pulsate like dead air, guitar shrapnel screeches and a dazed Gira offers tribal chants. The intensity only increases with the sense of isolation, culminating with horses galloping, Gira howling the name of the Haitian revolutionary leader and a cacophony of furiously strummed guitars.

In many regards, To Be Kind is the bigger, stronger (and three-minute longer) brother to 2012’s magnificent The Seer, only more ambitious. Though seven of its 10 tracks appeared on last year’s mostly live Not Here/Not Now, the stage only birthed this music. In reverse Swans fashion, these tunes blossomed in the studio, with Gira bringing in a host of instrumentation, from strings to brass to female background vocalists (including St. Vincent on four tracks) who aren’t there to stand behind the band like they’re the Rolling Stones. Truly hypnotizing with its never-changing tempo, “A Little God In My Hands” is a funky stomp with a blast of horns, trance-like synth fills and Gira’s vocals delivered with a nasal snarl. “Oxygen,” seemingly a reminder to breathe to survive the pummeling, is similarly funky, built around a blues-y groove and suffocating horns. But Gira doesn’t need to rely on anyone else to be powerful. He screams like a madman during the punishing “She Loves Us,” uttering sounds like a rabid dog not long after chanting like a shaman.

With To Be Kind, Gira indicated that more time was spent on vocals than in some previous Swans work, and his intent was to create more of a lyrical record. For Swans, that doesn’t mean songs are filled with verbose stanzas, but the words and themes he chooses and the way they’re delivered certainly contribute to the cinematic feel. Gira seems to be singing from the womb during “Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett),” which he fills with tracks of taunting laughter and defenseless screams of “I’m just a little boy!” as daggers of razor-sharp slide guitar are tossed at him. Gira dedicated the track to Howlin’ Wolf (real name: Chester Burnett), building a blues sound from hell that’s slow and menacing, eerie and isolated. During “Some Things We Do,” Gira chants in list form lines like, “We meet/ We fuck,” but punctuates the track by repetitively saying “We love,” a term that is found directly and indirectly surprisingly frequently across the record, especially during the closing title track. “To be lost, in a bed touching you/ To be lost, to be lost,” he sings. “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes.” “To Be Kind” is a final march, the triumphant closing scene with heavenly vocals and a sonic halo that explodes into a crescendo of guitar noise and percussion, seemingly leaving behind ruins and a pile of bodies in the record’s wake. Yes, it’s Swans’ version of a love story.

Listening to Swans get stronger and stronger, one really has to wonder if Michael Gira is a living version of the type of human monster he writes about. He is defying odds, scratching and crawling, resuscitating the beast that is Swans into something more ferocious than ever before. To Be Kind is an absolute behemoth of a record no matter how you slice it, delivered by a machine that is somehow possessed enough to go to hell over and over, each time bringing back its incubus in newer, darker forms. Though we can dissect To Be Kind all we want, its most telling feature isn’t necessarily its power, it’s that it shouldn’t be a moment shorter. It could actually stand to be a little longer.

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