Finally, it arrived. To Be Kind, the latest release from post-punk noise band Swans was there, on my office desk. Delightfully packaged, and signed by head Swan Michael Gira. At last; because while I’d been waiting for my pre-order to arrive, the excitement that had been bubbling in anticipation of this release, the third since the band reformed last decade, had boiled over into an album everyone, it seemed, was talking about. Raving about.
I don’t have a CD player in the office, so I had to wait a few more hours still. But I left the CD there, on my desk, glancing it at now and then, reading the booklet, waiting, waiting, until I could finally get it home and into the stereo.
And when I did; wow. Yup, I understand the exaltations this album has received. It deserves every one.
If The Seer, Swans’ colossal 2012 release was marked by sprawling dark chaos, To Be Kind pulls Gira and his band into a tighter, tauter sound. The album’s more rhythmic, with roots of rocking blues or swampy Cajun stomps, kicking off with a massive groove on opening track ‘Screen Shot’, and propulsively returning to a driving groove throughout the the double-album’s length.
The production is much tighter and cleaner too, compared to the cacophonous wall of noise that made up The Seer. The drums are full and forward, the guitar crisp and present, synths and strings bright, vocals clear and understandable; every instrument in what’s often a very full mix can be heard, placed within the sound, and followed through the tracks.
None of which to say this is a commercial album, a clean album. An easy listening album. Oh god no, this is Swans!
Over the space of two-hours, Michael Gira uses the driving rhythms and instrumental stabs to lay out some of the most expressive, tortured, screamed vocals ever recorded. His voice twists and turns, shouts and yelps, melding groans and throat-deep yells. His vocals, backed at times by a counter-chorus of layered singing from St. Vincent, folds lines and noises in on itself, revelling in how words and phrases repeat and echo each other.
Gira’s singing, shouting, his yells and moans are mantric. Zen koans asking questions through repetition. Where the music on The Seer drove the listener into fight-or-flight mode, with To Be Kind it’s through his vocals, lyrics and chants that Gira is challenging us, daring us to sit still, engage and meditate.
Because, amongst the noise and the groove, and chaos and darkness, To Be Kind is a meditative album. A zen album. An attempt by one artist and his musicial colleagues to grasp some kind of transcendence. To learn what it is to be kind.
‘Screen Shot’ begins us on that journey, with Gira chanting a call to empty our minds; “no time, no now, no suffering, no touch, no loss, no hand, no sense.” This intonation continues, building over a hypnotic groove, calling us to lose ourselves before he begin to shout a nihilist directive: “Love! Now! Breathe, now! Here, now! Here, now!” Be here, in this moment, he demands. Demanding we place ourselves in his hands, under the spell of his voice and music, for the wild two hours that is to follow.
Repeated mantras return throughout the album, sometimes mockingly (“I need love!” Gira moans on ‘Just for a Little Boy’, to be answered by a derisive peel of laughter from a Greek chorus), sometimes beguiling and hypnotically (disc 1 ends with ‘Some Things We Do,’ which draws the side to a close with chants of “with tooth and claw, we touch, we teach, we fuck, we love, we regret, we love, we love, we love…”)
And so it continues. Through ‘Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture’, a 34 minute two-part epic, where a repetitive chant collapses halfway through to the sound of a gathering storm, a nervous horse whinnying and tramping its feet before the song explodes again into a full scream of defiant anger. Through ‘She Loves Us’ which opens disc 2 with a deep, rocky groove which soon collapses into chaos, only to return, altered, menacing, as Gira spits “your name is fuck! Fuck fuck fuck! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
Until, eventually, two hours later, comes the title track. ‘To Be Kind’ seeps quietly in, almost like the calm that settles after a storm has blown through, as Gira concludes his meditation. “To be kind, to be kind, to be lost, in a bed touching you,” he sings. Almost happily, he moans his last words, “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes.”
But this turns out to be the calm before the storm, not the lull afterwards. Because from there the album closes with a wall of screaming guitars and crashing drums, in a musical coda that harks back most to the discordant horror that filled a lot of The Seer. Finally, with a crash of cymbals and jerk of guitar, it ends. Falls to silence.
And we, the listener, are left gasping for breath. Maybe exhilarated, maybe exhausted, maybe just lost in thought. I’ve reacted each of those ways come the end of To Be Kind. A need to pause, think, not move for a moment or two. To reflect and conclude the meditation.
This is a singular album. An important album. An album that provokes an emotional response and involvement well beyond the cheap and easy emotions of love, hate and sadness that populates a lot of rock music. To Be Kind is far far deeper than that. Because what Gira’s trying to do here is turn his lyrics and emotions back onto us, the listener, causing us to confront ourselves, to think, to hear in his words what exists within us.
To Be Kind will surely be on many “best of” lists for 2014. Deservedly so.
BeerMatch: You’re going to want something dark and complex, served warm in a bulb, to sip away at. Something from a big bottle, perhaps, so it’ll last you the two hours of the album. Nothing to brash or hoppy, though, you want a relaxing drink because the music will be confronting enough as it is. Try Almanac’s ‘Bourbon Sour Porter‘ if you can find it, inky black with flavours of sweet bourbon, bitter coffee and tart fruit. Or, locally, I’d suggest soothing your tastebuds from the noise with Mike’s delicious ‘Vanilla Coffee Porter’ for a smooth, creamy and slightly bitter alternative.