Swans Reach the Top 40 With the Late-Career Masterpiece 'To Be Kind'

To illustrate just how unlikely the recent late-career renaissance of Michael Gira and Swans has been: The band's new album, To Be Kind (Young God Records), debuted at 38 on Billboard's album chart earlier this month. That's by far the highest chart performance ever for the group, which has carried a reputation, deserved or not, as one of the world's most uncompromising, confrontational acts for more than three decades. For hardcore Swans fans, the idea that the band would ever perform again under that name, after the monumental double-barreled farewell of Soundtracks for the Blind (1996) and the subsequent live set Swans Are Dead (1998), was nearly unthinkable. That they would become one of the most heralded rock bands of the 21st century—and a Top 40 act—was simply inconceivable.

Of course, the band's music during its initial run was far more complex than its reputation suggests. The earliest albums, as Gira and a rotating cast of musicians crawled up out of New York's downtown underground, were indeed nasty, grimy, grinding affairs, and touchstones for the emerging industrial rock movement. But before the '80s were even over, the Swans sound had expanded. The addition of classically trained singer and keyboardist Jarboe was instrumental in the band's development; by the time of The Burning World (1989), White Light From the Mouth of Infinity (1991), and Love of Life (1992), Swans had turned from negation toward transcendence, a path Gira followed further after the band's 1996 break-up with Angels of Light.

The first two post-reunion Swans albums, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky (2010) and The Seer (2012), took the late Swans/Angels of Light sound, a grand amalgam of Ennio Morricone, Black Sabbath, Crazy Horse, choral music, and Miles Davis' In a Silent Way, to its logical conclusion. (As I wrote in a review of the band's Knoxville concert in 2012, "Swans' music sounds like the last music in the world, as if whatever ambitions and anxieties first stirred the human heart to make music had been satisfied.") The music on those two albums was heavy, hypnotic, and enveloping; The Seer, especially, played like one long piece, ebbing and flowing over the course of its two-hour length.

To Be Kind reverses the course Gira has been on for nearly 20 years. It's not exactly a return to the grim and grimy early '80s albums Filth and Cop, but there is a distinct sense of menace and a sonic claustrophobia on the new disc—Gira's delivery is almost like a jeer on "A Little God in My Hands," which explodes with a discordant crescendo of synthesizer at its conclusion, and "Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)." The emotional center of To Be Kind is the 34-minute fourth track, "Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouverture" (five of the 10 songs are more than 10 minutes long). It's a massive one-chord jam interspersed with sparsely arranged steel guitar interludes, percussion improvisations, sci-fi synths, sawing noises, samples of neighing horses, and haunting, inscrutable rants from Gira. As half-hour songs go, it's mesmerizing and impossible to ignore, just like the rest of the album.

There's been very little creative development, roundabout or otherwise, for New Orleans sludge band Eyehategod over its 26-year career. The Swans' catalog turns from darkness to light and back again; Eyehategod has remained steadfastly committed to the dark side. Succumbing to the same punk- and classic rock-fueled impulse that inspired the Melvins, Tad, and Killdozer—and taking nods from the Touch and Go roster and Black Flag's My War—guitarist Jimmy Bower, vocalist Mike Williams, and their cohort gave noise rock a distinctly swampy Southern flavor on a trio of classic albums in the early 1990s (In the Name of Suffering, Take as Needed for Pain, and Dopesick).

It's not the kind of music careers are made of, but Eyehategod has survived—the band's members have faced jail, addiction, poverty, critical disregard, label conflicts, and Hurricane Katrina during their 25 years together. The band's new album, Eyehategod (Housecore Records)—its first in 14 years—is more of the same from these drug-scarred nihilists, which is to say it's another satisfying overdose of syrupy, stuttering, down-tuned, knuckle-dragging guitar abuse. The filthy appeal of the early albums may have been traded in for slightly more approachable sonic clarity here, but this is about as good—and dirty—as an Eyehategod album could be in 2014.