Swans ask a lot of their audience. This isn’t news to anyone who discovered the band during the ’80s, when their sound was at its most power-drill grating, or when their live shows entailed switching off the air conditioning or lights and creating a cacophonous sauna — thus reverting the audience in a sensorially primal state. But that was then; Swans are playing bigger venues now with better ductwork and fire codes, but the sound they make is so much louder and more devastatingly massive — and much more likely to extend for hours at a time. When Michael Gira woke up the slumbering beast of a band in 2010 with My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, following 14 years of retirement, it felt like the unleashing of a great energy. If there’s one aspect that’s come to define Swans in the past half-decade, it’s power — awesome, beautiful and overwhelming in the best way possible.
So if Swans ask a lot of their audience, it’s because Gira & Co. put every last thing they’ve got into their music. Swans’ 2012 album The Seer — on the shortlist of the greatest albums the band ever recorded — spanned one hour, 59 minutes in length, and only occasionally did it offer a break from the band’s monolithic assault. One such moment, “Song for a Warrior,” found the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O singing a lyric Gira wrote for his daughter — displaying shades of tenderness and affection that you don’t hear often in a Swans song. There are no such ballads on To Be Kind, Swans’ 13th album. A full two minutes longer than its predecessor, To Be Kind just seems to provoke the listener that much more, offering what would seem, on paper, like an almost comically harrowing challenge: It’s just as intense as its predecessor, a bit more cacophonous, and two minutes longer.
This would all be moot if To Be Kind merely consisted of the harshest sounds Swans could muster. There’s an audience for that, of course, but that’s not really what they do or what they’re about. Their menace is constructive. Their volume is expressive. And there’s an almost spiritual quality to the lengths they push themselves toward, both physically and musically. When the band locks into a groove, as they do on the terrifying, 17-minute “She Loves You” or the violently funky “Oxygen,” they step into a portal between profound beauty and grotesque ugliness, and then smash both sides together. It’s awe inspiring; it’s scary as fuck.
Groove is a central part of To Be Kind. It manifests in the form of an eerily sinister gallop in opening track “Screenshot,” revolving around Christopher Pravdica’s serpentine basslines. It’s not as funky as the Beefheart-ian strut of “A Little God In My Hands,” which is the catchiest track of the bunch, or as “Oxygen,” which occupies the gnarliest pocket you’ve ever heard — it’s like The J.B.’s getting high on Satan’s supply. And that’s even before the fiery eruptions of horns come piercing through. The power that Swans have been cultivating only seems to have grown, and yet, in that groove, there’s something curiously joyful about where they’ve arrived on the album. They sound like they’re having fun, and — based on a video of their performance of “Oxygen” at Pitchfork Festival last year — they look like it, too.
In its own twisted way, To Be Kind represents Swans at their most positive. The first word Gira utters on the album is “love,” and it maintains residency throughout much of the album’s two hours. It takes on spiritual representation in “A Little God In My Hands” (“I share blood/ Forever love“). It becomes carnal and profane in the epic snarls of “She Loves You” (“Your name is… FUCK!”). And in the haunting, gorgeous title track, it’s touchingly intimate (“There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes“). Even during Oxygen’s brutal pigfu(n)ck beatdown “Oxygen,” there’s an overarching transcendence that makes a cry of “Feed me now!” seem less about base human desire as a thirst for immortality — something every human struggles with and eventually fails. Though after an eight-minute exercise like that, it’s hard not to be convinced of the possibility.
As has been the case with Swans albums since My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, there’s a long list of guest musicians on To Be Kind, including Ministry’s Bill Rieflin, singer/songwriter Little Annie, Cold Specks’ Al Spx and St. Vincent’s Annie Clark. Yet none of these players seem to be here for anything other than the service of the greater whole. Much as Swans wield a great power, they’re capable of growing even more awe-inspiring as they expand. The music of Swans is alive; it breathes, it throbs, it pulses and it yearns. And yes, it demands a lot of the listener, but the reward belongs to those who choose to indulge them. Music this powerful is not to be treated passively.