The Best Albums of 2014, #6

band016. Swans, To Be Kind (Young God) 

My favourite interview quote from this past year came courtesy Mike Scheidt of YOB, who offered his own definition of what makes music heavy. “Heavy is people,” he explained. “It’s not amplification, it’s not distortion, it’s not tuning, it’s not a style, it’s not volume. That’s not what heavy is. Heavy is people. The more present somebody is, if they’re not lost in their head in high concept and they’re really onstage, digging into something that’s them, in as pure a fashion as possible, that becomes very heavy. When someone up there is so exposed they have something to lose. That’s heavy, and it’s human. It goes beyond the music. It’s something that makes the music heavy. I’ve seen a lot of bands, in G tuning, with fucktons of amplifiers that aren’t as heavy to me as Michael Gira with his guitar by himself. That’s a heavy experience, I’ve seem people squirm and not know how to handle it. It’s so intense.”

It’s been interesting watching Swans transform before our very eyes from a cult favourite to critical darling. But that’s what happens when a few tastemakers of influence embrace a previously underrated band. People take notice, and you can’t help be happy that so many people have gravitated – be it out of genuine interest or merely following the hive mind – towards such music as challenging as what you hear on Swans’ most recent work. When I learned that Michael Gira and his band were going to return in 2014 with another two-CD, triple LP opus that tops two hours, I thought, why even bother following 2012’s The Seer so exactly? Is another exhausting two-hour album necessary? It’s such a slog, and The Seer’s impact waned on me since that year, so I was just tired at the mere thought of another such exercise. Although it’s stylistically the same as The Seer, it turns out that To Be Kind is an even stronger record. The songs click more – especially “Screenshot” and the 34-minute suite “Bring the Sun”/ “Toussaint L’Ouverture” – relying heavily on krautrock repetition, building in intensity until it’s practically hypnotic, rapturous. It might not be “extreme”, not “metal”, but it’s exactly what Scheidt meant by “heavy”. It’s shatteringly heavy, heavier than nearly all metal albums I heard in 2014, and far more daring. Best of all, To Be Kind has resonated beyond what I ever expected, turning out to be a harrowing, exhilarating piece of music that reveals something new each time I listen to it. It’s not an album you listen to in its entirely a lot, but when you do, the rewards are spectacular.