Swans / M. Gira – Great Annihilator / Drainland (Reissue)

Posted: 15 April 2017 in Albums
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Young God Records – 28th April 2017

Christopher Nosnibor

The great Swans back catalogue reappraisal and re-release continues with a brace of albums from near the end of the band’s initial incarnation. The latest pairs Swans’ 1995 album The Great Annihilator with Gira’s simultaneous solo release, Drainland. 1995 was a fertile year: Jarboe also released Sacrificial Cake through Alternative Tentacles in the same year, in some respects mirroring the period eight years previous, when two different Skin albums – effectively Gia and Jarboe solo releases – appeared in 1987 and 1988 in near synchronicity with Swans’ pivotal Children of God. Indeed, while the ‘definitive’ reissue programme is both extremely welcome and is a genuine boon for Swans fans both new and old, it does highlight the complexity of the band’s back catalogue. Precisely which album sits with which is a question which will never find an easy resolution, but on balance, Gira and Young God have made a decent fist of presenting a cohesive and linear recataloguing of the band’s initial history.

The Swans album The Great Annihilator arrived some three years after the epic twin salvoes of Love of Life and White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, which had represented both an evolution and a return to form following The Burning World in 1989. And while The Great Annihilator clearly belonged to the same broad phase as its immediate predecessors, it also felt more focused and more intense. It also stands as a transitionary album, the last studio release before the immense, everything-through-the-wringer churning mash of Soundtracks for the Blind, at which point the first phase of Swans collapsed and terminated.

Soundtracks perhaps hinted at the direction the reincarnated Swans would take on their return, but lacks the immensity of the sound they would produce on their post-millennial return, and equally lacks the focus of The Great Annihilator, and in this context, it’s this album which stands as such a significant document of the band in the later years of their first phase. The 2002 reissue saw the album augmented with a six-minutelive recording of ‘I Am the Sun’, which is also included here. However, this version is more about presenting a ‘restored’ version, returning to the recently-excavated original tapes to deliver the album as intended.

Great Annihilator / Drainland (Remastered 2017) - PRE ORDER

By this point Gira had perfected the cavernous, monotone drone which is now his signature: emerging on Children of God and honed over the course of White Light and Love of Life, on The Great Annihilator and Drainland the dark, bleak detachment conveyed in that vocal is as terrifying as any of the growling, barking threats of violence contained on Filth and Cop. He may have sounded brutal in his rage on those releases, but here Gira affects a demeanour which is altogether calmer, and consequently all the more dangerous in its psychopathy. He no longer sounds like a tortured, tormented human soul: he sounds like he’s detached himself from humanity.

What makes The Great Annihilator such a strong album is its range, which is equalled by its force and its cinematic production, balancing slow, repetitive, hypnotic tracks with explosive, percussion driven compositions. As such, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the ugly / beautiful juxtaposition which characterises the Swans ethos. The raw, visceral Jarboe-led ‘Mother/Father’ is gruelling in its intensity and contrasts with the mesmeric ‘Killing for Company’ and the expansive, uplifting ‘Where Does a Body End?’ (which stand among some of my all-time favourite songs by Swans – although, if truth be told, in the scheme of their vast output, it would be easy to fill a double album with my favourite songs by Swans).

‘I Am the Sun’ shares common ground with previous percussion-led tracks like ‘Power and Sacrifice’ (which stand a world away from earlier percussion-led tracks as featured on their albums prior to Children of God, which very much marked a turning point for the band), but at the same time, offers the first hints of what the band would evolve to produce during their second, post-millennium phase. Elsewhere, ‘Mind/Body/Sound/Light’ and ‘Celebrity Lifestyle’ display a certain newfound commercialism (beyond the folk leanings of The Burning World), magnificently counterpointed by Gira’s monotone baritone drone. And who else could succeed with a line like ‘she’ just a drug addiction, a self-reflecting image of a narcotized mind’? ‘Alcohol the Seed’, meanwhile, is sparse, stark and harrowing, the direct, declarative lyrics standing at the point where art and life intersect to deliver maximum discomfort to the receiver. ‘Killing for Company’ is delicate yet beyond dark, a song which reflects Gira’s interest in serial killers and takes its title from Brian Masters’ 1993 biography of Dennis Nielsen.

Gira’s solo debut, Drainland, has always stood as a singular release, both stylistically and in overall terms of the Swans / Gira oeuvre. It also seems to be one of those releases which has been somewhat overlooked.

The first track, ‘You See Through Me’, which features a serrated, grating, oscillating drone and haunting piano provide the musical backdrop to a recording of Gira, drunk, nasty, arguing with his then-partner Jarboe over money and his alcohol problem. It’s one of those works which crosses a line that will never be readily acceptable, where art transgresses the boundaries of the personal and the public. This, of course, is art of the highest order, that demands the receiver face uncomfortable and painful realities. Simultaneously, Gira, in his capacity or artist, dismantles all sense of persona and lay himself bare in the most unfiltered way imaginable.

It paves the way for what is a difficult album on every level, as he trawls the darkest recesses of his psyche: the lyrics may not be as visceral as those contained on early Swans releases, but they’re every bit as gut-wrenching in their impact, not least of all because they’re so intensely personal.

Great Annihilator / Drainland (Remastered 2017) - PRE ORDER

It’s a dark, stark album, which makes for uncomfortable listening on many occasions: even the more overtly post-Children of God tracks, where Gira spins hypnotic, opiate-hazed acoustic strums, as on ‘Unreal’, it’s more nightmarish than dream-like. And then there are jarring, nauseatingly difficult loop-led nightmare dirges like ‘Fan Letter’. And yet, the album contains moments of true beauty. Songs like ‘Why I Ate My Wife’ (which again alludes to Gira’s serial killer fascination and also draws on, and shares its title with, a piece from 1993 which appeared in Gira’s book of collected prose, The Consumer (1994)), dark as they may be lyrically, are also truly magnificent, and as touching – and well-crafted – as anything Gira has done during his long career.

The mastering seems comparatively quiet, but that’s largely on account of the fact everything tends to be mastered so damn loud and so damn bright these days that much of the dynamic range is lost. The very purpose of this remaster is about audio fidelity and unravelling knots in the original processing. Sonically, this remaster feels richer, denser than the original releases, although it would take obsessive comparison and a lot of time to draw out all of the detail. Most importantly, this release makes two classic Swans / related albums (one being something of a lost or unsung classic at that) readily available once more, and on vinyl, too – The Great Annihilator has been commanding obscene prices on the second-hand market for a long time now, while Drainland was only released in the US packaged with Jarboe’s Sacrificial Cake and is again expensive and hard to come by: as such, it all adds up to an essential release.

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