This 1994 album is introduced by IN, a soaring instrumental with a hint of wordless background vocals joined by spooky spacey sounds about halfway through and then fading over & under the laughter of a toddler. The pounding I Am The Sun with its tempo shifts follows, stuttering segments & speedier passages alternating to conclude in an exit of frantic drumming.
The dark humor - If humor it is - of She Lives! has Gira celebrating madness over a mid-tempo mix of piano and anxious guitar. The mid-tempo rock song Celebrity Lifestyle was released as a single; it is atypical of Swans in sound and word but in theme corresponds with the Soundtracks for the Blind track Volcano with its cheeky comments on a 90s rock starlet.
The first of Jarboe's three highly distinctive vocal performances on this album is the harsh Mother/Father where she howls & roars at full throat over a wall of massed guitars in a delivery with the vocal and thematic intensity of Black Eyed Dog on Ten Songs for Another World. Relief arrives with Gira's gentle Blood Promise, a ballad that sounds like Leonard Cohen on sedatives. Trance is the third in this sequence of styles as the hypnotic Mind Body Light Sound enchants with its sweeping rhythms, mesmerizing melody and spellbinding alternation between male & female vocals.
Jarboe's second haunting contribution is My Buried Child, the most mournful and simultaneously eerie track where her now husky voice intones the poetic lyrics in an urgent, uptempo chant. The song echoes the sinister imagery of Blood on your Hands, now available on the Children of God/World of Skin album. From earthen grave to heavenly heights in the lilting lullaby Warm, her swirling "la la la" vocals supported by spiraling guitar patterns soar to a crescendo before serenely subsiding. Other versions of Mother/Father and My Buried Child are available on A Mystery of Faith.
This elegant, understated interpretation of Mother's Milk resembles the torch songs of World of Skin, unrecognizable as the same song compared to the terrifying version on the live album Omniscience. That one that sounds like the climax of a wild occult ritual has more in common with this album's majestic title track although The Great Annihilator has a slower tempo than Mother's Milk Live where Jarboe's performance equals that on Mother/Father and Black Eyed Dog. TGA's dark cadences come in wave after wave of reverberating bass, shimmering keyboards, haunting harmonies and doom-laden drones resonating between Gira's deep vocals and the dark voices of the many guitars.
Other tracks with Gira on lead vocal include Alcohol the Seed, Killing for Company, Where Does a Body End? which has a companion song in Where Does Your Body Begin on his solo album Drainland and Telepathy which ends in a blood-curdling scream. The album originally concluded with OUT, where Jarboe's subdued wordless vocal is backed by the voice of Larry Seven, her collaborator on the Beautiful People Ltd. album. The 2002 reissue is enhanced by a live version of I Am the Sun as the 17th track.
The Great Annihilator is a masterpiece of atmospherics, harmonies, melodies, moods and stylistic variety. In my opinion it is also one of the most accessible albums in the Swans catalogue, along with the gently tuneful The Burning World. Without obvious compromise, the work seems to avoid those musical & emotional extremes that freak out the average rock lover. At the same time it offers many memorable songs in styles that ought to appeal to fans of artists such as Nick Cave, Velvet Underground, early period Siouxsie & the Banshees, John Cale, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson and the like.