Like orgasms and pain, the experience of listening to Swans is difficult to translate into words. The extremity of the sound bars the concept of a ‘casual’ listen; it’s not the kind of music one can pop on in the background during a dinner party, for example. It is the soundtrack for slaughter, and sacrifice. It is the musical equivalent of a crudely fashioned knife sliding between the spaces in a ribcage. It is repetitive, and it is brutal, and it is unflinching.
And it also happens to be beautiful.
Much has been written about the difficult nature of Swans’ music, often at the expense of a discussion of the music’s transcendent qualities. Indeed, early critical dissection of The Great Annihilator, arguably the bands’ finest album, focussed on the ‘terrifying’ aspects of the sound. Although the harshness of a track like Celebrity Lifestyle is essential to the music’s success, the song’s sledgehammer sound is a path, rather than a destination. The endpoint is not the assault, but the peace that comes after it.
Indeed, for me, the lyric that best sums up the tone of The Great Annihilator is not Jarboe’s whispered ‘your tortured gash’ from My Buried Child or the blood soaked poetry of Telepathy. It is a line that sits at the centre of I Am The Sun. Without a trace of irony in his voice, Michael Gira sings the words ‘I love everyone.’ Granted, this is the same song on which he sings ‘I kill another child. I am insane.’ But the two opposing emotions of hate and love do not negate each other in The Great Annihilator’s wind ravaged sonic landscape. Indeed, they combine, becoming indistinguishable from one another.
Pain feeds into beauty. The repetitive strains that form the backbone of She Lives! feel like an exquisite torture; a lashing from a whip made from strands of a beauty’s blond hair. Suffering has been twisted into the shape of a blessing; indeed, the tone of a song like the ethereal, yet harsh Killing For Company or My Buried Child is impossible to pin down. At times it is confrontational; at other times, it is deeply nurturing.
Warm, for example, is exactly as the song’s name implies. The track sits almost exactly at the centre of an album that contains discussion of drinking from a skull and draining from a soul, and yet it is an unashamedly, un-ironically beautiful number. It is like a moment of absolution. Through the horror and brutality, one reaches a kind of peace; an emptiness that comes to feel deeply spiritual.
In short, Michael Gira is a very smart man who makes music that deliberately bypasses the brain. The Great Annihilator is a series of songs that activates a part of us which exists beyond the scope of words. This is music that could only be music. And there, in the centre of the swirling noise, stand Swans themselves, in the place where ecstasy and horror overlap, their faces entirely peaceful.