Swans’ To Be Kind: Part One
Swans is an unlikely success story. They achieved a level of notoriety due to their punishing and uncompromising live shows in New York in the 80s, opening for acts like Sonic Youth and clearing out rooms. They were also known for their incendiary songs, with songs like “Raping a Slave” and “Cop” being known for their shocking lyrics, the latter including the line “Nobody rapes them like a cop with his club.” It’s about as in-your-face anti-establishment as you could get, and after a few years it was assumed that the establishment would chew up the band before spitting them out as a funny memory of the 1980s. But you would be wrong.
Michael Gira, front man and Swans’ brainchild soldiered on, expanding his lineup to include the enigmatic a female counter-voice Jarboe through the 80s and 90s releasing a series of interesting and critically acclaimed albums like Children of God (1987) and Soundtrack for the Blind (1996) before finally disbanding. Now they’ve had their incendiary period followed by a creative spike, you figure they might gently fall back into the folds of indie rock history. Wrong again. In 2010, Gira announced he was reforming the band, and this time, for the first time in the band’s history, it seemed like the rest of the world was on board with his discord and misanthropy.
It’s not that Swans are uncomfortable selling out multiple nights at large venue, or that they reject the credence and prestige that today’s establishment from Pitchfork, Primavera Sound, or All Tomorrow’s Parties gives to the band. It’s just that it seems taken with a cheeky “I’ll play along with your game, until your establishment crumbles” level of misanthropy. I always imagined the song “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” from 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me with a Rope to the Sky was written with the indie music establishment in mind, but that may be reading too much into the subtext.
After releasing one reunion record, you might think, okay, they’ve proven themselves as relevant, maybe they will settle down into sporadic tours as so many reunited bands have settled. Again, Gira defies odds, cementing his sextuplet with Christoph Hahn on slide guitar, Christopher Pravdica on bass, resident Viking impersonator Thor Harris on percussion, Phil Puleo on drum kit, and finally, Norman Westberg on guitar. Westberg is the only member other than Gira to have any affiliation with an early incarnation of the band, playing on every album since their 1983 Filth. In constructing a lineup that bridges the old with the new, Gira set himself up to take the expansive experiments to a bigger palate.
That expansive palate came in the form of 2012’s 2 hour long The Seer which came like a shot from the dark to the indie music establishment who has been in an uncomfortable position of both championing the inclusiveness of an unknown band and countering the iTunes culture of click-and-download a single song. The Seer found a market for both being a virtually unknown band, and creating music that resisted easy digestion. It was also fucking awesome, showing a mature command of song composition, and not being trapped to easy post-rock clichés. It expanded and contracted song lengths, utilizing an eclectic variety of featured artists, like Low, Jarboe, and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, while never losing focus or wandering too far off track from an overall message of transcendence through repetition and self annihilation of body and mind.
Swans’ To Be Kind: Part Two