Though Swans has had several sonic reincarnations, The Great Annihilator is one of the most important phoenixes in the flock. After five perverse, punishing records, Michael Gira and crew began to slowly drift up from the gutters into some puzzling territory. The band followed up Children of God (1987) with an unexpected absolution and released The Burning World (1989), a collection of gothic-tinged neofolk album which was easily the most pleasant offering they’d composed up until that point. Then came sister albums White Light From the Mouth of Infinity (1991) and Love of Life (1992), which strayed slightly from their predecessor but took the general framework along with them. Swaying between dismal post punk, morbid folk and unidentifiable bliss, these albums flirted with a sound that Gira and crew would perfect on The Great Annihilator (1995), one of the greatest achievements of Swans initial life as a band.
The Great Annihilator resides on a persistent emotional plane; it’s never quite clear whether Gira and crew are lovingly basking in another’s suffering or bearing the brunt of the pain that’s pleasing someone else. It’s clear that Gira was aiming for a sound which extracted the most visceral aspects of past Swans records while and amplifying these ideas through a greater songwriting ideal. Everything achieved on these past releases reappears in a redirected form on The Great Annihilator, equal in intensity but more massive in scope. The band’s signature use of repetition defines tracks like “I Am the Sun” and “She Lives,” both of which leverage effect-laden, reverb-heavy guitars that bounce around the mind and emit a mysterious, spiritual vibe, subtlety warping their echo in the shadows once they’ve finished circumventing their initial trajectory. A fair amount of additional instrumentation appears throughout the album, with the acoustic guitar being particularly prevalent. Elsewhere, Gira and crew traverse through industrial-tinged post-punk on “Alcohol the Seed”; mystic shoegaze-lite on the title-track and “Killing for Company”; and their own unique take on nineties radio rock on “Celebrity Lifestyle,” among a myriad of other styles. The vocal dynamics of Gira and Jarboe,what with the former’s gruff croon and the latter’s revolving door of deranged howls (“Mother/Father”), haunting singing (“Mother’s Milk”) and transcendental backing vocals throughout.
Over twenty years after its initial release, this masterpiece is being properly introduced to post-Seer swans fans with a new remastered reissue from Young God Records, including the album’s first release on vinyl in decades. I’m going to break the fourth wall for a moment to share that the difference in quality between the remastered promo we received and my own copy of the album is negligible; only extreme audiophiles might notice the difference. Having said that, this should be a mandatory purchase for newer Swans fans who haven’t yet ventured backward in the band’s back catalog. While The Seer, To Be Kind and The Glowing Man are all incredible albums, The Great Annihilator truly set the the groundwork for these latter-career successes, and the record remains one of their discography’s numerous highlights.
Besides a remastered version of The Great Annihilator, this reissue includes a revival of Michael Gira’s solo debut Drainland, an album that received its own proper release around the same time but undoubtedly received a fraction of the attention. The album belongs a trifecta of ’95 Swans-adjacent releases, what with Drainland released as a supplement to The Great Annihilator and Jarboe releasing her sophomore album Sacrificial Cake as an accompaniment to Drainland. Gira’s focus is somewhat split across the album’s relatively terse runtime, with some compositions rooted in The Great Annihilator and others hinting toward Soundtracks for the Blind (1996), with some others exploring new territory entirely. Drainland foreshadows the frequent use of spoken word on Soundtracks for the Blind with a spousal argument over alcohol abuse on “You See Through Me,” which bleeds into a dream-like haze on “Where Does Your Body Begin?,” an ode to the lightest moments on The Great Annihilator. The overtly folk-inspired “Fan Letter” and “Blind” point directly toward Gira’s output with Angels of Light, with the latter of these tracks unsurprisingly taken from recording sessions for White Light from the Mouth of Infinity.
Yet, while a couple of tracks—”I See Them All Lined Up” and “Low Life Form”—explore experimental eighties industrial, the remaining bulk of the album feel like outtakes from The Great Annihilator, albeit leftovers which could have passed for proper meals in their own right. While The Great Annihilator is easily the main course of this reissue, it’s refreshing to see Young God compiling a re-release package comprised of an unearthed gem rather than uninteresting demos and live version (though to be fair, the live version of “I Am the Sun” included on the album is more of a bonus reprise that speaks to the band’s creativity in a concert setting). Admittedly, Swans fans who already own The Great Annihilator may not consider this enough to purchase the album once more. But these fans should feel prompted to explore Drainland and be pleasantly surprised at what the solo venture has to offer. Gira has always proved himself to be a musician with a focused vision but an eclectic delivery, and Drainland is no exception.
The Great Annihilator and Drainland will be reissued on 4/28 via Young God Records, with Michael Gira signing all copies bought directly through YG’s online store. Drainland will be available as a download code with the vinyl reissue and as a physical part of the CD reissue.