There’s no obvious explanation for Swans’ sudden popularity among hip young connoisseurs of left-field rock music. Formed circa 1982, gone by 1997 and revived in 2010, the NYC art-noise behemoth attracted its largest audiences yet with a sprawling 2012 triple LP (The Seer), unrelenting two-hour gigs, and a lack of regard for both commercial relevance and bankable nostalgia. Granted, the band now executes its signature bludgeoning locksteps with a more groove-oriented, less monochromatic feel, but the overall vibe remains stubbornly grand, physical and excessive.
Which isn’t to say that Swans’ sound hasn’t evolved. Brassy synth blasts, textural guest vocals from Annie “St. Vincent” Clark and slinking rhythms that breathe like never before are just some of the new wrinkles in the band’s latest 121-minute colossus, the ironically titled To Be Kind. Still propelled by the sextet’s trademark thundering percussion and screech-guitar crescendos, the record comes across as an ecstatic exercise in the bleakest, stormiest psychedelia imaginable.
Onstage, Swans’ megaton drones emerge as deafening rituals. Frontman Michael Gira roars into the ether and saturates his shirt with sweat; a leonine guy named Thor hammers tubular bells and a gong; and—age be damned—one of history’s most challenging live acts renders further analysis completely unnecessary.—Jordan N. Mamone