For nearly two hours, To Be Kind — the third album since 2010 from the reconstituted epic aggression syndicate, Swans — tests its audience’s limits by pressing its own boundaries. There is the Pentecostal burn of opener “Screenshot,” in which Michael Gira snaps out a series of edicts — “No need! No hate! No will! No speech!” — as though infractions are punishable by torture. The drums of “Oxygen” push like heavy fists through sheets of distortion and dissonance. During the 34-minute “Bring the Sun,” Gira intones in the manner of a Tuvan throat singer over field recordings of neighing horses before shouting, in Spanish, “Blood is life…Blood is love” amid the tumult of a self-destructing free-jazz ensemble. Even mid-record comedown “Some Things We Do” unravels into a nightmare, its motion-sick string section trailing Gira’s duet with veteran iconoclast Little Annie, a stalker on the trail.
But just as the album starts to cross that two-hour mark, the 10th and final track, “To Be Kind,” extends some relief, with halting acoustic guitar and a choir that seems to float in from another room. But the sudden composure is a feint, giving way to drums that clatter like the cavalry and electric guitars that wave like battle flags. For one final time, Swans attack. Beneath a guitar symphony that recalls Rhys Chatham, the rhythm section pounds with militaristic force. The moment is not only an encapsulation of the album’s delight in intimidation but also one of the most cathartic bursts in all of Swans’ 30-year oeuvre.
“One thing I want to point out right now: This is not a reunion,” Gira wrote in 2010, announcing the return of Swans. “It’s not some dumb-ass nostalgia act. It is not repeating the past.” Sure, that idea was evident on both My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky and The Seer, very good albums that worked to find new ways to sound like some conception of Swans. But To Be Kind is the first time this new iteration has been its own untethered beast, charging ahead for two-plus hours with no apologies or concessions. To Be Kind thrills in and with discomfort: radical dynamics and collapsing rhythms, uncompromising runtimes and repugnant sentiments. Swans squeeze pleasure from pain here, or at the very least, empty every ounce of sweat and decibel of energy into that effort.