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


Nathan Smith

Letting the Essays Do The Talking: Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth

In the introduction to her essay collection My Misspent Youth, Meghan Daum writes that as frank as her essays are, they ‘are not confessions’. The personal essay may have long defined Daum, but she is far from a ‘confessional writer’, a title she has long resisted. Read more »


Ilona Wallace

Between You & Me: The New Yorker’s Mary Norris on publishing, editing and insecurity

Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Read more »


Chad Parkhill

On judging the Most Underrated Book Award

The chair of the judging panel for the Most Underrated Book Award shares his observations on the award, what it means to be ‘underrated’, and the current landscape of Australian literary prizes. Read more »

ROSEANNE - On set in New York - 10/16/93 
Sara Gilbert (Darlene) on the ABC Television Network comedy "Roseanne". "Roseanne" is the story of a working class family struggling with life's essential problems.

Rebecca Shaw

Out of the Imaginary Closet: Fictional characters who should have been gay

When you are part of a group that isn’t portrayed in the same way (or only negatively, or not at all) you become desperate for that glimmer of recognition. Here are several characters that I loved as a young person, who became stand-ins for the openly lesbian characters I wanted to see so much. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Rebecca Varcoe

In defence of professional cheerleading

My name is Rebecca and I’m a 26-year-old woman with a shameful secret, for which I refuse to be ashamed any longer. Today I want to confess my obsession and one true love, the subject of many rants and late-night tweeting frenzies: Cheerleading. American, All-Star Cheerleading. Read more »


Adam Rivett

Tell Me, Princess: The evolution of Disney’s princess songs

Two years ago today, Disney’s Frozen was unleashed upon the world. As far as rapacious corporate behemoths go, it’s one of the more appealing, and remains surprisingly resilient to repeat screenings. But at the heart of its achievement sits one indisputable melodic and cultural phenomenon: ‘Let It Go’. Read more »


James Tierney

Bodily Limits: An interview with Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Dario Argento’s 1977 horror film Suspiria suffered from a critical eclipse and a variety of censored prints, and was largely cherished in its original form by aficionados of the field. A reassessment has been building, something sure to be aided by the forthcoming publication of Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ perceptive and elegantly written monograph. Read more »

je tu il elle 2

Eloise Ross

Existence as Minimalism: Remembering Chantal Akerman

Images of a young woman, emptying her small flat of furniture, blocking the window and sitting in the dark, still. Sitting on a mattress in a bare room, furiously writing letters with a pencil and watching the snow through the window. Meeting with a past lover and reuniting on-screen. I think about Chantal Akerman’s films more often than I can say. Read more »


Matilda Dixon-Smith

Family Matters: Please Like Me and the Aussie TV family

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory. Read more »



Isn’t It Obvious: Queer representation in children’s television

For a non-binary gendered person, characters with diverse sexualities and genders are validating and rewarding. As a child, they could have offered integral touchstones for understanding my own gender, and provided context and validation for the ways in which I could exist in the world. Read more »


Alexis Drevikovsky

Have You Ever Felt Like This: Going Round the Twist again

Working from home one day, I took my lunchbreak away from my laptop and flicked idly through the TV channels, hoping for a midday movie with Reese Witherspoon or, even better, an old episode of Cheers. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I excitedly texted my mate Alison: Round the Twist is on ABC3! Read more »


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 »

Tom Conroy and Colin Friels in Mortido. Photo credit: Shane Reid

Jane Howard

A Shining Nightmare: Mortido‘s Sydney

Sydney is a city of shine and reflective surfaces. The glint of the harbour follows through to city high-rises clad in polished glass, bouncing off the wide windows of the mansions hugging the undulating land before it gives way to the impossibly deep and wide water. But this beauty that can betray the darkness of the city and its people. Read more »


Angela Meyer

Outrageous Fortune: Seeing Hamlet as a Cumberbitch

Jazz swells, hushing the audience, and the solid black gate of the theatre curtain opens. It reveals the lounging figure of Hamlet, playing a record, sniffing his father’s old jumper. But what I see first is not Hamlet: it is Benedict Cumberbatch. Read more »

kiss copy

Jane Howard

Great Aspirations: In the shadow of Patrick White

The text of The Aspirations of Daise Morrow is lifted directly from Patrick White’s short story ‘Down at the Dump’. It’s a wonderful thing to hear White’s judicious use of language; to understand the eyes through which he saw Australia; and to see an entire world of his creation brought to life in the theatre. Read more »