Tuesday 27 May 2014

Review of "To Be Kind" by Swans

Let’s get the moany, groany negative bits out of the way. Clocking in at over two hours, this album is obscenely long. LIKE MY DICK. That was immature of me and not really the style of humour I try to promote on this blog, so let's move on rapidly.

Making long albums and long songs is nothing new for experimental rockers, Swans. Previous lp, The Seer, had a track with a 32:14 running time. To Be Kind, takes things one step further, introducing ‘Bring the sun/Touissant L’Ouverture’ totalling a colossal 34:05 minutes in length. It makes 'Shine on you Crazy Diamond' look radio-friendly. Unfortunately, I don't have the time nor the patience for long albums these days. I have the attention span of a toddler, and have always preferred concise records. Immediate stimuli has more of a lasting effect on me. This review is already boring me and I haven’t even got started yet. To demonstrate how short my attention span is, I'm going to add some instantly gratifying pictures of funny cats and half-naked women.

People glancing over this blog won't have a clue what's going on
Now that the album's negatives have been discussed, let’s talk about what makes this album otherwise bloody phenomenal. The magic seems to all stem from Swans' divine ability to take one singular riff, usually only a couple of seconds in length, and repeat it, letting it build and build and build. That riff will keep on building for minutes on minutes whilst slowly other instruments join in the fray – strange guitar squeals and an intuitive drum pattern, a touch of piano and a fleck of bass. Gradually the vocals come in. Consisting of minimalistic chanted lyrics, vocalist Michael Gira starts soft and sane and slowly grows LOUDER and more MANIC, his voice building UP and UP. Meanwhile, that same original riff is also building UP and UP, now immersed in other instrumentation, now on the brink of exploding. AT WHICH POINT THE MUSIC EXPLODES REACHING A CRESCENDO … AND YET IT CONTINUES TO BUILD AND BUILD, THE VOCALS NOW BATSHIT INSANE. IT KEEPS ON BUILDING AND BUILDING AND BUILDING UNTIL ITS PURE DISSONANCE, PURE NOISE FHIFNKUNOH AND IT KEEPS BUILDING! MY CONCEPTIONS OF WHAT MUSIC IS ARE NOW BEING CHALLENGED

That is what listening to this album feels like. It’s all in the build. There’s nothing cheerful or jubilant about these impending crescendos either. The ominous, progressing landscapes that this album transports you over are dark and uncomfortably eerie, whether it be the creepy Primus-style funk of ‘A little God in my Hands’ or the choral cosmos of the concluding title track ‘To Be Kind’.

However, it's Gira’s vocals that really add the unique character to Swans. Equal parts comical and equal parts terrifying, his vocal style is ever-changing and unpredictable - whether he’s entertainingly screaming ‘I’M JUST A LITTLE BOY!’, screeching sinisterly in French/Spanish/Portugese about the founder of Haiti, Touissant L’Ouverture, or reducing all of human nature to a repetitive list of ‘Some Things We Do’, delivered in a soft and deliberately monotonous tone. Most of the tracks rely on a handful of lyrics that are repeated throughout the song. This seems to be another distinctive trait of Swans. They take one riff and a few lyrics and pump all the creativity into the epic build-up. That’s how house music is formed – although to call Swans house music is a bit of a tall order.

If you can find the time, give this album a listen. Its not easy-going and is purposely unfriendly on the ears, but as a sinister atmosphere producer its gripping and extremely impressive - a true piece of art.