Review Summary: The wisdom contained in the telepathy of fear
Solidified our suffering into the droning sound I still hear
Hypnotic. If there's one word to describe Swans, that's it. Throughout their 15 year existence they excelled at writing songs that were the aural equivalent of a black hole – they would suck you in and never let go. Though the music evolved radically from album to album, Swans' ability to craft mesmerizing songs and soundscapes never changed. Musically Greed and Holy Money had little in common with the pop tinged The Burning World; yet play any song off any album and you can instantly recognize it as the work of one of the world's most unrecognized bands.
Of course it helps that Michael Gira has one of the most distinctive voices of all time, but even if you strip away the vocals the underlying music is still always captivating, and never more so than on the The Great Annihilator.
One can regard it as a melting pot - by taking various elements from their back catalogue and fusing them Swans created perhaps the most cohesive album of their career. The album is best listened to in one go - only then can you appreciate how well the various musical idea's fit together, providing variety but never disrupting continuity e.g. the soft post rock build up of the gorgeous Warm leads into the industrial blast of Alcohol the Seed; that it adds to the flow of the album instead of detracting from it is testament to Gira's brilliant songwriting.
As with many of Swans albums the instrumentation serves to enhance the vocals, taking a backseat to Gira's and Jarboe's lyrical stylings.
Where it does take the spotlight it shines; the tug and pull between guitar and drums during the last minute of Telepathy whilst bells ring out over the top is one of the albums more memorable highlights.
In other places, it is used to add to the emotive effect of the vocals – an outstanding example being the first verse of Killing for Company, where the chorus laden bass appears occasionally to enhance Gira's guitar and vocals, with spine tingling results.
The seamless interplay between the instruments, most noticeably between the pounding drums and droning guitar, helps create what can only be described as the Swans' atmosphere, something that people who know the band will be familiar with.
Whilst the instrumentation is of a uniformly high standard, the vocals are undoubtedly the highlight of this album. Gira's half sung, half spoken bass crooning is as powerful as ever, and is the foundation upon which this album is built.
Lyrically he's excellent, and the effect created by his words is simply stunning. Hearing "All the children want to suck in the taste...she's just a drug addiction and a self reflecting image of a narcotized mind" is particularly poignant, and even more so whilst walking past the Leicester Square premiere of High School Musical 3.
Jarboe's individual contributions are as eclectic and interesting as they've always been, ranging from the agonised roar of Mother Father to the simple beauty of Mother's Milk.
On the occasion that the two overlap, the power of the music is increased tenfold: at the end of Killing for Company nonsensical sounds are intertwined to produce one of the most stunningly unique climaxes this reviewer has ever heard.
It was Swans' ability to constantly innovate whilst remaining true to their roots that helped them develop their unique sound. This, their penultimate album, was the culmination of over a decade of fierce individuality, disillusionment with the record industry and raw power, tempered by experience and musical ability.
Because of the above balance, The Great Annihilator is one of the undiscovered gems of the 90's, which undoubtedly would have been the bands swansong if it hadn't been justifiably eclipsed by the colossal Soundtracks for the Blind, which cemented their place as the shadowy giants of underground rock.
Swans have influenced everyone from Scott Kelly to Charlie Looker to Maynard James Keenan and as such should be compulsory listening for anyone who likes "alternative" music of any form.
It's a shame that no one I've met seems to have heard of them…