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Music Review: Swans – ‘To Be Kind’

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Is that a melody? The new Swans album is packed with leader Michael Gira’s trademark loud art rock – lengthy guitar slams and atmospheric droning passages in a no-wave political music one might meditate to while contemplating global domination. Add to the equation a sparkling melody and a shiny pop sheen.

92688_lgThere are downright catchy background vocals on the funk-minded “A Little God in My Hands”. A trombone assault closes “Oxygen” like a Duke Ellington show-stopper and there’s guitar intros so rudimentary you could swear you’re listening to Grand Funk Railroad strumming chords in search of a song structure. Swans have been infected with rhythm and melody, not to mention rock and roll.

It’s a welcome change, a bright human element in Gira’s bleak worldview where the godless militant sky squashes men like in an old Raid! commercial. Not that Swans have abandoned their metal shield against all things unnatural. The darkness is still visible in long guitar noise of complete chemical breakdown. Weird twisted tribal tongues still bark in the face of established religion. Moments of pure silence are shattered by a deafening assault on the ears. It’s just that they’ve never sounded happier about total devastation.

On the 34 minutes-long “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture”, Gira sounds positively joyous singing a gripping infectious mantra above a cacophony of fierce guitar waves, as if shouting “Ride ‘em cowboy!” while straddling a nuclear missile.

In the David Lynch-inspired collage “Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)”, he channels a cosmic hillbilly sporting a metal plate in his forehead while bleating, “I’m just a little boy. I need love!” It’s an eerie crawling music full of metallic tinkering and atmospheric hum interrupted by a mocking television laugh track. I envision a human harvesting operation in the Ozarks. The dedication to the great bluesman Burnett (“Howlin’ Wolf”) may be indicative of both Swans and Burnett employing pounding repetition in their music.

To Be Kind is a mammoth two-disc recording – the Special Edition has three discs – with over two hours of poetic adventurous music. Swans have never sounded so accessible and yet so dark and mysterious. Largely funded by the Swans’ fan base, the album answers to no one but the delighted mesmerized listener.

Swans just started an extensive American and European tour.

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