by Evan Miller
Album: To Be Kind
Label: Young God
I saw Swans for the first time last July in Columbus. In the span of two weeks, I witnessed the two most intense live shows I’ve ever seen in my life: the first being Death Grips followed by Swans. Death Grips had this sort of wild, tribal energy to it, as if the crowd was moving as one. However, Swans had the crowd transfixed, hurling out these massive impacts from the stage that would aurally throttle you, even physically from my spot at stage front, again and again and again.
The band originally came out of the early 80s New York no-wave scene and is one of the few to survive past that (along with bands like Sonic Youth). Their early releases are some of the most pummeling, revoltingly brutal albums ever put to tape—and they are wonderful. The band dissolved in the late 90s. Since their reformation/new line-up at the hands of leader Michael Gira, the overall intensity has remained, though the band has now shifted to more droney, post-rock influenced work, but just as dark and disgusting as before. 2012’s The Seer was monumental in terms of span and sprawl, clocking in at two hours, and now, Gira and company have matched that and more with To Be Kind.
The album begins with the slow build that this new formation of the group has brilliantly mastered, eventually layering in Gira’s mantra-esque vocals. His voice throughout the album ranges from near deadpan to distorted jabs, and always is front and center when it comes into the mix. Much of the album is the newly characteristic slow burn to ear-splitting climax the band is known for, but they also expand their sounds on this new release. “A Little God In My Hands” opens with a mid-tempo, off-kilter funk strut, and almost makes you wonder if they’ve gone a little soft, but when the ugly blasts of brass and synth shoot out of nowhere, you’ll know you’re in the right place. St. Vincent mastermind Annie Clark makes an appearance in the track as well (and also throughout the album as backing vocalist), and other similar guests include Cold Specks, Little Annie and Bill Rieflin. The band stretches back to their noise-rock roots with “Oxygen” later in the album—by far my favorite track. The first time I heard it, I wanted to run my car off the road, but in the punk rock kind of way.
The comeback of Swans after 13 years of absence was remarkable for the sheer event of it, but the fact that they decided to create a new legacy for themselves instead of retreading old material and sounds—and succeeding greatly at it—is phenomenal. The band is three studio albums into their reunion, and each effort is an improvement upon the last. They make some of the most seething music right now, but the catharsis that results from it (Gira’s goal) is absolutely beautiful.
Swans are currently gearing for a summer tour with Xiu Xiu, and while the closest date is a drive (Louisville, KY on July 2nd), I strongly urge you to go see their show. Nothing will compare after you’ve been there. Bring earplugs—you’ll need them.