Around the halfway point of “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”—a 34-minute track on Swans’ new two-hour album, To Be Kind—the sounds of horses can be heard. They whinny, neigh, and clop in panic. This happens during a lull in the song, a nerve-jangling interlude that makes the noise breakdown in the middle of Sonic Youth’s “Silver Rocket” sound like a kazoo solo. Michael Gira, the leader of Swans since the band’s 1982 inception, came up in the same New York scene as Sonic Youth—but where Sonic Youth gradually wound down over the past decade, Swans has wound itself up. The group’s 2012 album, The Seer, was a majestic exercise in extremism: Folk, jazz, drones, chants, and unimaginable strains of cacophony were manicured and sculpted by Gira and his faithful company of multi-instrumentalists. To Be Kind is the follow-up to The Seer, but anyone thinking it’s any kinder might want to ask the horses.
There’s an entire secret history of human suffering packed into To Be Kind. It’s a veritable gnostic gospel of noise-rock; hovering above the scraping and sawing of most mere mortals with guitars and drums, the album scrapes and saws as if attacking the fabric of reality rather than mere sanity. “A Little God In My Hands” is a spasm of amputated funk induced by laser-gun blips and hearing-test bleeps; “Screen Shot” lurches across a minefield of percussion as Gira chants about “No pain / No now” with bitter bloodthirstiness, immune from even the sugary backing vocals of St. Vincent. Even when To Be Kind just plain rocks, as it does on the punky, skronky “Oxygen,” it severs its own hamstrings and gleefully watches the tendons flap around. At a concise five minutes, “Some Things We Do” is almost a chamber-pop song—that is, until Gira’s duet with the veteran avant-garde singer Little Annie morphs into a freakish prayer to the forces of sex and murder, like Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s “Bonnie And Clyde” translated into some lost, Satanic tongue.
Swans has long had a love affair with the crescendo, and that tense escalation of volume and intensity are best shown by the album’s longer tracks. Gira whips his primordial moan into a rabid lather by the end of the 17-minute “She Loves Us,” while “Kirsten Supine” and “Nathalie Neal”—each exceeding the 10-minute mark—start out as chilling, minimalist hymns before snowballing into howling nightmares. Instruments are being played, undoubtedly, but only the drums are distinct amid the chaos. The rest have been folded into a protoplasmic fist.
But it’s “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” that the whole album revolves around. Gira becomes, in turn, a carnival barker, a mantric guru, and a mouthpiece for unholy glossolalia. He conducts his beautifully screeching ensemble like Prospero hoping to drown the world in a single, shuddering song. The horses that appear are not credited in the album’s liner notes. At this point, though, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if live horses joined Swans’ lineup and were prodded onstage to reproduce their panic. The band has swelled to exactly such decadent dimensions. Throughout To Be Kind, it seems as if Swans can barely contain Gira’s vision of what his music can surround, conquer, and absorb. Until that glorious apocalypse comes, To Be Kind will serve as another generous exhibition of his cruel mercy.