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Swans - To Be Kind CD (album) cover

TO BE KIND

Swans

 

Post Rock/Math rock

3.93 | 190 ratings

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TCat
4 stars In this monster of an album from 'Swans' called 'To Be Kind', the heavy, sludge sound of the past and the somewhat gothic sound of the more recent past are gone. The band has moved on to major progressive status which was proved in the albums released after their 10 year hiatus. The music has grown up in a huge way. Their music is now much more experimental, more listenable, but I wouldn't call it accessible. I would however call it smart music. Now the music focuses more on the long form and development over a mostly repetitive nature, it is more akin to a rock orchestra. The double album extends to over 2 hours across only 10 tracks, one of which goes over 34 minutes.

Beginning with 'Screen Shot', we get a real exercise in development as this track develops over a repetitive riff that is mostly made up of one chord and a song of mostly one note. And this develops in a track of over 8 minutes. The fact that it is repetitive is hardly noticeable, as the attention is directed to the development of the music. It starts simple, but builds and builds on a constant crescendo with added layers and added intensity throughout, just like Ravel's Bolero. It may sound annoying, but it really isn't. It is an amazing track.

Next comes the 12 minute track 'Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)'. This is dedicated to blues legend Howlin' Wolf, and if you are familiar with his music, then you are going to understand how this track is inspired by the man. This music moves slowly, much like Swans of yesteryear, but this time, it isn't heavy and loud, but it is intense. Again, it builds itself over the passage of time, but the intensity ebbs and flows, diminishes and grows. Just like the blues of Burnett, the music is based off of a singular riff and a simple chord structure, mostly just improvised off of one chord with some variation as it comes to the last section of the track. Swans early music was based off of one chord blues rock, it was just really loud and hard to listen to. This time, it is so much more mature and that actually makes it give a bigger impact with the use of dynamics instead of being played at one very loud volume all the way through.

An interesting change up occurs on 'A Little God in My Hands' as you get a funky beat and a guitar and bass emitting some cool effects. As the verses are sung, this beat continues, but at the end of the verse, there is an explosion of sound before returning to a variation of the theme, again based around one chord. The slight variation represents the growing of the track as a brighter keyboard pattern is added before the verse comes in. This time, a drone of sorts is dropped in to the instrumental foundation and eventually a choral, sort-of-chant joins in. After singing mostly an unchanging note against the quick processional beat, it changes, and a thick orchestral style drone starts that contains what sounds like a brass and synth orchestra. Up to this point, the album is pretty amazing. The next track, however, is a study in excess that goes on too long.

Next is the huge track 'Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ovuerture' that pulls out all of the stops right at the beginning of this 34 minute opus. This is a wall of sound with a beat that almost makes you think your needle is in a locked track. After two minutes of this, things calm as the percussion and bass and most everything except for a drone and bits of atmospheric accompaniment drops out. As vocals start, things feel really expansive as you get a combination of middle-Eastern singing against an almost Western soundtrack, both styles imagining desert wasteland. This sudden sparseness is very trance-like. At 7 minutes, you can hear intensity start to build as the drums get more excited and other sounds start getting louder. Finally, after the 14 minute mark, when you think it can't get any more intense, you reach the climax, and it all breaks down, builds up quickly and breaks down again. Now all the drones and everything are gone, and were left with tinkling guitars and various other instrumental noises. At this point, there are what sounds like hammering and sawing noises, until deep, droning vocals start and other sounds like horses, seagulls and maybe children are heard. There are some strange instrumental effects that continue on here and a heavy sounding drone has also developed and after a few attempts, takes things over all together in another wall of noise, picking things up like a tornado. After 20 minutes, it all breaks down again to minimal sounds and a soft thumping bass. Now things turn psychedelic as sounds swirl around, and a voice starts shouting out the title to the 2nd section of the track. It's almost like you are listening to a spaced out version of 'The Doors' except, someone opened the doors and went beyond. After 30 minutes, the wall of noise returns as everything gets swirled together again and continues to the end. It's quite a journey if you make it through, but honestly, it is far too long.

The first half of the album ends on the 5 minute track 'Some Things We Do'. Vocals list off some of the things we do as people in a speaking/sing-song style, but in a somewhat monotonous way as instruments swirl around. At this point, the first three tracks are great, the forth one starts out great until around the 17 minute point, and it should have called it quite there, and the last track really doesn't go anywhere, so it ends weak.

To start off the 2nd half, 'She Loves Us' is another long one at 17 minutes. It starts with an infectious hook with a lot of various percussion. This goes on for a few minutes with only one modulation. After it resolves back to the original key, the vocals start with a that uses a middle-Eastern sounding mode. At 4 minutes, the hook and the vocals stop leaving things free floating with a modulating drone and cool effects. Instruments get added back in, including drums pounding in a non- rhythmic pattern. At 7 minutes, everything comes together as another hook pattern starts up that is soon joined by English vocals this time, that also have a drone-like chanting quality to them. Things turn rhythmic now and you get a good solid beat. But the music falls into a repetitive trance-like feel here, and its okay except when Gira starts shouting again in his Jim Morrison style. At around 15 minutes, things get chaotic as everything falls apart and you are left with layers of drone-like vocals before the instruments come in to close everything off in a dramatic fashion. I understand the study of repetition and creating textures around it, but again, I feel this could have been better if it ended at 10 minutes.

'Kirsten Supine' begins with a softer drone and minimalist feel before Gira starts to sing in his low register accompanied by soft chimes and effects. After 5 minutes, a thumping drum starts to move things forward and sustained bells and chimes continue to play. Moaning guitars start to come in building intensity until they create a modulating drone. The drums start crashing harder. Things become more unsettling as it continues. This time, at over 10 minutes, things finally stop and fade making this track the perfect length.

'Oxygen' has a great hook and beat that repeats, and some crazy vocals come in. This time the vocals don't seem as annoying as they seem more natural here. Everything builds off of this hook as instruments get added in. Soon the instruments and vocals match each other in rhythm and sound, everything stops, and starts again with brassy sounds added to the mix making things more unsettling until several instrumental hits finally close it out at 8 minutes.

'Nathalie Neal' begins with echoing vocal effects. Other traditional instruments get added in slowly swirling around in a psychedelic haze. Spoken vocals (probably field recordings) come in for a short time. At 3 minutes, a rhythmic hook comes in and things intensify quickly before singing vocals begin. The same basic pattern continues for the remainder of the 10 minute track until the last minute when things get really quiet, but this time around the track just flies by because it is so much better.

The last track is the title track 'To Be Kind'. It starts off with swirling effects, staying minimal even when the spooky, mesmerizing vocals start, almost in a lullaby, but one that is meant to not be soothing. The lyrics 'There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes' do not seem that soothing. After the mid way point after four minutes, things suddenly get loud and heavy with unrelenting pounding drums and screaming instruments that stop and start a few times.

This album is a study in repetitiveness and excessiveness. In this way, it returns to the Swans albums of old, but the music is still much different in that it has lost its sludgy, dark metal sound. There are a lot more instruments of every kind added in here now, but things can still be just as unsettling, but at least it is much, much better than those early albums. The album is also not in the same vein of progressive ingenuity as it does seem to veer more towards the post-punk sound. I find the album overall more accessible than the earliest albums, though that isn't saying much, but I enjoy the tracks that don't go over the 11 minute mark. The two behemoth tracks on here go on way too long, and end up bringing the overall score down lower than the last few albums which were ingenious. I know that you can always hit the fast forward button past those long passages, but this album just doesn't quite reach the 5 star status like "My Father Will Guide...." and "The Seer" did. Still, I appreciate what the band was trying to do here.

TCat | 4/5 |

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