Philthy has seen a lot of noisy sonic revolutionaries in recent months, from the hardcore of Perfect Pussy to the avant-garde acid punk of Bo Ningen, but arguably the most prolific “sonic revolutionaries” of the twenty first century, Swans, are coming back next week with their new album, To Be Kind, dropping on Tuesday, May 13th, and a stop at Union Transfer on Thursday, May 15th. Michael Gira’s Swans began just over three decades ago, as one of the two bands bridging the gap between NYC’s No Wave movement and what could be considered actual Rock’N’Roll. The other act, Sonic Youth, went on to become regarded as the most popularly recognized genius musical entity of the 20th century, while Swans were kind of their red-headed step child… brilliant, but largely inaccessible to anything resembling a mass audience… even literally nauseating (The sheer volume of their shows has been known to induce vomiting.)
The first 20+ years of their career saw Gira and various lineups transitioning from a noise band to postmodern metal to industrial to the most bizarrely intellectual take on country you could imagine. And while the top 1% of music snobs recognized the brilliance in this almost-unlistenable outfit who have made a career channeling the aesthetic of the Marquis de Sade into postmodern punk, they never made their way onto anything resembling a popular radar. They split in 1998 and didn’t reform again until 2010, with their superbly radical Americana album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, an album that alien outsiders of several dozen subcultures praised. They even played their first show in more than a decade right here in Philadelphia at The Trocadero, a show that likely embodied anti-performance art better than any of the 2,000 other concerts I’ve ever been to. It was heavy, it was profound, and it was legitimately scary… Although it was nice to have the band back, uniting those who have spent their lives rejecting and refusing, it wasn’t until 2012’s nearly-two-hour, two-disc The Seer that the band seemed to finally make a substantial splash in the world of music in general. The album that Gira claimed to be the culmination of his life’s work heralded perfect scores among critics and had the band playing to the biggest audiences of their career.
To Be Kind, Swans’ latest 2-CD, 3-LP effort would seem to explore even more of the band’s sounds than The Seer. The album was conceived during recent years of the group exploring their sonic boundaries live, sometimes the most psychotic blues ever imagined, sometimes the most morosely foreboding funk, sometimes the most poignantly-undanceable industrial, and sometimes something that could only be described as doom folk… It’s just over two hours and proves to be the perfect catharsis for anyone willing to face the atrocity exhibition that is contemporary culture. It represents Gira’s current group of musicians, who understand the beauty in the primally tribal just as well as they understand the potency of the post-popular. To Be Kind is two hours worth of revolt against what most consider to be music, courtesy of someone who better understands music than anyone in your iPod. And I can’t imagine that their May 15th appearance at Union Transfer will be anything short of 2014’s most abrasive blow-of-an-ice-pick to the “profundity” of any emerging trend in “indie music.”