KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Music

Still climbing the ladder to God: Swans’ To Be Kind

by Chad Parkhill , May 22, 20141 Comment

 

Those of us lucky enough to have seen Swans live in concert will know that they are unlike any other band currently touring. Other bands may be heavier, other bands may be louder, other bands may be noisier, but no band is quite as intense as Swans – a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that its leader, chief songwriter, and sole constant member, Michael Gira, turned sixty this year, and that the band had been on a decade-long hiatus before reforming in 2010.

When they play, their sets are long – as a rule they don’t play slots that are shorter than two hours – and they spend most of those two hours creating crushing volleys of sound using only analogue instrumentation – drums, bass, guitar, dulcimer, gongs. In the course of a concert they may only play six or so songs, some of which stretch out into forty-five minute epics where a central motif is repeated and ever-so-slowly mutated. They are, of course, ridiculously loud, even if Gira has forsworn the kind of extreme decibels that famously caused his audiences to vomit at shows in the eighties.

I say ‘lucky’, because even though the above précis might sound like a description of the aural torture famously used by the US military against Iraqi insurgents, Swans are not fundamentally about aggression, angst, or the cheap catharsis promised by testosterone-driven hard rock. By contrast, as Gira himself put it, ‘People always consider us to be very dour and depressing, but fuck that shit. The goal is ecstasy’. The loudness, the noisiness, and the crushing repetition are not ends in themselves but rather tools deployed towards that goal. To enjoy Swans requires work, something that many music consumers are not accustomed to in an age of streaming music on demand and pop music finely calibrated to drive straight for our neural pleasure centres. In this way, seeing Swans live is akin to taking part in a heavy BDSM scene: it’s not exactly pleasant, but it offers the promise of a kind of radical jouissance that other, more accessible thrills do not. Or, as Gira sings on The Seer’s final track, ‘We’re on a ladder to God’ – which implies not only that transcendence is the goal, but that the ladder must be firmly planted in the base matter of the world, too.

To Be Kind, Swans’ latest album, captures a good slice of the phenomenal heft and energy of their live shows. Like its predecessor, The Seer, it stretches over two discs and two hours or so; unlike its predecessor, only one song (‘Some Things We Do’, a low-key piece consisting of Gira’s vocals and orchestral accompaniment) could be called a reprieve from the intensity of the album’s monolithic tracks. These things are huge, and the fact that ‘A Little God in My Hands’ – a seven-minute slab of hard rock that ends with a deafening blast of caterwauling guitars, clarinets, and theremins – was selected as the lead single (traditionally the easiest entry point into an album) speaks volumes about the ambition of To Be Kind.

The longest song on the album, ‘Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture’, runs for a whole thirty-four minutes, opens with a bracingly loud riff, and concludes with Gira screaming wordless howls of some primal pain and release before the rest of the band bring the whole thing to a crescendo that sounds like the world being torn limb from limb. Not that Swans need volume to create intensity: ‘Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)’ creates a thick miasma of suspense through its funereal pace and spacious arrangement, and ‘Kirsten Supine’ – named after Kirsten Dunst’s nude scene in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is suffused with an eerie beauty and calm before the inevitable cataclysm arrives.

At the time of its release, Gira claimed that the The Seer was ‘the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined’, which explains some of its kaleidoscopic ambition. To Be Kind, by contrast, is a more focused album, even as its songs sprawl longer. It’s heavier, louder, darker, even more monolithic. It pushes the ladder to God further down into the muck of misery and abjection that Swans have always occupied, and, in so doing, extends its reach further into the sky.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Australian, Killings, The Lifted BrowMeanjin, and The Quietus, amongst others.

ACO logo




9780733633782

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their July picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

lead_960

James Tierney

I Call The Shots: The provocation of violent women

In a Western culture increasingly stripped of its old taboos, violent acts by women – real and imagined – still possess the genuine power to shock. Cultural representations of violent women can both affirm and react against the kind of pernicious questioning that posits women as fundamentally, and fatally, reactive. Read more »

9781925106510

Oliver Mol

July First Book Club: Read an excerpt from Oliver Mol’s Lion Attack!

At the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club event in July, Oliver Mol will discuss his debut memoir, Lion Attack!. Read an extract from this funny, energetic and original coming-of-age story, which interweaves stories from Oliver’s childhood in Texas and his young adulthood in Melbourne. Read more »

abortion

Rebecca Shaw

Choice Without Stigma: Dismantling the abortion taboo

Abortion is still illegal in the criminal code in Queensland – even in this, the Year of Our Beyoncé 2015. While women are unlikely to face practical obstacles to abortion due to the law, it can still cause isolation and unnecessary fear, and creates a stigma around the act. Read more »

17177200132_2383e88c36_k

Rebecca Shaw

Rage Against the Marriage: The inanity of same sex marriage debate in Australia

I am someone who is completely comfortable in my sexuality, and who classifies myself as the genus Lesbionisos. I am 100% certain that I am not abnormal, an abomination, or in any way inferior to heterosexual people. Sometimes I even secretly think non-heterosexuals might be superior. But I haven’t always been this assured. Read more »

clouds-of-sila-maria-1

Rebecca Shaw

The curse of the ‘gal pals’

As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

tom-cruise-jack-reacher-premiere-postponed

Chris Somerville

A lit match in a box of wet dynamite: Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

I first watched Jack Reacher a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia. The plot is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

3ab01d05-2590-4aa4-80f4-45fab0eccec4-2060x1236

Anwen Crawford

Heart of Darkness: UnREAL‘s ruthless reality

Everlasting, the show-within-a-show at the dark centre of new American television series UnREAL, is a fantasy blend of champagne cocktails, pool parties and true love. Everlasting is a Bachelor-style game show in which a dozen immaculately groomed women compete for a handsome millionaire husband, and its relationship to real life is, like any ‘reality’ show, non-existent. Nothing goes to air on Everlasting that has not been scripted, staged, and edited for maximum controversy. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

OITNB2

Anwen Crawford

Still in Prison: The limitations of Orange is the New Black

No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

Keith - photo Shane Reid

Jane Howard

Local Courage, Global Reach: The National Play Festival

There is something to be gained from observing any collection of works in close proximity, and in these readings you could see the way Australian playwrights are reaching out into the world. Together, these works show the minds of our playwrights in robust health, with works that are itching to find their audience. Read more »

2015GISELLE_Artists of The Australian Ballet. PhotoJeffBusby

Jane Howard

The Beautiful and the Dated: Australian Ballet’s Giselle

The weight of history sits heavily on the Australian Ballet’s Giselle. One of the most enduringly popular ballets from the romantic period, there is much to delight in its presence on stage and its lasting lineage. But 175 years after its debut, in a production that premiered 30 years ago, the sheen of Giselle has been dulled. Read more »

CrawlMeBlood_20150607_261_LoRes copy

Jane Howard

Adhocracy: Lifting the curtain on the creative process

Every June long weekend I wrap myself up in several extra layers and make my way to the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide for Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix’s annual hothouse that brings together artists from around the country for a weekend of creative development. Read more »