Swans – The Great Annihilator
“This album is actually really good in a lot of ways. Too much reverb here and there, but not as intrusive as other Swans releases…I can still listen to most of this sometimes, so that counts for something”. — Michael Gira/Young God Records 2008
Despite being reasonably skilled at various forms of textual description, I continue to find it difficult to express concisely how this album has made an incredible impact on me since I first discovered it. Failing in these attempts, I decided to observe and seek out other individual’s reactions to the album. Several phrases, in various permutations, are typical among fans of the album (although I do not know of many detractors). “The energy this album has is incredible” and “This album is currently turning me into someone more like myself” were among the most poignant phrases I encountered, not only because I attach personal significance to them, but also because I strongly believe that others will as well, once they listen to this album.
For that is the great strength of this album (and Swans in general): the ‘inherent energy’ found within their work, that almost instantly sets them apart from the ocean of disposable groups and albums which have constituted the music scene of the last few decades (and which continues to do so). While Swans initially began as a near impenetrable experimental industrial rock band (which, even then, is still an inadequate compound label) whose auditory brutality and singular aesthetic approached near-obsessive zealousness, they slowly evolved into an astonishing post-rock/industrial phenomenon. “The Great Annihilator” is a glimpse of Swans at the very pinnacle of their creative zenith which they would officially finish with their gargantuan “Soundtracks For The Blind” double album). The sheer diversity of emotions portrayed within the straightforward, yet paradoxically varied and complex compositions is staggering. To put it simply, “The Great Annihilator” is among Swan’s best work, in addition to possibly being their greatest album.
The unified sound present throughout the album is largely due to the presence of Gira, Jarboe, Norman Westburg, Algis A. Kizys, and Ted Parsons (who was also in Prong and the short-lived Of Cabbages And Kings, of which Kizys was also involved). “The Burning World” was a controversial collective of Swans and Bill Laswell associates which polarized fans, some of whom loved the album and many others (including music critics) to decry the album as a ‘compromised album’ consisting of ‘world rock’ filtered through the Swans aesthetic, resulting in an end-product that weakens the latter through the emphasis of the former (a view which, after having listened to the album, I must regretfully agree with). Meanwhile, “White Light from the Mouth of Infinity” can be viewed as the natural reaction to the experience of “The Burning World” (which Gira has apparently been consistently negative while recalling it): an expansive, wildly diverse, and overwhelmingly confident experience, featuring a few of the previous collaborators of “The Burning World” (namely Nicky Skopelitis and Howie Weinberg) in addition to many new members as well.
At this point in the various phases in which I wrote this review, usually a small voice in the back of my mind would casually suggest that I should describe the album track by track. But while this review probably deserves that sort of treatment, the truth is that doing so would be probably just as emotionally draining as listening to the album multiple times in a row (which I typically do when writing reviews, in order to keep the material somewhat focused). To begin with the obvious, the album is an extended conceptual/musical exploration time, eternity, spirituality, sensuality, the human body (both in terms of physically and as a metaphorical device), addiction, states of perception, and many other themes. Although there is an overarching motif of ‘timelessness’/’eternity’/’perpetuity’, there is also frequent attention paid to beginnings and endings (again, usually through vivid lyrical imagery rather than specific examples). If this sounds pretentious and/or overloaded in terms of the overall presentation, it is because it is. However, it is important to note that pretentiousness is often only a poor attribute to possess when the end result of endeavors fail to live up to the pretension. It is the price often paid for visionary risk-taking and ambitiousness.
The themes of eternity and time also create an interesting effect in that, while there are certainly emotional, musical, and conceptual high points and low points within the album, it is difficult to concretely state that one song is ‘more positive’ or ‘negative’ than another song or the album as a whole. An interesting detail is the titles of the intro and outro of the album, simply titled “In” and “Out”. Contained with the ‘gates’ of these tracks, the remaining songs create a singularity, in which thoughts, ideas, concepts, and themes spiral in among themselves in a slowly narrowing spiral, until the listener passes through ‘the great annihilator’ and “Out” (wherever that may be).
Musically, the album varies constantly from track to track, although there are a few constants. There is indeed a large amount of reverb throughout the album, yet it is usually utilized in a tasteful manner, and the times when it is somewhat over the top only serve to increase the impact of the song (“Telepathy” being the most obvious example of this). Also, while Gira’s acoustic moments on the album are instantly noticeable, they are also rarely given the spotlight by themselves, rather they serve as another layer to the dense aural tapestry of the given song.
In short, even if you are not a huge fan of the earlier Swans output, if you are the least bit interested in post-rock or emotive soundscapes, you need to hear this album at least once before you die. As stated in “Mother/Father”:
“There’s a place in space where violence and love, collide inside, and solid is wide. And heat is cold and birth is death. And creation and time are made from destruction”.
You are unlikely to reach this state of mind outside of this album. Highly recommended.
PS This is the ‘semi-final’ version of this review. Apologies for taking so long to complete it, and many special thanks to the various individuals who expressed encouragement towards seeing it finally completed. There is a very small chance I might go back at some point and restructure some of the last few paragraphs, but it is basically complete at this point. Also, feel free to comment, but any comments consisting only of “M. Gira [and/or] Jarboe suck” or “M. Gira [and/or] Jarboe are pretentious” will be promptly ignored.