Praise Yeezus for Swans
John Darr | Wednesday, September 17, 2014
“Yeezy season approachin’, **** whatever y’all been hearin’.”
Opening up his latest album with a middle finger to the rest of your iTunes library, Kanye West indirectly promised to put all modern music to shame. However, in my friends’ and my own experiences, “Yeezus” didn’t do that – it didn’t even come close. While Kanye’s ambitions for the record were unrivaled, his lyrical clumsiness and Diet Death Grips/Clipping Lite production prevented Yeezus from being the rap game-changer many hoped it would be.
In other news, Radiohead has essentially given up on putting “Kid-A” sized effort into their studio records. James Murphy abandoned his own incredible dance-rock fusion project to make a disappointing dance-rock fusion record with Arcade Fire. Death Grips is dead. The biggest innovators in music seem to be going MIA in some terrifying mass (s)exodus.
As a Scene writer, I would love to hear a record that, through radical innovation and musical expertise, yells at me Kanye-style: “whatever you’re listening to is good, but this is the greatest record of ALL TIME!” Unfortunately, the artists who release records like that — Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Death Grips, West himself — are slumping. There hasn’t been a single record this year that’s drawn me away from my sentimental hoard of National records and almost-good “obsurecore” singles. “Where,” I ask the Pitchfork review comment section, “is our savior now?”
That’s when Cal Chuchesta came to me in a dream and said, “Swans gud jab on yer strang ten.” Waking up intrigued, I did my research and found out that swans were large white birds and close relatives of geese and ducks. No dice musically.
One more google search later, I found that Swans was also a post-punk band from New York that happens to be one of the most consistently awesome groups of the modern musical era. Evolving from extremely harsh noise-rock to gothic rock to post-rock, Swans has managed to craft several modern classics with diverse sounds. The intensity that Swans levies without resorting to walls of distortion is incredibly impressive and stems from a combination of tribal rhythms, heavy lyrics and subtly mutating crescendos and decrescendos.
Last year, Swans released “The Seer,” their grandest effort yet. Filled with growling guitars, eerie harmonies, relentless grooves and immersive atmospheres, “The Seer” fell between rock, metal, jazz and ambient without sounding like any previous fusion. It balanced a consuming darkness with moments of swirling beauty.
The band’s newest effort, “To Be Kind,” is a whole new beast. Boasting bass and guitar riffs that simultaneously sound like they’re out of old westerns and pit bull’s mouths, it’s a vicious animal that contemplates the primacy of the human spirit. Opening with a rattling list of universal ideas like love, suffering and “now,” “Screen Shot” mirrors the continual cycle of activities and reduces them to their most basic forms. It’s truly an exploration of possibilities and limitations of life — how actions can be reduced to singular verbs and moments that mean very little.
The record continues in a similar thematic vein, exploring youth an an excuse for immaturity in “Just a Little Boy”, the inability to separate sex and control from love in “She Loves Us” and the repetition of our days and thoughts in “Things We Do.” In essence, “To Be Kind” struggles against our animalistic spirit while displaying the raw power of what we can do despite our limitation. All of these heavy themes are carried by extremely raw, yet incredibly precise grooves that morph, explode and implode in consistently thrilling ways. From the pummeling drums to ripping guitars and penetrating bass, the production and performance are flawless.
Musically, “To Be Kind” defies our conception of the song through relentless repetition, unrestrained song structure and an extremely unique, chant-like lyrical style. It’s a record that demands to be listened to, and simply seems bigger and more consequential than basically every record that’s been released recently. In today’s ailing indie scene, Swans is the perfect group to take up where yesterday’s forward-thinkers left of.