6 September 2014

Swans - To Be Kind

I am not going to go into the story of this band - I don't need to as I did it when I wrote a piece on 'The Seer' (Cleverly linked here) and it would be a little redundant to do it again.  But I will go into a bit of background about this album.  This album was released in 2014, the band started work on it during their 2012/2013 tours.  It was recorded at Sonic Ranch, in Tornillo, Texas, USA with John Congelton in control of recording and band leader Michael Gira in charge of production.  The cover for this album is six images of babies which were made by Bob Briggs in 1976.  These images are only slightly less terrifying than the cover of 'The Seer', bit only just.  The album has been released as another double album (or triple vinyl) and once again it has received critical acclaim.  Now, I have been living with this album since May as it was one of the birthday presents I received.  The main reason for not reviewing this straight away is purely down to the fact I had just finished the review of 'The Seer' only just before my birthday, my soul was still healing after that experience and I didn't want to give it a half arsed review.  But now, the time is right for this album to be heard; now it is time to see if the title is apt or a trap.

Not wanting to do things by half, the band start off with "Screen Shot", you are not given an easy introduction to the album.  It might start off all civil and quite, but there is always menace in the air when you have the Swans playing.  Sort of like now 'The Fragile' started by Nine Inch Nails, the band build towards the noise in a slow and methodical manner than when they eventually get to the noise, you just begin to realise that you are on a hell ride heading towards the dark abyss of Gira's mind and there is no getting off.  It is a fantastic track and a very explosive beginning to the album.  Following onto is the song "Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)" which is over twelve minutes long and is not the longest number on the album.  It starts off with a haunting bass that does not really stop, but there is just keep adding further subtle additions to the song as it goes along, giving this song the feeling that it should be done by the band that inhabits the bar in Twin Peaks.  It is creepy and evil, with no forgiveness or remorse.  It keeps on going and when you think you cannot take anymore, the laughter starts and that is truly one of the most terrifying moments on this record; we are only two songs in and I am already scared, this is a good sign. Also, we are just at the half way point of the song when the laughter starts; they have not finished with you and they don't let your attention go till the bitter and twisted end of the number.  "A Little God In My Hands" is a light relief after that number, but only in a given definition of light.  This song has that brilliant noise and alternative crazy feeling that I expect from Gira's other project Angels of Light, but mixed in with the Swans ethos to make another nightmare in sound.  To say it has distorting beautiful is an understatement, it is driven and corrupt; what a release it is once you get to the end.

Next is the longest track on the album "Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture" which comes in at just over thirty four minutes in length.  This song is longer than the recent album by Royal Blood that I reviewed the other week, it is longer than a few albums which are held as classics; this song makes Mo Farah seem like a short distance runner.  It takes just under two minutes to get over the introduction noise section, before it descends into an eerie soundscape and reverb.  At this point you might be expecting for a blow by blow commentary on the song, however if I did that it would take up another two paragraphs of space and I am sure I would run out of silly metaphors as usual.  Needless to say, after the eerie section the band builds towards a wall of noise that can be compared to the boot in the face from the novel '1984'.  It does not forgive and forget, there is no mercy; only the song playing in the background of your nightmares.  The end section of the album after the noise is just as terrifying, but without harsh noise.  It is more atmospheric and textured; this is an amazing piece of work and incredibly challenging.  It is also only the fourth track on the album, and we are over an hour into the record.  Ending the first side is "Some Things We Do", a practical pop song (if it wasn't for the use of the word 'fuck' in it - or does that make it a pop song) at just over five minutes of menacing and tortured quite noise to make the soul feel empty.  The repeating of the words 'we love' just adds to the agony of this record; a truly harsh and evil tune.

Starting the second side of the record is "She Loves Us", another small number coming in at seventeen minute and one second.  There is nothing about this song this song that is small; it is all up in your face and abrasive as they come.  It does not rely on the eerie or spooky side of the Swans arsenal, it relies on their ability to make a great song and turn people's heads towards a different point of view.  The noise is used to great effect and not in over bearing measures, it is a trying song that makes the listener feel very uneasy.  It is not an endurance test like "Bring The Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture", but it is fantastic number.  Next is "Kirsten Surprise" which does not let the listener relax in any form, it is a quiet and breathtakingly twisted.  So many off-kilt keys and notes that you spin your head around to see if the band is around you in the room.  It is one of four songs on the album to feature backing vocals by St Vincent, it feels like something is waiting under the water to drag you under and there is; but it is not as instant as you might think.  With the sounds of bells, the second section of the song is introduced and this brings for a more horrific motion toward the end.

"Oxygen" is the third album on this side of the album and eighth overall.  With a strange riff going on, this energetic number has a beat that is as infectious as one of those trendy diseases that you can pick up from a hospital.  You can sense that the tension which has been the elixir for this band is still brimming full and makes for a glorious backdrop that a song like this can be created and nurtured into a fully fledged monster.  It is a strange song and at this point, you care just at the mercy of the band.  "Nathalie Neal" is another contrast in the brush strokes of the Swans, it starts off with the random noises, has some sort of repetitive loop swirling in the back ground until the piano comes along like it is being played by someone who wants all the notes to be as painful as possible.  Then, you have the words discussing how to dance, the guitar is wailing mournfully in the back ground and this all drops away for another slice of the strange turpentine brew that is this band's work.  Strange as it may seem, but this point it is sort of relaxing that the frantic pace of this song does not (coupled by the slowed down bass playing) is not the most dangerous thing.  What is more dangerous is how much sense this song makes in regards to the rest of the album, and this brings us onto the finale of the album and the title track - "To Be Kind".  You would think by this point that you would be sick of the quiet opens to these numbers, not on this track; this is the time for a slow ending as the rest of the album has been so hard on the listener.  But the band are only fooling with you for after the fourth minute mark, all hell is let loose onto the world.  There is no let up and no remorse, just like the album itself.

When the dust has finally settled on this record, you can see why it has been getting the praise it so richly deserves.  This album made the top forty on both sides of the Atlantic, making it the highest charting release by the Swans in their career.  It goes to show that aggressive and thought provoking music still has a place in the world.  However I cannot give this a mark, how could I! I feel like I have been beaten to a bloody pulp again by this band, I did not expect anything less.  It is the best they have released since they have gotten back together and I hope that this is not the last we will hear from them.  It is a truly awe inspiring piece of work which will terrify weaker souls.  File under: try it if you dare.

Crazy Cat symbol - This album cannot be marked, so here is a box of kittens

Top track - Screen Shot

You can purchase the album from Amazon here

Here is a link to the official Swans website (Original Era)

Here is a link to the Swans label - Young Gods

You can listen to the album on Spotify here

Alternatively, you can listen to the album via Deezer

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