Friday, May 23, 2014

Swans - To Be Kind Review



You know, usually when a piece of art elicits certain feelings unheard, or unfelt, as compared to other similar works I appreciate it for its inventiveness and creativity. The Swans’ 13th LP To Be Kind had that kind of impact on me, but for the opposite reasons as anything I had ever heard before. Where Boards Of Canada are masters of the nostalgic feelings of a past life never experienced, Swans, especially in their most recent releases including 2012’s lauded The Seer, are meant to be painfully endured, with overwhelming anger, fear, and torture permanent mainstays in the ears of the listener. I can respect a work for doing something of the like but, as the pain-staking two hour listen makes strikingly clear, it is not, by any sense of the imagination, enjoyable. And, while Avant-Garde artists such as Swans can make a reasonable case for the opposite, it is my belief that music, or any art form, is meant to be enjoyed and consumed, not a one-off listen regardless of the impact it leaves on you. To Be Kind is an uninspired work that uses bland, pretentious musical elements for instilling ‘try-hard’ tendencies such as a bloated length and redundant loudness to pander to the unique place in music they hold, despite simply replicating their previous release, down to the single epic track at #4.

In terms of accuracy, the cover of To Be Kind couldn’t be more precise. A crying baby, nothing more. It’s all ear numbing with no substance. While the length certainly stretches this fact out, To Be Kind is certainly a detailed album, with intricacies spanning its course, something I commend. However, when nearly every song, sometimes in multiple places, simply builds up to a momentous guitar and drum smattering puncturing the eardrums all those pristine elements get swallowed up into trite musical simplicities for the sake of harsh exposure. In fact, I counted seven instances (six tracks, twice for the two halves of Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture) where the ending is simply a messy collage of aggressive instrumentations for the sake of loudness in ‘grand’ style. And while I do see the point in inserting that sparingly into your album, doing it seven times over ten tracks at the same time interval is simply uncalled for and only shows the limitations of the palate the artist is working with. Take Kirsten Supine as an example of this watered down style. What begins as a slow-churning mystical track featuring St.Vincent with backing vocals and twinkling percussion taps over an ever-looming guitar riff builds beautifully until, for no reason other than repeated intensity, the tracks screeches blaringly with a barrage of sounds until its halt.

While the instrumentation is nothing spectacular and, in most cases, rather dull and meaningless, certain additives help pull To Be Kind out of the gutter. A Little God In My Hands showcases this, throwing in off-wall synth cues and a repeated, groovy piano piece to set the track from all the other tumultuous sounds smeared around it. Other tracks feature these flashes of intrigue, such as She Loves Us, which uses chimes and echoed voices in combination with drum loops to create a hypnotic, fearful listen. Unfortunately these rare oddities are few and far between, which is due in large part to the length. The tension Swans’ music creates is undeniable. It’s a constant bombardment of explosive instrumentations, matched only with elongated periods of eerie quietness, much like a migraine that subsides in its enormity despite the enduring pain still being felt. The obtuse, unnecessary, and entirely unwarranted length of the piece only drives home this misery further, which, to some, would be considered a positive. To me, as with many others, the album is torture. Not in the sense of someone consistently bashing your head on a wall, for that would be over much quicker, but rather someone simply pressing it to the concrete surface, for eternity, until you go mad.

Unfortunately, while the production value equates to the baby crying for the entire night in the crib, the lyricism doesn’t fair much better, reduced to ritualistic ‘Avant-Garde’ sayings and dribble. Excluding the sound, the length, and the unsubstantiated loudness, one of the most irritating things on To Be Kind is lead Michael Gira’s one-dimensional, tedious lyrical depth and variety. While uneventful, ostentatious lyrical content in Avant-Garde music isn’t anything new, and is certainly on display here, Gira’s advances increase the irritation by reducing the depth to a mere comical simplicity. There are five instances on here where the entire lyrical debauchery is reduced to repeated instantiations, swaying only to swap a single word out for another. The biggest offender of this is Some Things We Do, where the entire song is, as the title plainly suggests, a description to what human beings do in their life. “We seed, we feel, we need, we fight, we seal, we cut, we seek, we love…” I could continue this, swapping these with 44 other words, which is exactly what Gira does. This does not, as some may believe, mean some existential deepness but is, in fact, regurgitated nonsense. A near exact replica of this is conducted on the opener, Screen Shot, “no pain, no death, no fear, no hate, no time, no now, no suffering, no touch…” repeated in this instance another 32 times. What this lack of creativity does, strikingly for a two-hour album, is leave me with absolutely zero feeling or thought as to the album’s contents upon its completion. 

It’s this lack of creativity throughout that becomes most agitating. From the repeated buildups, to the repeated lyrics, to even, the repeated staging and pacing of the entire album in perfect accordance with their previous, The Seer, that entirely shows the uninspired feelings conjured up through this album. Artist’s who replicate formerly successful works are usually mocked for their lack of initiative in expanding their reaches. Here it’s felt so concisely that Swans intend to recreate something that was previously lauded instead of broadening their horizons, shown so carelessly on the 30+ minute tirade of musical frustration found fourth on each album. Elsewhere in music, namely Hip-Hop, the term ‘filler’ is often used in describing any album that exceeds 16+ tracks or a certain time span, knowing that no single collective of work can maintain a certain level of quality for an extended duration. The same should apply here; with To Be Kind far exceeding any album that would be considered to have filler, as I’d argue 75% of this album is swollen being necessary need. Swans’ bloated LP stumbles for the same reasons it aims to soar. An excessive length, trite, meaningless lyrics, and rehashed musical concepts litter To Be Kind and hold it back from being an intriguing listen beyond the first, brain-melting endurance run.

6 comments:

  1. A music review blog that rates Kid Cudi higher than Swans.

    Yeah, this is totally a site that I'll be frequenting from now on. Christ. Don't quit your dayjob, kid.

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    1. Thanks for the view. It's unfortunate some still don't understand people have different opinions over things. Sad really.

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  2. I've got to this review from RYM, whose majorities sometimes are just so frustrating that I can't even agree to differ.

    I'm actually glad to get to see your things goin, it's mostly agreeable or legitimate in my opinion.

    Just keep doing this. I'll be frequenting either

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    1. Thanks a bunch! Yeah, it's really tough sometimes because you try to like something since most others do, but you just can't. Doesn't change my opinions on something, if I don't like something, that's my opinion, nothing wrong with that. I'm glad you can see that though, and thanks for checking my site out!

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  3. As a Swans fan, I'm not going to tell you that "you don't get it" and all that shit, neither tell you how to listen to them, I just want to say that your writing is pretty good, indeed; anyway, I don't agree at all with a lot of your reviews. But, you might don't like the shit I like, but you know the shit that you like, I can see that.

    Just that.

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    1. Thanks a lot, I really appreciate the kind words! And for the record, this review was 2 years years ago and I've come a long way since. So while I still don't enjoy To Be Kind, I can certainly see it's worth now. Plus, I adore some of Swans' albums, namely White Light and Soundtracks. Honestly shouldn't have reviewed To Be Kind without hearing much of their discography.

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