After White Light and Love of Life, Swans had found their groove, and The Great Annihilator, their ninth studio album, promises more of the same — only grander, more sumptuous, more enthralling. You have to marvel over the fact that a band this intense, with its share of label difficulties, could turn out nine albums (not counting EPs and side projects) in a dozen years — and could keep subtly reinventing itself without losing its core. In many ways, the way The Great Annihilator wraps up Swans’ history and strengths into one totalizing package presages 2012′s The Seer, a similarly all-encompassing work. Part of the quintessential Swans-ness of the album probably stems from the fact that, after a period of shifting personnel, the band refocused on a core lineup including longtime members Algis Kizys (bass), Ted Parsons (drums), and Norman Westberg (electric guitar), who imbue the album with its sinewy, muscular movement. Guitarists Clinton Steele and Bill Rieflin round out the group’s rippling waves of guitars, with both Rieflin and Michael Gira using 12-string acoustics to ignite the furthest corners of the spectrum, where they shimmer like fireworks.
While they occasionally take a step back into softer, gentler material in the spirit of Children of God‘s more reflective moments (“Blood Promise,” “Warm,” “Mother’s Milk”), the thrust of the album is generally full-on; what’s remarkable is how they summon a sound so forceful without ever sounding hard, or even particularly loud — at least, not in the way that years of over-compressed rock recordings have conditioned us to think of volume. They can still be savage — “Alcohol the Seed” tears at its monotone chords and tight snare rolls like a dog shakes a rag — but even at their most ferocious, they sound buoyed by feathers and porous as a sponge.
From the howling winds that accompany “In” to the ragged acoustic blues of the closing live take of “I Am the Sun,” the word that seems to sum up the whole album is “elemental.” It seems only fitting that Gira spent the three months of the album’s recording sessions living in a mosquito-infested tent inside the Chicago studio. It’s as though he was wringing out his blood on tape to ensure that the bugs didn’t suck it from him first.