A Journal Of The Dark Arts
Of all the influential bands who have been resurrected in the past 5 years – Pixies, Slint, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver – none have aged so well and seem so timely as Michael Gira‘s sonic cathedral, Swans, who are actually POPULAR these days, with this album earning Pitchfork‘s Best New Music tag, (ours, too, although it is sharing that position with some others), and countless rave reviews of their live spectacle. This speaks massive volumes about where we’re at, as a culture, and beautifully illustrate a number of points of the Forestpunk mission statement; the atavistic return, and the need for ritual in people’s lives; how not all that is of the flesh is evil; and how sometimes you’ve got to push through the darkness to reach the light.
I would like to take this auspicious opportunity, new Swans is always a momentous event, to introduce a new term, that is equally important to the Forestpunk ethos, what i call Feral Zen. I don’t think it’s exactly a revelation, at this point, to say that sometimes we need to be able to disassociate from our minds, from our desires, because otherwise yr a dull puppet that is doomed to a lifetime of suffering (Samsarah, remember?), but it is not always realistic or appropriate to go climb to the nearest mountain Ashram, and spend the rest of yr days on a zafu.
While this approach may work for many, and i personally advocate for some form of formal training or practice in some kind of meditation, sitting or otherwise, there is the lingering threat of exoticism and cultural appropriation, always. My upbringing couldn’t have been farther from a rural Japanese existence, nor does my daily existence resemble in many ways that of a Zen monk (actually, that last part’s not entirely true. I’m just a very caffeinated monk with a laptop), meaning that sometimes we’ve got to find the peace THRU the noise, at first to separate from it, and eventually, to be transported by it.
Anybody whose seen Swans live is familiar with this concept of feral zen; the point where volume washes over you, and sounds become tactile and sensual, and yr central nervous system shuts down in overload and small mammal panic, and that endless peace that surpasseth all understanding descends upon you. To feel such peace, and such stillness, in the face of such chaos, is an eye-opening and transformative experience, which will forever alter the way you see and hear the world around you.
I think Swans’ get a bunk rap as being a bleak and sadistic band, or that’s a very limited aspect of their music, at any cost. Gira’s music is transgressive, meaning it is interested in breaking down boundaries, but it is not necessarily violent, per se, or at least vidolence for it’s own sake. Swans’ music seeks to break down boundaries and borders, to question taboos, and find the invisible programming that exists in yr DNA, and transfigure it. To get you thinking for yrself. In this way, Swans’ performances, and their records, serve as portable witches’ cradles; the noisiest sensory deprivation this side of You Made Me Realize.
So how may we interpret Swans’ surge in popularity? Is it merely the rosy shades of retrospect, now that the heavy thinking has been done for us, and hundreds of bands have cited the megalithic New York outfit as an influence? I would say that is a part of it; our ears have become more attuned to their sounds, after a couple of decades of listening to Sonic Youth‘s detuned guitar squall, the heavy-hitting percussion of Neurosis, the slo-motion metal ritual of Sunn O))), the crashing crescendo rock of Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
When you consider both Swans and Angels Of Light, Gira’s post-Swans outfit, influence on subsequent genres, from the heavy iterations mentioned above, to the atavistic rural ritual of Angels Of Light, MG and co. probably deserve to be conferred patron saint status. We’ve had 13 years of hearing the noisiest, heaviest, weirdest and most psychedelic sounds from every inch of the globe, and some from outside, to get used to these sounds. Our ears have gotten tuned to these sounds.
Because of it, an interesting sensation – Swans’ jackhammer napalm piston blows (some courtesy of Thorr Harris, the heaviest drummer on the planet), have been somewhat wrapped in silk. They’re HEAVY, they’re POWERFUL, but not necessarily aggressive. Which means that you get power and volume, the true primal explosion of Swans’ at their most mighty, without it being perceived as a violent act. Not abrasive, but inclusive.
Since people’s ears are better able to appreciate sounds like these (plus, to a certain extent, modern technology’s ability to capture them, especially live), more people are coming to the ritual. That’s why i called this Scorpio Rising. Scorpio is ruled by Pluto, the furthermost planet in the solar system, associated with mystery, darkness, the unseen. Pluto is commonly associated with the id, the darkest reaches of the subconscious.
In a recent interview with The Quietus, Gira talks about being taken over by a character, when he performs, reverting to a sometimes infantile state, before resuming his scarecrow shaman stance. He put it like this:
The whole thing again was like regressing towards the id, or involved in the buried aspects of what’s inside of us coming out. That was our whole thing, bringing the psyche out into the open. Sometimes with some pretty hideous results!
Going to these deep, dark places releases a kind of energy, which is further amplified (pun slightly intended) by Swans’ incredible volume and physical presence. It PRODUCES something – it takes you somewhere, or places you inside of yrself. And since people are better equipped to receive these transmission, these deep dark wavelengths are reaching more ears than ever before.
Let’s call it witchcraft, folks.
And since these sounds are not necessarily being associated with pain and darkness automatically, as Swans’ original iteration (which was somewhat perpetuated by them, to be fair), people are better able to explore this terrain without being terrified away. We are reaching BEYOND ourselves, wanting to be swallowed in something, ridden by something, overtaken.
We are seeking the more-than-human, thus our interest in the epic. A return of mythology.
So, rather than an assault, To Be Kind is more of a collective ritual, a communal exaltation of those tectonic slabs of sound that only these people can create. It is like being lost in love, or wandering a vast and dusty continent, especially on the climactic “Bring The Sun/Touissant L’Overture”, at a staggering 36 minutes, depicting a Haitian revolution, complete with buzzing flies and whinnying horses. These slabs have never sounded better, exquisitely rendered by John Congleton, who’s also worked with Xiu Xiu, Angel Olsen, St. Vincent (who also appears as a disembodied voice on a number of tracks on TBK), and is proving to be a ferocious engineer (producer?) and one to watch. He manages to weave a deft tapestry of over 20 different instruments, both acoustic and electric, filling every mm of sonic real estate, while still giving everything room to breathe.
My favorite thing about Swans’ is that they offer an alternative kind of visionary psychedelia, an alternative to the wiggly, noodling Grateful Dead/San Fransisco variety, or the beach bum stoner vibes. I’m from the midwest, and i’m all out of nag champa – sometimes i need stronger stuff. Or, it’s more like sometimes i need different kinds of visions. Life isn’t all sunshine and kisses – a good portion of the day happens at night. Sex happens at night (and during the day). Danger happens at night. And for what it’s worth, To Be Kind may be Swans’ sexiest work, approaching a muscular spiritual funk band, full of chopping guitars and slinky basslines and may result in Swans’ actually emerging from the dungeon.
Swans’ are taking it all in, looking at everything. And they create a very particular kid of psychedelia. For one, Gira’s insistence on physical and tactile lyrics; he loves to invoke the meat. When he sings “No hand/no knife/no reach/no time/no now” on the album opener “Screen Shot”, it’s particularly disorienting – like Samuel Beckett riding a Sherman Tank, staring at the sun.
And while Swans’ may love you now, and we all may be riding the same dervish hurricane, don’t worry – there’s still plenty of pummeling going on, Swans’ wrapping you in their trademarked white noise cocoon, wiping yr thoughts away.
So, yeah, is To Be Kind Swans’ greatest record? Yeah, probably, or among the greatest. You should probably hear all of them, as their 30 year career is a nice encapsulation of the last 100 years of transgressive art history. To Be Kind is certainly a great jumping on point, for those who have not explored Swans’ colossal beauty before.
TBK’s 2 discs span out across over 2 hours, so set yrself a nice chunk of time, and really get lost, delve and explore these sound worlds. Treat it like an epic movie or novel – something by Lars Von Trier or Cormac McCarthy. Preferably, revisit these worlds often, as there are many thorny labyrinths in which to receive epiphany.