I always thought there was some kind of law, like a law of physics rather than one drafted for use in courtooms, like the Universal Speed Limit or something, that stated that it was physically impossible for a band to come back from the void of non-existence and still be at the top of their game. You know what I mean. Your favourite band reforms and, in a best case scenario, makes an album that’s pretty good – almost as good, in fact, as their old stuff. But never any better than that. It’s just not allowed.Which means I must have imagined the last few years of Swans, which is pretty cool, because it means I have an amazing imagination. My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky was, in fact, almost as good as their old stuff. But then they dropped The Seer, and all bets were off. This was Swans at their absolute finest, as good as they’d ever been; but still progressing, still experimenting. Given that these are records that actually exist, that means my hypothetical law of physics is bollocks.
But it’s OK, I have another one. After a career-defining epic (like The Seer, for example) it is compulsory for a band to then release a stunningly disappointing record, which they will claim is them stripping things down, or going back to their roots, or some other such nonsense.With the release of To Be Kind, Swans have just proved that one to be bollocks too. They’ve taken the almost unprecedented step of following a huge, sprawling career-defining epic with another huge, sprawling career-defining epic. And it’s every bit as good, while resolutely insisting on not being just more of the same. See, the trouble with a lot of so-called “experimental music” is that it was experimental thirty years ago. Now that particular experiment’s been done. Your power electronics band may sound just like Whitehouse, but you will never recreate the shock factor, or the originality. Can’t be done. And without those it’s basically just a racket. There are obviously exceptions – Einstürzende Neubauten spring to mind, as they often do – but for the most part bands who were once “experimental” have just been repeating the same experiment over and over again. And there’s nothing wrong with that, if it sounds good, but that’s not how Swans roll. They’re still doing it.
Take opener “Screen Shot”. Relatively subdued by Swans standards, it’s still relentlessly physical – it’s practically Krautrock, with that Can-esque uptight funk thing going on. Yes, I said “funk” in a Swans review. Yes, that’s utterly bonkers. And yes, it’s utterly accurate. And utterly beguiling. By about half-way through you’re starting to suspect that this may go on forever, and that that would be a pretty awesome thing to happen. It’s like hypnosis, a musical mantra to lock you into that psychic groove and make you more susceptible for what is to come. It’s like standing on the runway waiting for takeoff, only less Hawkwindy than that sounds. But it’s immensely varied, its one basic groove augmented by a thousand tiny changes each repetition. It’s magnificent, basically, and by the time all the pieces are in place it’s as transcendent as anything on The Seer.Oh, did I mention the third of my new laws of physics? This one holds that I will find it impossible to talk about any given record without referring to David Lynch. I suspect it not to be true, but it has yet to be disproved. And “Just A Little Boy” is the point on this album at which I have to do that. Partly it’s for the Badalamenti-esque Pink Room vibe from the rhythm section, but mostly it’s for the utterly chilling inclusion of some canned laughter. Canned laughter, as we all know, ruins any sitcom. Fortunately for us, this is not a sitcom, and the reverse applies, making everything far more sinister than it already was. By the time it happens you are under no illusions that you’re here for the duration. This is a band that understands dynamics like nobody else. The passage of time has largely consisted of the addition of space; where their earliest output was all about volume, this is all about size. These are HUGE pieces of music, and not just in length. Like the human mind, whole worlds, whole universes live inside them, every song an intimate apocalypse.
And nowhere do they get bigger than “Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,” which at some points injects more life into the corpse of The Doors than anything since The Young Gods‘ “Summer Eyes,” and at others feels like they’ve taken you to the top of the highest mountain imaginable, shown you the view and then pushed you off, leaving you sliding at breakneck speed through the most beautiful countryside you’ve ever seen – and then when you hit the bottom they save you with a miracle. Think of Douglas Adams‘ famous description of space, and you’ll get some vague sense of just how huge this is.At their best, which they are here, Swans sound like an enormous machine, a machine made of flesh, with an almost unimaginable amount of moving parts, each ticking along to its own rhythm. Listening to Brian Eno always makes me think of an intricate clock mechanism; this is like that, but bigger and squidgier, warmer and more human. Listen to “Oxygen,” with its coiled-spring bass, mechanical grind and stuttering mathy rhythms. By the time Michael Gira starts barking (oh yes he does) you feel like you’re trapped inside this machine, and nobody’s coming to switch it off any time soon. You have to be really tight to sound this crazed. There’s something of the Birthday Party‘s lunacy to it, like everyone’s simultaneously freaking out and it’s only by coincidence or divine intervention that they happen to be playing the same song. It’s also probably the most frightening piece on an album full of terrors and wonders.
Even the quieter moments are majestically huge, usually leading to even bigger noisier ones. Nathalie Neal starts off with a subdued vocal drone before morphing into the kind of multi-layered assault on the senses of which Godspeed You! Black Emperor would be proud. Only, y’know, bigger. By the time things finish off with the title track, it’s like coming down from some serious drugs, or returning from an alien abduction. What time is it? Where am I? Why can’t I think? WHO’S BEEN IN MY HEAD???
Swans, motherfuckers. Swans. And if I have to make up a few more laws of physics (only not actually physics, but you get my point) just so they can break them, then so be it. Long may they continue to be the best they’ve ever been.