Swans | The Great Annihilator | ReviewSo here's the good news: "The Great Annihilator" is a terrific album. I've found that reactions to the Swans tend to be polarized. Some people think they're great (that includes me). Some people consider them pretentious and stoopid, a view I can sympathize with. The Swans go way over the top, and often they bump up against the edges of self-parody. (I have a feeling they know this, though. Who else would title a live album "Public Castration is a Good Idea"?)
But the Swans have a kind of integrity that I greatly admire. It's clear from all of their albums that the Swans are an embodiment of Michael Gira's central vision. Everything from the music to the graphic design is carefully crafted and controlled.
If you look at the Swans' output over the last 15 years, the most striking thing is the abrupt shift that happened with the release of "Burning World" (though intimations could be heard in "Children of God"). After years of uncompromising noise, the Swans were suddenly playing sparse, acoustic melodies. (One of my favorite songs on "Burning World" is the cover of Steve Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home.") But a closer listen to that album made it clear that if the Swans were on a new tack, they also carried over many of the same concerns.
The dominant theme in the Swans' music has always been power—what it is, and what people do with it. At the risk of perhaps too broad a generalization, I would claim that over the years, the Swans have tackled the question of power in increasingly rarified forms. The earliest records ("Filth," "I Crawled") were mostly about physical brutality, sadism, and humiliation. Then came the money albums ("Greed," "Holy Money")—about economic brutality (and sadism, and humiliation). With "Children of God," Gira began to confront religion. "Children" is a remarkable (and overlooked) work. It's all about fundamentalist religion, but Gira doesn't attack or ridicule fundamentalism, which might have been the easier approach—instead, he makes a serious attempt to come to grips with the fundamentalist mindset.
After "Burning World" the Swans released two very strange albums, "White Light From the Mouth of Infinity" and "Love of Life" (both had weird paintings of sad cartoon rabbits with their heads exploding on the covers). From writing about religion-as-psychology, Michael Gira had now become downright mystical. The lyrics are an obscure blend of the transcendent and the apocalyptic. ("In the Eyes of Nature," from "Love of Life," has one of my very favorite lines in it: "We'll raise our hands up to heaven, and sacrifice our limitations." Some of y'all will recognize it from my .sig file.) The closest comparison I can make is to some of William Burroughs later writings—"Ah Pook the Destroyer," say, or "Apocalypse," with its refrain of "Let it come down." (In fact, wouldn't a WSB/Swans collaboration be cool?)
Both of these albums (they should really be considered as a diptych) have dense, lush orchestrations. The best tracks are almost hallucinogenic in their intensity. Unfortunately, they are also flawed works ("White Light" in particular). Too many of the songs don't really work; some are hokey and obvious, and some are simply boring. But the Swans were going far out on limb; the failures are intriguing failures, and the better songs are stunning.
So here's the good news: "The Great Annihilator" is a terrific album. It continues many of the themes from the previous two albums, but is a lot more solidly grounded. At times "Love of Life" was TOO heavily orchestrated, and the sound got murky. "Annihilator" has been pared down—though it's hardly minimalist; a lot of the songs credit three or four guitarists. (The musicians include most of the usual Swans line-up: Jarboe, Algis Kizys, Norman Westberg, Ted Parsons, usw.) It's dark and gloomy and ominous, but without any of the painfully dull slowness that mars "White Light" (or the first World of Skin albums, for that matter). There are a couple of weak songs (the lyric "...a self-reflecting image of a narcotized mind" is just dumb, for example, and it doesn't even scan), but most of the 16 tracks here are exceptional, a brilliant realization of what the Swans have been groping toward ever since 1989's "Burning World."