Vinyl Corner : Swans ‘To Be Kind’

Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect, as well as a brief overview of the music itself. This time we’re weighing up Swans’ 2014 intense epic ‘To Be Kind’.

The Music:

Although Swans first started bursting eardrums and shattering taboos 35 years ago, it wasn’t until Michael Gira reassembled the band in 2010 that they received a wider fanbase than the decidedly cult audience they had won during their initial 15 year tenure. Although 2010’s ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky’ had something to offer pre-existing fans, it was 2012’s ‘The Seer’ that really turned heads. A relentlessly ambitious two hour epic that saw spiritual transcendence rub shoulders with terrifying visions and chest-rumbling intensity, it won the band a whole new audience both for its sheer scope and its plentiful impact.

The band followed it up with 2014’s ‘To Be Kind’. Undeniably cast from the same mould as its predecessor, ‘To Be Kind’ shares many characteristics with ‘The Seer’. Again clocking in at a hefty two hours, ‘To Be Kind’ was an album of intensely lengthy, trance-like meditations, ranging from the poundingly weighty assault of ‘She Loves Us’ to the ominous overtones of ‘Some Things We Do’ – the album’s one respite at a mere five minutes. Never a band to go in for half measures, Swans here stretched out their already infamous intensity to new lengths; 10 to 15 minute tracks are commonplace here and the album’s lengthiest moment – the almost ecclesiastical euphoria of ‘Bring The Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture’ punches in at an unwieldy 35 minutes. The jury is very much out on what album could be called the best Swans record; but for those who favour the band’s contemporary sound – one of extreme repetition, intensity and transcendence through volume – ‘To Be Kind’ may well stand as the most satisfyingly executed of their albums.

The Pressing:

There’re two versions of this alum – Europe and UK have a pressing released by Mute Records, whilst the US has a version released by the band’s own Young God Records; we’re looking at the Mute version here. Spread over three LPs pressed by France’s MPO, this is a well produced set consisting of nice, weighty pressings with great sounding, quiet playback. Quality control is very solid throughout, with not a single a pop or obvious patch of surface noise over any of the album’s six sides. Although the music itself is usually loud enough that light surface noise would be masked anyway, there are certainly moments on the album where crackle – if there was any – would be obviously noticeable. Thankfully this is a well made set with a very low surface noise level. When played at volume, a faint whisper of whooshing can be heard but it’s definitely not an issue as it’s far too quiet to impact even the subtler moments of the album.

Each disc is reasonably weighty at about at 150g and they track nicely, with all three discs sitting flat on the platter. We did get a short smattering of light crackles on ‘She Loves Us’ but this only lasted seconds and, on an album that lasts 120 minutes, it’s easy to forgive a few seconds of crackle. Aside from this brief touch of surface noise all three discs sound great and dynamically offer an excellent soundscape. Barbed guitars and buzzing basses sound razor sharp and completely vital here, drums having nice weight behind them and frontman Michael Gira’s deranged howls given suitably punchy overtones.

The Packaging:

Packaging is very attractive on this release. Presented in a solidly constructed triple gatefold sleeve, the album’s strikingly simple art is reproduced as a spotglossed, embossed image printed onto rough, unprocessed card. It’s an unusual design decision but it works excellently and results in an album cover remarkably unique both from a visual and tactile perspective. Inner sleeves are generic black paper ones, but unfortunately they’re not polylined – so, for long term use, swapping them out for superior inner sleeves would be wise; the album does, however, come with a fairly large fold out poster, which is definitely a nice touch and rounds off the album’s presentation nicely. Labels fit in with the band’s minimalist, consistent aesthetic (one that is spread across the majority of their output) and whilst labels are relatively simple in layout, they’re actually rather prepossessing and – thankfully – which side is which has been clearly marked around the spindle-hole, an important time-saver that too many modern releases overlook.

Final Thoughts:

‘To Be Kind’ is one hell of a journey but it’s definitely worth going along with it if you can stomach the relentless intensity of Michael Gira’s vision. This Mute Records edition is well pressed, well packaged and generally has an air of quality about it. Given that this triple LP set can still be picked up with ease for around £20, it’s also a very good deal given the sheer bang-for-buck offered here and definitely a well recommended release.