Sunday, January 28, 2024

Annihilator - Metal II (2022)

It honestly pains me to criticize a musician like Jeff Waters, who has put in so much work for so long, seems like a genuinely cool dude from any interview I've seen of him, and has such an enormous amount of talent on either side of the recording studio. He plays that guitar like a total motherfucker, especially in this particular niche and he can make himself sound good doing so. But one area I think he's always needed is a bit more of an editor to help him make some decisions. Can you just imagine if Jeff was let loose as the guitar player in some other band, without needing total control over all the creative direction and having to constantly recruit new singers or other musicians? If he could just hone in on what he does so damn well?

Metal II is one of those questionable decisions, a re-recording of an album that I don't think that many people really cared for in the first place, with a little bit of a shifted track list and an attempt to make most of the tracks a lot heavier. To that degree it's a success, but that doesn't make a groove/thrash cut like "Detonation" much better, and even though his vocals are often improvements on some of the originals. It's actually a little dirtier in production than Ballistic, Sadistic or For the Demented, and there are some minor improvements in atmosphere and aggression, and I think these decisions were all decent if the aim was to make the material seem a little less cheesy than it was on the original Metal. But should the effort have been spared here when it might have been better served on a new album? If I'm comparing this side by side with the original, this is clearly the better option, so perhaps the answer to that last question is a resounding yes.

I also liked the cover of Exciter's "Heavy Metal Maniac", which I think was only on the Japanese or some other import of the original album, but sits right here in the middle and sounds great with Jeff's nasty vocals that almost sound like Blackie Lawless fronting Exciter! Which, come to think of it, would be really fucking awesome. Loads of guest players are all over this, leads from luminaries like the late Alexi Laiho, Jeff Loomis, and Lips from Anvil. Dave Lombardo on drums! Vocal spots from Angela Gossow (ex-Arch Enemy) and Stu Block (Into Eternity). He's even got Dan Beehler joining him for the cover of his own band. It's certainly energized and fun, and I'd take it any day over the middling original album, but is it something I'll often want to return to? While filthier and more correctly 'metal' than before, it's just not the catchiest batch of tracks. Waters puts plenty of lipstick on this pig, but I still don't want to make out with it for very long.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10] 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Annihilator - Ballistic, Sadistic (2020)

Ballistic, Sadistic is another power-play that carries the dauntless Jeff Waters and Annihilator forward into yet another decade, a positive show of force that exhibits the guy's excellent chops and studio abilities to their current extremes. Every now and then I get a pleasant surprise when I check out a new album from this act and here is yet another one, their best since the s/t exactly one decade prior, and surely one that should be ranked among their most potent works. Not from the angle of it being super catchy, but just for the maintained level of heaviness and the technicality, instrumentation, and production, which eschews so many of the flawed choices he's made in the past for something that is unfiltered modern thrash with no hint at age slowing him down.

No bullshit ballads to be found on this album, it's one of the most straightforward beatings you could hope for, with lots of riffing rooted in the band's 80s output but grafted on with modern muscle, sometimes busting out into a trad heavy metal riff (briefly in "Armed to the Teeth"), and sometimes using that essence of 90s groove, but never laying that on too thick as it transitions back to the thrashing, neck jerking anthems of which there are plenty. Waters' vocals have become this nasty amalgam of James Hetfield, Dave Mustaine and Chuck Billy and it's a 'why fix what isn't broken?' sort of approach that complements these tracks just as it did on the masterworks of all those bands. In fact, I think some of the more modern Testament albums like Titans of Creation or Dark Roots of Earth are a great parallel to this record, if you enjoy those then throw this one into your shopping cart because it would pair up nicely with either.

A few of the lyrics can get a little cliche and cheesy ("The Attitude", 'FUCK YOUR ATTITUDE!'), always an issue for this band and never quite their forte, but that doesn't diminish the aggressive charisma he puts into them. His leads are awesome here, maybe not spitting out the sorts of melodies that cling to your ears but wild and frilly and entertaining above the solid riff-set. Some tunes also have some subliminal ties back to older Annihilator works, like "Psycho Ward" brought me back to Never, Neverland with its opening melody. Again, some goofy lyrics there but the delivery is awesome, and I'd also add that the bass playing throughout the album is quite good, doesn't always take center stage but has a good tone to it and occasionally plays around. He's got a drummer here which offers a mighty improvement over the solid prior album For the Demented, and a few guest vocals like John from Raven that are welcome if you can spot them.

If someone's asking me where to start with this band, you start at the beginning with Alice in Hell or Never, Neverland, but if you're curious beyond that, I'm pointing you straight at the eponymous 2010 disc or Ballistic, Sadistic. Sure, this doesn't have the charm of the old stuff, but it's a modern thrash album you can cruise to in your electric vehicle and probably cause lots of accidents. Few complaints, and it's impressive that Waters in his 50s can mete out such punishment.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Friday, January 26, 2024

Annihilator - For the Demented (2017)

For the Demented is easily the better of the 2017 Annihilator releases, a studio album that, like Suicide Society before it, tries to modernize and expand the bands sound while holding on to a lot of the thrash roots. Granted, I don't think you'll find anything terrible new across its 48 minutes and 10 tracks, but Jeff Waters continues to push his mixing and production capabilities, and is also joined by some of his collaborators like Rich Hinks and Aaron Homma who contribute quite a bit to the overall sound. It's not exactly in the top tier of the Canadians' now extensive catalogue, nor is it anywhere near scraping the bottom, an effort that at least holds up through a few listens if not something I'm grabbing immediately when I want my fix of the band.

There's a mature vibe coursing through this one, whether it's the nastier melodic thrashers like the opener "Twisted Lobotomy" or Waters continuing to push his sensitive time with the dreary ballad "Pieces of You", which thankfully is nowhere near as mainstream or cheesy as some like "The One" that he's put out in the past. Where in the past, modern Annihilator would go the Metallica route for a lot of the vocals and even some of the riffs (sometimes annoyingly so), the vocals on For the Demented have more of nasally vibe to them that reminds me of Dave and Megadeth. There's a little filtering on them in tunes like "Phantom Asylum" which almost seem like something that might have appeared on a record like Endgame or Countdown to Extinction, though the riffing doesn't often align with Mustaine's riffing, and there are a lot more risks like the clean guitars and more dramatic, atmospheric rock moments throughout.

Where on past efforts I actually complained that such diversions took away from the more appropriate thrashing force of the songs, I think here they actually work in its favor, and offer up most of the more interesting moments, because the faster pieces here are competent but not terribly catchy. For instance, "The Way" has more of a Megadeth-meets-hard-rock vibe to it, but it's a fun tune. Or the atmosphere of the instrumental "Dark", which took me by surprise as a little intro piece. I like how the vocals are produced in general, and though I believe they are using a drum machine, it's set just right in the mix to emulate a genuine kit. Just enough hear to keep the band seeming relevant and fresh to itself, if it is carrying some rather obvious influences. Speaking of which, I know I've read that there were numerous opportunities for Jeff to play with Dave Mustaine and I wish that had happened. Is it too late?

Verdict: Win [7/10]

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Annihilator - Triple Threat (2017)

There's a point at which a long-surviving band's live products just sort of blend together, and unfortunately with Annihilator that point arrived for me after the first two, because while Triple Threat's first disc does in fact represent the new Waters/Homma phase of the band, it's got some tunes that have already been staples of the past live albums. The production is passable, although I think the vocals are a bit too loud and they are the worst to appear to any of these live offerings to date. Also, tracks like "Set the World On Fire" that were never all that great to begin with just come across as sterile on the stage here, and the band often sounds a lot simpler than they really are, especially the disparity between the clean guitars and then the ragers when the distortion kicks on. As a live experience, I guess you had to be there, because this falls flat, it sounds too clear and clean and the punch doesn't have any viciousness to it. I think the only part that comes off unfiltered from the studio recordings might be a few of the leads, but they feel squirrely compared to the chunk and bulk of the rhythm guitars, bass and drums.

The track selection does have a few new cuts to it but overall seems inconsistent and not that exciting. On the other side, as much as an acoustic album would never be something I'd ever want Annihilator to produce, they have indeed done so with the second disc of this collection. Tracks are grabbed from all over their collection, and many of them are choices that were quite mediocre to begin with, and sadly in these cases the acoustic representations don't offer much of an improvement. Whether they're getting folksy, ballady or bluesy ("Bad Child") it just seems like such a pet project that Jeff might have been curious about, but I doubt the audience really asked for. Take something like "Stonewall" which was a decent thrash album when it released on Never, Neverland, the riffs do translate over to the acoustics, but the lyrics clearly seem a little out of place. Ironically, the vocals are decent through this, and he's not afraid to flex his pipes a little which he doesn't exactly do on the thrash albums he fronts.

All told, Triple Threat has very little Threat to it other than draining your wallet. Jeff Waters has always seemed like a pretty straight-up guy, tremendous thrash guitar player and I can't blame fans if they wanna hurl some money his way for this, but I think both sides could have been improved, with a better choice of live sets/mix, and then maybe a stronger suite of songs converted into acoustics. This shit is pretty risky and rarely works out, and although there is some novelty for Annihilator not having done something like the second disc before, his acoustic parts always work best as preludes to really epic, heavier thrash tracks...a whole disc of them watered down for the campfire is a failure to launch.

Verdict: Fail [4/10]

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Annihilator - Suicide Society (2015)

And just like that, after years of gradual evolution into an Annihilator that was worth listening to again, the Dave Padden era had come to an end, and Jeff Waters took over the vocal duties himself once more, bringing in some other backups just to round out the production. Mike Harshaw of Feast and Re-Kill remained on the kit, and he gives quite a thundering performance on an album that is at once similar to those before it, but offers an even huger, more modern sound, and a lot more groove through some proggy elements as evidenced by the opening title track. The vocals here have a little bit of a sleazy hard rock vibe to them, but they at least work in the context of the track, and they are also captured really loudly at the forefront of the recording without dragging it all down.

"My Revenge" comes EXTREMELY close to "Damage, Inc." off Master of Puppets, to the point where it gets a little uncomfortable, and then the album continues to go off the deep end with the atmospheric rock track "Snap" and the punky-flavored propulsion of "Creepin' Again". Suicide Society brings in a lot of scattered influences and I think the album has a little more trouble finding its footing than the two before it. There's still a lot of energetic thrash, and some really catchy vocal passages that use the more smooth and melodic style that Dave Padden had also been using on some of the discs he fronted, but the lion's share of this material sounds like its transitional, Waters firing off some ideas and seeing what sticks, and the only reason this is all held afloat is because the production is just so enormous and straight to the face, brightening the punch of even the lamest tracks. I'm not saying its great, and some of the Metallica stuff is distracting (he even says "No remorse..." in one of them), but here's another case where you could render down the fat and come up with a very solid EP of ideas that push the band forward and backwards simultaneously.

Some great guitar parts, some derivative, it's almost as if Waters was trying to dig in and perhaps wasn't quite confident of where to go with this, but at the same time he had grown into a producer that can mix the fuck out of it all. At this point, he really could have stepped down and charged quite lucrative prices to produce and record other bands, because the thing just erupts from my speakers and in terms of 'modern' production its one of their best, again not losing speed or heaviness from the professional level of polish. But the songs here really only fire me up about 50% of the time, and I hadn't found myself ever returning to listen to this one before the review series. But for its flaws, Suicide Society still clobbers all the studio albums he put out from about 1993-2007.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Annihilator - Re-Kill (2013)

Continuing the zombie artwork theme of the last two releases, Jeff Waters and company decided to raise from the dead a bunch of their past tracks and bring them up to the production standards of the album that this one accompanies (Feast). This sort of practice always feels obligatory for bands that have been around decades, and it happens quite often in this particular genre. Something like Destruction's Thrash Anthems, where the band really wanted to bring their classics up to date with what the fans would expect from newer studio albums or live shows, and if you take it for what it is, I don't have much of a problem of it. Once upon a time, I might, but in reality nobody is taking Alice in Hell or Never, Neverland away from me, I can always go and listen through those versions, and I do.

The reason it works on Re-Kill is because the band is already on a roll, has obviously improved their new material after decades of neglect, knows what the audience probably wants, and remains impeccably loyal to the source material, especially on the hits like "Alison Hell". Dave Padden had by this point gone from a questionable choice in replacement for Joe Comeau to an actual asset for Annihilator, and even though he's not going to match the distinction of some of his predecessors, he does them a service with his performances throughout this track list, and he brings back a little of that smoothness to which works rather well in places on a tune like "Stonewall". I don't know that I'd call any of these de facto versions of the tracks, except some of the ones I didn't care for to begin with, but I don't at all mind listening through his versions. The mix of the album is super slick and 2013 ready, nearly identical to Feast, but it fortunately doesn't hinder the emotional power invested into any of the more memorable tracks in the lineup.

And that's maybe the one weakness of Re-Kill, not all the tunes are created equally, and I find myself drawn naturally more towards the classics, but even something like "Set the World on Fire" or "Ultra Motion" feels like its gotten a bit more pep and energy from this re-recording process. The drums are definitely better, the leads sound recharged, it's a pretty good time and if you can get this alongside Feast (I think they are included with the Digibook of the CD), I'd say it's worth it. If you're stubborn about this sort of compilation of re-recordings, then avoid at all cost, but if you enjoyed Thrash Anthems or maybe Voivod's recent Morgoth Tales, and you're already into Annihilator then I can't imagine you'd turn your nose up at this one.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Monday, January 22, 2024

Annihilator - Feast (2013)

Obviously encouraged by the righteous blitzing they provided with their 2010 eponymous full-length, Annihilator decide to follow it up with yet another outbreak of intensity and redemption for decades of middling or miserable output that never quite lived up to the band's initial promise. It's almost like someone told Jeff Waters he only had so much time left on this ball of mud rotating about the sun, and he had to make up for all those missed opportunities in a short span. Now, I'm not going to place Feast quite on the same level as its predecessor, there are a few areas in which this album is a bit more dynamic and different, and others in which the band falls back on a few questionable choices, but as a certain confirmation that we had entered the second 'Silver Age' for this specific band, it reasonably delivers and is possibly worth a listen whether you just like modern thrash in general, or felt let down by most or all of the band's material after Alice in Hell and Never, Neverland.

This one isn't quite as savage or relentless as the last, and you'll find more proggy elements, a little more melody, and even some of the band's groove metal peering through in tracks like "Smear Campaign".  And I won't lie, these are often the album's less interesting moments, but at the very least they are tasteful. "No Surrender" and "Wrapped" have some weird moments where the band imports everything from djent-like rhythms (without djent-tuning), some hard rock pizzazz and classic metal grooves which range from conventional to mildly experimental. "Perfect Angel Eyes" is another attempt at a pure ballad akin to "The One", and really does not belong on this album, but if I'm judging it by its own virtues, it's totally passable AOR radio-friendly pap that might have charted if some glam rock band had released it to the airwaves in 1987. All the tracks after that one, though, bring back the battery that is so missing from the middle part of this album.

Feast would unquestionable work better as a 5-6 track EP than a full-length, because it takes a few sidesteps, but some of those are actually catchy in their own right. They also seem to have stuck with the zombie cover theme and I think this is one of their better artworks outside the first two albums, but it's nice to see the logo return. Production is mint as long as you're cool with modern, polished studio wizardry, but never does it leech away from the harder-hitting, faster moments. I also don't think this is the best selection of Jeff Waters' guitars, the leads don't pop off as well as other albums, but I'm not complaining too much when I can just appreciate the speed and aggression and finesse. I'd also point out that most of my earlier reservations about Padden are dissolved, clearly he and Waters have really come together here and he understands what this band needs to honor its legacy, leaving most of the cheese by the wayside (other than the ballad, of course).

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Annihilator - Annihilator (2010)

Once you've dubbed an album simply Metal, I suppose the only way you can reflect upon yourself any deeper is to finally drop that eponymous effort after two decades of existence. And Annihilator certainly works far more as s proof of concept, this is basically the Annihilator album I would have wanted directly after Never, Neverland, a complete tour de force of Jeff Water's thrash metal style, with loads of earworm rhythm guitars and blazing leads. If you love the trotting blitz of records like Master of Puppets or Alice in Hell, this thing is loaded with all the pent up energy that should have been brought a long time earlier, and I think if I were to judge Annihilator records on musicality, this would be top notch and top three. You could argue that in terms of sheer velocity and energy expended, this one often tramples the debut.

As for Dave Padden, he settles into his James Hetfield/Chuck Billy style and sounds pretty good at it here, with a few more melodic lines, but staying largely consistent along with the riffing and pure force on exhibition. I like the production of his voice, it's never too awkward or overbearing. The one aspect that drags it down is the lyrics, they are full of lazy cliches and often distract away from the phenomenal music, such as the mention of 'Hot Topic' in opener "The Trend", that sort of thing is usually pretty weak and attempts to permanently date what could otherwise become a timeless exercise in thrashing. However, the opening volley of melodies, and writing in that song overall, somehow compensate this lapse in good taste. There are also a few points at which the album veers away from its more pure thrashing for tunes like "Nowhere to Go" which have a slightly more modern rock vibe to them, but even here Jeff smothers it all with so much great melody and bluesy, burning lead work that it's almost on par with all the faster, and then they often go in the entirely opposite direction, like the blasting of "Death in Your Eyes".

Quite the scorcher of an album here, which stays out of its own way at almost any cost, and easily can put your neck in a brace if you succumb to its maniacal charms. The closer "Romeo Delight" is a Van Halen cover, similar to some of the original hard rock the band often lapsed into for fun on older records, and this tune could have been clipped, but there is still some excellent bass and guitar work in there and they certainly turbo-charge the thing with an energy to surpass the original. But I can skip that, and it's easy enough when you can just hit 'STOP' after "Payback". Is this album on tier with the debut in terms of overall memorable songwriting and chops? I don't think so, and though they've never had great lyrics, some of these remain a bit too plebeian and cringe, but in every other department Jeff Waters and crew are firing on all cylinders. I don't even mind the simple cover image of the zombie girl with the band name tattooed onto the forehead, I know it's a departure from the logo and a lot of eponymous albums try this sort of aesthetic shift, but at least it looks alright. Fun album, and I hope for a lot more like it as the band finally gets the fires burning again.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Annihilator - Live at Masters of Rock (2009)

Live at Masters of Rock is the second Annihilator live album I've come across, and unlike the first it's a singular performance that coherently captures this particular era of the band. Now, I'm not actually a fan of most of this material, so it's not something I expected to walk away from with much of a positive impression, but I can say at the very least it is profession and polished and comes pretty close to the band's studio output in production. Dave Padden's vocals show a slight less of the scattering of styles and range in this setting, but he gets the job done, pumping the Czechia crowd up where needed and even hammering away on the rhythm guitar. I've got nothing much to say about tracks like "Clown Parade" or "Operation Annihilation", but it's this 90s and beyond era of material which dominates the first half of the track list so I suffered through it to get to what I hoped would be the good bits...

And there are a fair amount of cuts represented from the first two albums, so Annihilator was well aware of its bread and butter. Instrumentally, "Fun Palace" and "Alice in Hell" remains two of the highlights, and Padden does have the range here to cover it all, but of course his vocals don't have the original charisma that was translated across on the earlier live album. He doesn't cock it up, the guitars are super clean, allowing those melodies to pop through, and the rhythm section is ample enough to offer the concrete support for Waters' playing to sit into. And you're getting "Wicked Mystic", and "Phantasmagoria", and "W.T.Y.D.", and that's all good until they close the performance with the pure hard rock number with "Shallow Grave" that in my opinion belongs absolutely nowhere in this set list, but more in a cover band for AC/DC or Accept. That's quite a deflation after finally being bombarded with a bunch of the songs you WANTED to hear, and if you were listening through the whole album, you already had to earn. Was this track a bit hit in Europe or something?

Ultimately, it's not a recording I ever need to hear again, simply because I'm not invested in the material, but there are far, far worse live representations you can get out there. This one is just your average, well-produced fare from a large European festival and largely holds to the standards of such products. It's nothing more than fine.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Friday, January 19, 2024

Annihilator - Metal (2007)

I get that it's supposed to be a 'profound' title, a reaffirmation for the band that they're just playing some good old metal, and that maybe you shouldn't label it, but so deep into the career of an exceptional thrash axeman like Jeff Waters, I come to expect that he will PROGRESS, and ADVANCE his sound, plumb the depths of his playing and come up with something genius. All this dumbing down and simplifying just doesn't fit the bill for me. Not that Metal is some idiotically basic thrash record, it partially feels like a cut and paste of its predecessor, Schizo Deluxe, but it comes across like the laziest form of pent up energy, like when you're watching your 100th Battle Royale on PPV and all that excitement and drama just isn't there anymore, it becomes a more obligatory and mechanical experience with no heart behind it.

Metal might as well be any pastiche of 90s thrash trends, there are moments here like some of the tough guy vocals and snarls in "Couple Suicide" where they are just aping Pantera, the James Hetfield style vocals are also all over the place. There are also a bunch of vocal lines here in tracks like "Army of One" where they almost feel a bit rappy, maybe like a mix of Mike Patton and Mike Muir. I guess you could say that parts of this album border on nu-metal or mall-core, but it's all dumb, with laughable lyrics and a singer that still has yet to register much of a distinct personality for himself. I know I sound like a broken record, but almost ALL the highlights of this disc are when Jeff Waters plays in his clinical, technical, choppy style ("Downright Demise"); those are the only moments in which my ears perk up and the album seems to slightly stretch its fingers from the mediocre mire in which it stagnates, to grasp something much more exciting and rare. And even in these spots, he does sound like he's just self-plagiarizing from a bunch of other riffs he's already written before, these just don't have the benefit of other choice elements like a Randy Rampage or Coburn Pharr vocal line.

It's professional, it's polished, it's punch enough for the crowds who just want to hear anything heavy and 'thrash' surviving into the 'oughts. Mike Mangini brings a lot of rumbling low end and energy that the songs don't even necessarily deserve, but the chameleon vocals and lack of really memorable hooks prevent this one from ever setting in. Quality is squarely between All For You and Schizo Deluxe and that's not exactly a compliment. Shouldn't the 'mid-life' crisis return to form album have happened by this point in Annihilator's career? It seemed like they were headed in that direction some records before this but it all fizzled out and broke on the rocky beach.

Verdict: Fail [4.75/10]

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Annihilator - Schizo Deluxe (2005)

With a silly intro urging us to 'Unleash the Beast' and an opening track called "Maximum Satan", you really have to kick some ass or crank up the laughs to get me hooked, and Schizo Deluxe fails to do either of them. This is the second Annihilator full-length of the Dave Padden era, and expectations were quite low after All For You, and thought it does turn up the dials in terms of producing a then-modern, generic thrash metal record with the correct DNA, it's not really a huge leap in quality forward over its predecessor. Again, you have the meathead opener, a little more intense than off the last album, but just not offering the sorts of riffs or structure that we enjoyed on the first two. "Drive" and "Warbird" are pretty much pure Metallica worship, Master of Puppets era, and while they aren't all that bad, they once again gives me the impression that Padden just sort of grabs his style from a bunch of other popular forerunners of the metal music scene and never can really develop a personality of his own.

The production is about the same as on the prior album, but the material is denser and faster so it does come off slightly more unhinged and therefore superior, and automatically more entertaining just because the sheer velocity will hold your attention better. The drummer here, Tony Chappelle, is given more to do than Mike Mangini on All For You, and so he metes out a muscular if mechanistic performance which only comes up slacking if you're expecting any surprises. Jeff Waters is obviously still an amazing guitarist, as tracks like "Invite It" amply exhibit, and the song quality is once again commensurate with how crazy and technical his riffing becomes. Tunes like "Maximum Satan" and "Like Father, Like Gun" just can't hang with the blazing speed of some of their neighbors, and in the case of the latter you have to wade through a dumb big mid-paced thrash riff and groove before you even get to a half-decent melodic chorus which reminds me of "Steppin' Stone" by the Monkees.

It's almost like Annihilator didn't get the memo that the groove/thrash devolution of the 90s was no longer really cool, and so Schizo Deluxe seems more for fans of Machine Head, Pantera and later Metallica and not so much for those seeking a restoration to the excellence of Alice in Hell. It's far from the Canadians' worst offering, but it just seems like a soulless and unnecessary modern evolution of the sound that I can file away with so many other contemporary thrash albums from the 'Oughts that understood the actual construction, but lack the personality of all the best classic thrash albums. Yes, there are at least a dozen great guitar lines here, almost all the good stuff is just Waters himself, but overall it doesn't leave much of an impression for better or worse, just sorts of sits there in the middle of a turbulent catalog, listing to the right and left as we wait to hear what the storm will bring next.

Verdict: Indifference [5.75/10]

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Annihilator - All For You (2004)

To paraphrase the wizened philosophers known colloquially as 'Beavis and Butt-Head', "This sucks...but it sucks in, like, a new way." I was not one to expect that Annihilator, a band steadily on the rise again, if not knocking them out of the park, to suddenly take another left turn into landfill territory, but All For You had other plans. There are numerous examples through metal history of band's dropping a singer with some edge, some bite, some character, for a much more generic and 'safe' sounding front man, Zach Stevens taking over for Savatage comes to mind, and then losing a critical dimension to their sound. That's not to say these new singers lack talent or proficiency or their own, in fact I think Dave Padden hits certain howls and pitches on this album that had me ancitipating more, but in general his performance just takes the band's potential serrated edge and smooths it down to a butter knife level of danger, one that betrays the psychotic lyrics and thematic continuation of the Alice saga that the cover promises.

This is a weird one, though, because as I hinted, there are a few passages and riffs here that really work. I realize that for some this is the nadir of the Canadians' career, but I have to give at least some credit that they are attempting some sort of fresh sound while incorporating the semi-technical thrash elements that broke them onto the scene. "Dr. Psycho" has a few in there, for example, or "Demon Dance" with that really killer opening rhythm and then the strangely hypnotic way Padden's voice is layered over the rapid fire picking progressions. This is often accompanied by more dumb, obvious lyrics and a few really awkward, angry lines where Padden just sounds like any bar singer reared on Machine Head and Pantera with his intonations, but if you could cut away all the chaff from the tasty bits, you might have a few decent tunes, though probably less than you could count on one hand. 

I've already covered the worst songs elsewhere on The One EP, the oafish title track or the acoustic ballad itself which offers little more than a passably ear-worming chorus, but there is another awful ballad here called "Holding On", at which point the whole affair just becomes embarrassing. Another offender is "The Nightmare Factory", which has a few lines on which Padden seems to be emulating Jonathan Davis of Korn or a bit of Burton's harsher lines from Fear Factory. It really just feels like his experience with the heavy genre is all taken from the Ozzfest lineup, though the end of this tune does at least have one cool riff sequence. If you cut out these four tracks completely, and then corrected some of the vocal lines, this would not be down in the dregs of the Annihilator discography. 

Mike Mangini makes another appearance behind the kid here, and I feel he's a little under-used considering the estimable talents he would then bring into Dream Theater. The production is glossy-clear and that also saps a little of the violence out of the faster parts, but Jeff's clearly still got the riffs, and All For You always works best at its most manically paced. In fact, the album really lives and dies with his playing alone, on the non-ballad tracks, and unfortunately there is just not enough of it to overcome all the shortcomings, and it is often spoiled by a vocal line here or a goofy idea there. I didn't hate this one as much as King of the Kill or Remains, but it's understandable why it is held in such low regard and just another symptom of the band's shaky, inconsistent, decades-long career. I only wish a few of the better riffs here weren't put out to pasture, but saved for the right record.

Verdict: Fail [3.75/10]

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Annihilator - The One EP (2004)

The end of the Joe Comeau tenure in Annihilator was a bit of a disappointment; I thought Jeff finally had someone who really complemented his style (and vice versa), but just a few years after Waking the Fury we had a new vocalist in Dave Padden, and a new record en route, prefaced about a month earlier by The One enhanced EP, which is obviously intended to showcase the most commercial track the band had yet released. Yes, "The One", a total cheese ballad with laughable lyrics that comes off as some alt rock 90s band trying to write a hook in the vein of famous hard rocker ballads' from the decade before that. I guess you might dub this a "Silent Lucidity" for Annihilator, and to be fair, the chorus itself is slightly catchy, showcasing Dave's smooth, radio-friendly range which might be a bit of a shock to long time fans who heard this particular track before anything else on the EP or album...

Of course, you can also hear Padden's heavier vocals on the other tracks here, most notable the full-length title track which is knuckle-dragging chug-thrash with almost no effort whatsoever in its pursuit of an idea or chorus. This is really the dregs, one of the most boring cuts in the band's history, and when Dave hits his cleans for the chorus and bridge it just doesn't stick with me. Certainly when you look back at the history of this band and some of the ragers that they open album with, this is extremely out of place, and not in a good way. The non-album track, "Weapon X", which seems to liken the band to everyone's favorite Canadian mutant, is nothing to write home about with some cheesy, cliche lyrics, but it does at least pick up the pace and makes the new vocalist growl a lot more to earn his keep. That it's still so painfully average in a 90s groove/thrash way and still the best tune on the pure audio component of the release is trouble indeed for the album ahead.

As for the live video stuff, the music on "Alison Hell" and "Never, Neverland" still comes off pretty strong in that setting, and I'd say Padden actually comes off a lot better here than the new originals. Not that he can compare with his predecessors like Rampage or Pharr, but he clearly has a trained voice that can handle the screams and the more aggressive lines. He puts a bit of his own spin on things, but only to a reasonable level and with no disrespect. So sadly for me, the enhanced content was the best part of the release. "The One" is safe enough for your grandmother, but my gods is this whole thing a bummer after the potential explosiveness that was starting to snake back into the band's sound over the prior two full-lengths. 

Verdict: Fail [3.75/10]

Monday, January 15, 2024

Annihilator - Waking the Fury (2002)

The best thing I can say about Waking the Fury is that the WORST thing I can say about Waking the Fury is that the cover is kind of lame, a rather ugly photograph of the band just standing there. Not that these gents are ugly, mind you, just the coloring and composure of the photo and the way it works with the logo and title. Otherwise, maybe Joe Comeau's presence rubbed off a lot on this album, because it feels almost more like a power metal album (heavily in his wheelhouse) rather than a thrash album akin to Alice in Hell. There's also a strange level of fuzz to the mix on this one which is a bit unusual for that form, but it adds to the experience a little bit more crush and density, yet still letting all those blazing leads and warlike vocals breathe through the production.

I'm actually reminded a bit of Halford's second solo album, Crucible, which came out this same year of 2002 and had a comparable crunch. Just a bunch of burly power/heavy metal riffs slathered with good vocals and plenty of push and aggression, momentum almost never broken. That's not to say they don't do an occasional swerve like the almost industrial/groove metal vibes in "Prime Time Killing", but Joe's vocals make sure even that track stays above the belt, and it's way more in step with the surrounding material than Remains could ever pull off. A lot of the riffs here do feel rather 'stock' for power metal of the earlier 21st century, but they're at least function and reliable, and you won't be cranking this thing out of your speakers without some appropriate headbanging accompaniment. It's almost like Waters shut himself in a room with some records from Judas Priest and Accept and then put his spin on that formula, and would you know it?

It works rather well, at least better than anything the band had produced in the decade before it. I think the 'highs' from Carnival Diablos are a little better than the material here, but Waking the Fury benefits from the lack of bullshit that its predecessor suffered. There's a goofy riffing break or two here (like in "Cold Blooded"), but this is by far the most aggressive feeling Annihilator had been up to this point, even if it's not even specifically thrash. This would be an easy one to recommend whether you're into Agent Steel, Cage, or Forbidden, or the prior Joe Comeau output, and for once a little twist in the equation that actually succeeds rather than falls on its ass. I don't wanna hype this one up TOO much, for all its energy and passion and punishment, it's not always that catchy and I wouldn't rate it among other top flight albums of its style, but this is certainly in the upper echelon of Jeff Waters' output.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

Friday, January 12, 2024

Annihilator - Carnival Diablos (2001)

As disheartening as it was to see Randy Rampage separated from the band again, and while they were on a minor uptick at that, all fears were quelled when it was announced that Joe Comeau, of Master Control fame with Liege Lord, and having recently performed guitar with Overkill for several albums over several years, would be assuming the vocal duties along with Jeff Waters and Ray Hartmann. And for the first few tracks of Carnival Diablos, I was absolutely blown away by the result. THIS was the modern thrash the band had needing for years, taking Waters' riffing strengths into a new millennium while honoring their better early material. Clinical, aggressive, somewhat technical but never dizzying or inaccessible, chops flying all over the fucking place, where have you been Annihilator?

Add to this Joe's performance, which is just awesome. It's not so much the pure USPM screaming of his Liege Lord performance, but a sleeker take on it, with some vicious mid-range and then only the higher pitches when they are needed. On tunes like "Denied" and "Battered" he sounds exceptional, putting the band into that range of power/thrash hybrids like Artillery, Agent Steel or Paradox, but even when the band slows down for a groovier/90s rhythm, he still elevates the material beneath him. The problem is that Waters just can't stop himself from fucking around, and Carnival Diablos once again decides to diverge in styles to include some almost pure hard rock pieces that totally betray the potential this album started off with. "Shallow Grave" sounds like an attempt at an AC/DC or early Accept track, and that tune is also sandwiched by some slower foot-stompers which slow the pace down without really offering much in return. "Time Bomb" at least has a little power and a decent lick or two, but the title track sounds to me like Stone Temple Pilots with Joe Comeau.

Things take a while to improve, because there some additional weaker tunes wedged onto the latter half of the disc, like the proggy acoustic instrumental "Liquid Oval" that never quite delivers on its potential, but there some decent aggressors like "Epic of War" and "Hunter Killer" which I feel like could have been merged with the first few tunes to create a rager of an EP. And then, for whatever fucking reason, Jeff throws a joke country/prog(?!) song on the end of the album, "Chicken and Corn", that makes "Kraf Dinner" less embarrassing by comparison. At this point I felt like I had entered the Twilight Zone, because Carnival Diablos had all it took to be THAT 'comeback album', and just squandered its good footing, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Don't get me wrong, the combination of Comeau and Waters is explosive on a lot of this material, but there are just a few too many dumb decisions to allow this to go the distance. When it works, its got some of the better Annihilator material of the 21st century. Too bad then that the author was committed to making sure it doesn't.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Annihilator - Criteria for a Black Widow (1999)

Even though Criteria for a Black Widow was released only two years after the laughable Remains, it bore all the hallmarks of a band coming to its senses, a 'comeback' album not over any major gulf of time, but over a gulf in common sense. If you've heard Jeff's commentary tracks for these albums, he'll tell you himself that he was going through some rough times and that Black Widow was an attempt to get back to what mattered, to a full band where he didn't have to perform all the vocals and instruments himself, and back to a style that put Annihilator into the ears of rabid thrash bands in the first place. And he went to great lengths to that effect, reuniting with Rampage and Ray Hartmann to hopefully rekindle the magic from Alice in Hell. Even the cover, though cheesy, seems like a return to referencing the 'Alice' character in some capacity, and there are self-referential song titles here like "Back to the Palace" or the sequel song "Schizos (Are Never Alone) Part III". With all these pieces in place, did Criteria for a Black Widow restore the faith after a near-decade of dysfunction? Was it enough?

Well it damn near tries to be. Now let me qualify that I don't think bands need to try and always ape themselves to forge a comeback, but rather to take where they were at on those seminal works and then ask what should have come next if the decision making had been better. Criteria is a manic thrash metal album which drops most of the nonsense like the hard rock-isms of the earlier 90s, or the industrial weirdness of remains. There might be a bit of Pantera groove remaining, but its largely unobtrusive, and at least seems to fit the songs where it appears. Where Black Widow falls short is that it does little more than just get the band back to a respectable level. 'We get it guys, and we're back!' Only it lacks the nuance and inventiveness that the band had been on the precipice of when they released their debut album. There's nothing forward here, just maintenance, and sadly a few of the tracks and parts slack behind the rest to create an uneven experience.

It works best when the band are channeling the faster, nastier thrash metal which reminds me of anything from their own earliest works, to a bit of Holy Terror, or Dark Angel, or the like. Cuts like "Back to the Palace" and "Nothing Left" are fairly relentless, with Jeff's leads flailing around and some gnarly vocals that make it feel like Randy Rampage never skipped a beat. A few of the tracks that utilized catchier choruses or melodies ("Loving the Sinner") are also pretty competent, at the very least devastating what the band had been putting out in the fateful 1993-1997 period, but there are a few vocal sections that miss the mark, a few boring riffs here or there, terrible lyrics, and compositions that seem as if they needed a little more time gestating before being committed to disc. For a home recording, it sounds alright, but again it doesn't all feel terribly consistent. The entire time I was listening through this album, I felt like this was a 'warmup' to a truly greater return to form that might manifest if the same lineup could just stay in place. 

There was also a bit of buzz around this, more excitement than I had remembered in years surrounding the band, so when I got the promo in the mail (back when I did my old paper zine), I was just happy that Jeff had touched base with himself, with what Annihilator was supposed to be. To that effect, Criteria for a Black Widow is an important transition or de-transition, one that would stave off a lot of foolishness for the group's still-extensive future to follow. Sure, they might fuck up again, but not to the level that they had sunk throughout the 90s. And with luck, since a lot of the traditional metal forms would start to re-emerge from the murk in the new millennium, there'd be an audience again with which to share this newfound lease on the steel. As for the album itself? Forgettable, but not offensively so.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Annihilator - Remains (1997)

Somewhere along the line, Jeff Waters started listening to a lot of White Zombie and Ministry, probably some of Prong's transformative works during this same period, and thus Remains was born, an album that is inarguably the most 'experimental' in Annihilator's catalogue. There are still a number of straight-up thrash tracks, which makes the album even more confusing, but the whole thing is a fucking mess that shouldn't have ever seen the light of day, even if Jeff had stuck with just one of the particular sounds he was exploring. I can't tell what's worse, the totally bland cover image or the music itself, which seems to utterly fail to grab onto a proper hook or chorus no matter which avenue of heavy music it is trying to explore, all of which feel pretty derivative, just not from the source they should have been...Annihilator's impressive debut years.

"Dead Wrong" sounds like "Walk" from Pantera, only mixed slightly more for rivet-heads with the vocal filter. "Sexecution" sounds like a bad Rob Zombie from the Great White North, only Rob would have tossed this track off his first few forthcoming solo albums for how unforgivably bland it is. He can't even stick to the same industrial metal sound, "No Love" goes a bit more like a Goth-y Ministry, and the album gets even WEIRDER than this..."Wind" sounds like a slightly more dissonant version of Rush, "Bastiage" sounds like some 80s synth music from a big budget 80s cop flick only with some chugging layered in. Keep in mind that throughout this, Waters occasionally swings back into thrash mode for tunes like "Tricks and Traps", and Remains winds up totally disoriented and disorienting and making you question why any record label executive in his/her right mind would approve this for release other than a test copy that would be immediately discarded to the nearest wastebasket.

If Jeff had stuck to one experiment and created something more compelling and cohesive, I would have happily forgiven the total sea change and perhaps even enjoyed it, but this is an album that lives up to its title as the corpsified 'Remains' of a once-promising metal band that lost its way completely in an age of rapidly evolving trends. And I don't say these things because I hate any of these other genres...I was and 'remain' a huge fan of industrial metal today, including most of what Jeff was probably inspired by, but this album simply doesn't do any of that any justice, and certainly not Annihilator. Production is all over the place, you can count the catchy riffs in the thrash songs on two fingers, and even the track list isn't laid out in any way where these broad strokes can complement one another. It would turn out to be a short-lived deviation, to be fair, but coming off what was already a pretty miserable stretch of albums with no hope in sight, I'm beyond shocked that the Canadian survived this one.

Verdict: Epic Fail [2/10]

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Annihilator - In Command (Live 1989-1990) (1996)

There's a strange contradiction in having the cover of this first official Annihilator be graced with a grown-up, 'sexy' version of the Alice in Hell character that looks like she belongs in a Whitesnake video, and then the fact that the performances from the album are taken from back when the Canadians were actually a pretty good band, and Alice was a younger person. Another remnant of the Roadrunner contract, In Command wants the potential fanbase to know loud and clear that this is material taken from the band's prime, thus the years are placed glaringly in the title itself, and that's a good thing, because we are treated with the band's best music to date and nothing from the lengthy slack-off period which the band was still smack in the middle of.

It's also to be noted that this record is split between the Randy Rampage and Coburn Pharr eras, but both are represented rather well with about a half dozen tracks or so from their respective albums. The first volley of tunes with Randy are the best in that they're much more aggressive, and his voice sounds nasty while the guitars sound pretty damn good. Rhythms are right up front, but leads cut through, the bass is reasonably audible and the drumming is pretty intense throughout, with Hartann meting out even more energy than he gave us on record. All the good tracks are represented, whether you're into "Word Salad" or "Road to Ruin". I think Pharr has a rougher time in the live setting, his voice gets a little wild and weird on some of his fronted tracks, but at the same time it's a little more unpredictable up against the studio versions, and whatever reverb levels and instruments are set to here feels more resonant and atmospheric while the first half of the album is way more straight-to-the-face.

You will also get to hear Coburn singing "Alison Hell", with mixed results, but this is arguably the best sounding track instrumentally on the latter half of the recording. It's closed out with a cover of AC/DC's "Live Wire" performed with some genuine energy and confidence, capping off what is in my opinion a pretty passable live effort. I got more out of listening through this than the last three studio albums the band had released, it doesn't sound too professionally polished so you get a good audience vibe, and a clear indicator of the potential and power this band had on a starving thrash audience at the close of the 80s. Granted, much of that audience would be drowned out by all the backwards baseball caps and plaid shirts in the following decade, and Annihilator would have succeeded much more if they had appeared in, say, 1986 with their debut, but in current times all this stuff has gotten pretty popular again and if you're in the mood for a live record in this genre that got little attention, this is alright.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

Monday, January 8, 2024

Annihilator - Refresh the Demon (1996)

Don't tease with a cover that reminds me of Abominog, bro, one of my favorite (if cheesy) Uriah Heep albums of the 80s and beyond. If I were to guess by the title, Refresh the Demon, I would surmise that this record might be Annihilator's attempt at 'righting the ship' from its previous two discs, and I can say with fairness that is exactly what happens an extent. This one definitely feels like a record written for its time period but keeping its roots primarily in the thrash that put Jeff Waters on the map to begin with. If a lot of the simpler, groovier and chugging rhythms tend to remind me of things Dimebag Darrell was writing on records like Cowboys from Hell, so be it, but at least the compositions retain some degree of Annihilator's past, the "Alison Hell" squeals in "A Man Called Nothing" being one of many examples).

That's not to say Refresh the Demon is good, in fact it's quite mediocre at its best, but there is a settling in and structure to how this one is composed which seem consistent. Waters has settled into his vocal duties much more on this, not that they are outstanding by any measure, but he rarely goes too over the top when he's emoting certain cheesy lyrics. There are a number of those Dave Mustaine snarled lines, to be sure, but the music in tracks like "Ultraparanoia" and "A Man Called Nothing" at least keeps you distracted enough not to care too much about such shortcomings. There's definitely a bit of trad hard rock and heavy metal inspiration to pieces like "City of Ice" and "Anything for Money", but they're blended in with enough thrashing finesse that they don't do anything groan-inducing like half of King of the Kill was. It only goes too far on something like "Hunger", with a bluesy hard rock shuffle that again reminds me of Nuno's writing in Extreme, but even this isn't a terrible tune in context. "Innocent Eyes" is a shitty, forgettable ballad and the worst song here, no surprise that one was pushed off to the end but should have been pushed a little further...into the nearest river.

The leads are generally well written and provide most of the album's exciting moments, although they're not terribly interesting if isolated from the rest of the tracks. Randy Black performs the drumming adequately, the capable veteran who replaced Mike Mangini on the prior album, and the bass is alright but never really a standout through the track list. Production is punchy and accessible, maybe even continuing the standard set by the prior album as feeling a little too glossy to really do the heavier tracks justice, but those seeking something 'current' for the mid-90s probably wouldn't have minded this so much. Refresh the Demon is nothing impressive by any means, and if not for covering this whole discography I wouldn't have revisited it, but if someone were playing this in the car I would grin and bear it, while King of the Kill would have us pulling over so I can catch an Uber. Bland but passable 90s thrash that isn't aware that for at least the next decade, the style of all those bands in Metallica's wake was just 'over', and in this case not merely for being passé, but for just not being very good.

Verdict: Indifference [5.5/10]

Friday, January 5, 2024

Annihilator - Bag of Tricks (1994)

The cover artwork for Bag of Tricks might actually be a little cooler than the two full-length albums before it, but that's nothing to get excited about, as this is merely an early fan-package probably released to fill out some contractual agreement with Roadrunner. I believe Annihilator had at this point moved over to Music for Nations for new studio material, so this feels like a loose collection of odds and ends that suffers a bit from the inconsistency of its contents. At the very least, though, we would assume we could be spared from the lamentable direction the band proper had taken through its mid-90s material, and Bag of Tricks was sticking to the band's demos and debut album and little else. To that end, this was probably worth tracking down if only for the diehards.

By far the best content here are the unreleased tracks "Back to the Crypt" and "Gallery" which had Randy Rampage on vocals and were recorded as demos for Never, Neverland while he was still in the lineup, but for whatever dumb reason never manifest on the actual album. These aren't the catchiest songs the group had written, but they definitely remind me of tunes like "Wicked Mystic" or "Burns Like a Buzzsaw Blade" and have some of that early nastiness present. Riff-wise, they aren't super memorable, but the leads are good and the energy is fiendish and vibrant as the band was when they hit the studio for the debut, and in fact these tunes belong more with that than the sophomore. The "Alison Hell" remastered track is worthless to me, why bother messing with something that was already excellent, and it doesn't offer enough of a notable difference for me to care. The demo cuts for Set the World on Fire are also quite uninteresting, and the new track from that era, "Fantastic Things", feels like an acoustic AOR track that would have only brought that album down even more, though it of itself isn't entirely terrible.

The old demo at the end of the compilation is pretty neat because you're hearing tunes like "Alison Hell" and "Phantasmagoria" with even more savage, extreme vocals from Jeff Waters which were quite hilarious but also kind of awesome at the same time. And the EP's worth of live tracks are actually recorded decently enough for the 80s or early 90s and make "Human Insecticide" and "W.T.Y.D." shien in the live setting. So ultimately, this could better be titled Mixed Bag of Tricks, but at least half of the content shouldn't have been tossed into the bin, and as a fan of those first two albums I thought it was neat to hear those unreleased tracks and confirmation of the band's skill in the live setting. At the same time, a little bit of a painful reminder of the band's then-present decline in quality.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Annihilator - King of the Kill (1994)

King of the Kill seems to get a little bit of a break as a pivot back to form or a redemption from the miserable Set the World on Fire, but I find such to be a bit of critical doggerel, because this album is arguably even worse an offender than its predecessor, the one difference being that Jeff Waters has taken over the vocal duties himself. His style is largely comparable to Aaron Randall, don't get me wrong, with a little Randy Rampage in there since he knows what the crowd probably wants, but the delivery is thankfully superior to the third album and at least shows us all that he is capable of expressing these musical ideas into lyrics himself, without needing some third party to flop about like a fish drowning in air. Alas, the musical content of King of the Kill is so uneven and grasping at straws that there is just no saving it from sodden mediocrity, and it ends up sucking even worse.

1994. Thrash is dead. Or it's become Far Beyond Driven. Jeff Waters is still chipping away at the dream, but instead of taking what the band did best on Alice in Hell and Never, Neverland, he's alternating those thrash licks, which he can still play quite well, with an increasing number of acoustics, ballad-like songs which are instantly forgettable, dumb lyrics, lazy song titles, and detritus that often feels like he had been writing for another, more commercial rock band and then shoved that onto an Annihilator disc to stuff out some recording contract. How do you sign this band on the strength of prior releases, get submitted this shit and then actually pay money to send it to factory? For me to even take King of the Kill remotely seriously I would need to clip off at least 8-8 lame tracks like the goofy "Bad Child", "In the Blood", or "Speed" which feels like Jeff is channeling his inner Nuno Bettencourt except it's not actually catchy like Extreme was in their prime. There are also a number of thrash riffs here which sound like he was even dumbing that particular style down to a Black Album level, but again, not nearly as good as coming up with songs as the Bay Area boys were in that era.

The album is possibly the most polished in terms of production to what they had done at the time, but that only adds to its commercial crappiness, as it lacks that glorious mix of crisp mix and songcraft as they possessed in the 1989-1990 period. The bass actually sounds pretty loud and well performed, but it's all for naught. The guitars, while obviously quite competent, are a real letdown: the thrash riffs are uniformly unmemorable, the acoustics don't enchant like "Crystal Anne" once did, and the hard rock theatrics are lamentable. If I condensed this record down to two tracks, let's say "King of the Kill" itself and something like "21", and dressed those up with better ideas, then you might have a tolerable single's worth of material, but the rest of this is uninspired, lazy dreck that seems as if a weak Jett Waters solo album that was rebranded as Annihilator because, you know, branding. Don't get me wrong; I admire Waters' ability to boldly go forth and continue after a disaster such as this, but the stain remains.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10]

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Annihilator - Set the World on Fire (1993)

As steep of a dive as Set the World on Fire takes from the first two Annihilator albums, I think it's important to evaluate the world that this was being released into. Thrash metal as we knew it had really dried up, most of its royalty either disbanding or altering their sound to fit into a 90s landscape that was going Grunge, hip hop, Pantera groove metal or ducking off into more extreme territories, and to give the Canadians some credit, they always maintained at least some of the thrash and speed metal of their core sound. For whatever brief flights of adaptation Jeff Waters might take his band on, he's always been the riff-first sort of guy who is an essential anchor for the style, and Set the World on Fire is still foremost a thrash metal effort. But the writing is on the wall here in many ways...

First, the cool artwork from the first two records has been replaced by a photographic eyesore which looks like a failed attempt at mimicking Dark Angel's 3rd and 4th records. Sure, the grown up Alice has some thematic consistency with Alice in Hell and Never, Neverland, but it just doesn't present itself well, and the weird light filtering effect in the background make it look like someone scratched up the cover. This was the last Annihilator album I picked up a physical copy for, and that was only when I found a dirt cheap cassette in Boston for $3, I had already listened to the album at a friend's house and found it wanting, and I doubt I listened to that tape more than once or twice. The band was on its third singer in as many albums, Aaron Randall, and while I can't tell you that his voice is technically bad, and it made some sense after the style of the first two singers, he's got even cheesier emotes when he's barking out a lot of these lyrics, and it almost sounds like some hard rock transplant from a Skid Row or Badlands cover band crossing over into thrash metal. It can get awkward, to say the least.

Worse than either of these things, though, the songwriting had really slacked off here, as for every half decent track full of Waters' thrash riffs, you've got that 90s poisoning, sometimes in small places like the chorus of "Bats in the Belfry", others more blatant like "Snake in the Grass", which starts out like a shitty hair metal ballad and then goes for a groovy hard rock/metal like Jackyl! And then, I shit you not, this is followed up with "Phoenix Rising", a better song perhaps, but another ballad that sounds like they're trying to make a "November Rain". Cuts like "Set the World on Fire", "Knight Jumps Queen", the and the titular "Set the World on Fire" might possess a few dumb groove/thrash riffs, and parts of "Brain Dance" sound like it might have fit on Alice in Hell, but even even then Annihilator manages to cock it all up with Randall's super cheesy vocal lines and lyrics that are arguably even worse.

If I legit took all the better moments from this album, kicked out the vocalist, brought back Randy Rampage and whittled it all down to a 2-3 track EP, Set the World on Fire might have been a worthwhile follow-up to Never, Neverland, but it's just so bloated with goofy ideas and weaksauce attempts to 'fit in'...I mean listen to the end of "Brain Dance" when the vocals turn into a circus with the whole 'frying pan into the fire' cliche, total dumpster fire that ruins the few good ideas in that track. The bottom line, is that whenever Annihilator dips its toes onto the beach of 90s lameness from the security of the thrashing ocean behind it, the band pretty much sucks. And I don't know that Waters got the memo in time, because this album marks a decades-long descent into mediocrity, so deep into the shadow of that awesome potential of the debut that they were no longer visible.

Verdict: Fail [4.25/10]

Tuesday, January 2, 2024

Annihilator - Never, Neverland (1990)

Never, Neverland is simultaneously the definition of the dependable sophomore album and the last time I can really remember enjoying any of Annihilator's output to the point that it was a staple in my monthly listening in High School. This would have been the sort of album I kept in regular rotation on the Walkman as I was delivering newspapers to the neighbors, packed with good riffs and songs capable of delivering hooks and chorus parts that made me bang my head more than smirk. There was already the sense that this effort was more 'nuts & bolts' than its predecessor Alice in Hell, and it doesn't quite reach the same lofty heights, but it is a veritable riff-fest for Jeff Waters and was one I could listen to without skipping ALMOST anything (more on that later), if only because that guitar is just so good throughout most of the 44 minute runtime.

On the other hand, it's already showing the first chinks in the Canadians' armor, as the vocalist Randy Rampage from the debut has already been replaced by Coburn Pharr, an 80s hopeful that had a little experience with Prisoner's Rip It Up and Omen's divisive fourth full-length Escape to Nowhere (yeah, the one with the sexy cover but the WTF? music if you'd listened to their earlier output). Pharr has a fairly distinct voice that makes me regret he wasn't around for more records. It's a bit smoky and has its best bite in the mid-range, making it a better fit for thrash than whatever his previous band was attempting, but he can also hit a few higher screams when needed. In fact, his presence here reminds me of when Steve Grimmett was recruited to Onslaught and also surprised me with how well his timbre adapted to the harder hitting music, still keeping that blue collar thrash appeal without going too far over the top. When Pharr does bark out a few goofier lines, trying to sound more maniacal or menacing in tracks like "The Fun Palace", it comes off a bit corny, but in general he delivers, if not at the same level of wild charisma as his predecessor.

There's also a tune here which might have looked good on paper, but in practice has not endured the test of time, and that would be "Kraf Dinner". Look, I eat it, I love it, many of us probably love it, but the lyrics are fucking awful and Coburn sounds extremely silly singing them, and it's a gut punch to an otherwise seamless solid thrashing despite the fact that it's actual music is passable speed metal with a bit of a bluesy blitz to it. 'Macaroni maniac/a cheddar cheese heart attack'? I mean I'm sure this seemed genuinely funny for the guys at the time, many starving metal bands have thrived off the mass-produced pasta, but it just seems ridiculous to me 30+ years later. At least they weren't shoehorning a funk track onto the end and telling me 'Don't just be a metal dude' like some of their thrashing peers from Arizona. If this were removed from the track list, though, I think Never, Neverland would be a more potent, consistent experience.

And speaking of that, what this record DOES have in common with the debut is the dependable drumming of Ray Hartmann and then Jeff Waters flying all over the place with a myriad of tasty riffs and even tastier leads. Even some of the later buried tracks like "Phantasmagoria" have noodly earworms lying in wait to ambush you, and tunes like the opener "The Fun Palace" nearly measure up to "Alison Hell" with some killer melodies and structure. The bass is pretty decent but seems to just hover in the background of the rhythm guitar more often throughout this one, where I remember digging the lines a lot more on the debut, but it hardly distracts me when I'm listening through this one. Glen Robinson's production is pretty spot-on, clean and snappy but still vital and energetic in how it captures the unhinged talents of the band's superstar talent. Never, Neverland is pretty damn fun to revisit, "Kraf Dinner" aside, perhaps even more than when I used to listen to it back in the Age of Acne. If I were to introduce their sound to someone, it was always "Alison Hell" first, but ultimately, this wasn't much of a disappointment when I bought it on release day, and it still holds its own.

Verdict: Win [8/10] (Colors now decay)

Monday, January 1, 2024

Annihilator - Alice in Hell (1989)

It's never my intention to 'prematurely' shit all over a band when I'm revisiting their discography with somewhat fresh ears, since the goal is ultimately to give some second chances, maybe be surprised by a few records that I gave short shrift or overlooked. However, by my own recollection of the teenage thrashing 80s, Canada's Annihilator must have been one of the biggest premature ejaculations in all of the metal scene, shooting its wad loudly and proudly early on, and then entering a long refractory period through which there have only been brief periods of newfound potential and hopeful tumescence. It's a shame, because Alice in Hell was a pretty huge seller after its release, and the band became a top-second tier commodity among nearly ever metal fan I knew. Even those whose sphere of interest fell only into the more mainstream 'big four' of thrash, or arena staples like Priest, Maiden, and Ozzy, had seen the video or picked up this record. Certainly Jeff Waters and crew were on the precipice of major success...

With a slick, dexterous debut like this one, it's not difficult to understand why. While not every song was written on an equally memorable plane, the highlights tend to outnumber the dullards, and even the cuts which slack behind will have a few surprise riffs buried throughout. Waters is easily the star of this show, one of the more 'complete package', fully realized axe-men in the niche outside of Mustaine or the Hannemen/King coalition. Chops for days, performed cleanly and meticulously, with the ability to fire off competent if not immortal lead guitars anywhere. There's a precision and technicality to his playing that certainly placed the band within the 'tech thrash' niche without resorting to excessive, inane wanking, and I'm especially impressed with some of his lofty, harmonized syncopated melodies. Jeff can certainly throw-down at a moderate pace for the mandatory neck-jerking that fueled so much of the late 80s thrash, but he definitely has a bit of neo-classical edge to his shredding which oozed class, and most of the rhythm progressions here stuck and stayed that way so they're instantly recognizable even 35 years after the album first dropped!

He's also got some pretty good damned bass-lines on this disc, and besides Blacky of Voivod this is probably one of the better Canadian albums to deliver that reliable low-end. Ray Hartmann's drumming is hardly up on the level of Lombardo or Hoglan but it's snappy and energetic and sounds great in the mix to support Water's particular thrashing fits. More surprising is the sinister edge of Randy Rampage's vocals, coming over from the worthy punk of D.O.A. to deliver some snarling highs, some pitch, some nastiness, one of the better cross-genre performances I've ever heard, probably a shock to those who knew him from the simpler basslines and songwriting of his mainstay. He's awesome here and for my money perhaps the best vocalist that ever fronted this group, which I never would have expected. He's like a Great White North parallel to Holy Terror's Keith Deen, and I think a lot of the riff-writing here also mirrors that West Coast band, but it's more polished and accessible and I think that explains so much of the appeal this record had.

The showcase for this record is certainly the one-two punch of the "Crystal Ann" acoustic intro and "Alison Hell" itself, which together with the cover artwork conjure up a dreamy nightmare redolent of a lot of the popular 80s franchises, like a Nightmare On Elm Street or Lady in White or Hellraiser 2: Hellbound. The title track is easily one of the best thrash tunes of its year of release, still timeless, with some epic spiraling harmonies that plummet you down into its creepy namesake scenario while showing off the estimable talents in Jeff's repertoire. Everything from the little guitar shrieks, to the higher pitched vocal howls or little operatic break in the bridge just screams of success, and the lead sequence in there reminds me very much of Andy LaRocque's style in another breakout Roadrunner act, King Diamond, whose album Conspiracy the same year is a pretty good comparison. A few other standout moments for me were the clinical Deception Ignored-like melodic break in "W.T.Y.D.", or the unforgettable "Burns Like a Buzzsaw Blade" and its cringey sex lyrics, but there are really no stinkers in this lot...

Instead, a few tunes just fail to live up to that opening, while still remaining competent entries into the genre as a whole, and it does create a bit of a lopsided excitement where the 'Side A' shines a lot brighter than the 'Side B', or at least that's how I thought of it for years when I only owned the cassette. Having said that, Alice in Hell still feels pretty relevant today, a record that had all the potential to enter that space dominated by Megadeth and Metallica. Ambitious enough without going too over the top, unique if not terribly original. It also, sadly, stands as one of those early creative peaks in the medium; I won't say there is too steep of an immediate decline, as Never, Neverland provided at least a moderately catchy, meat & potatoes thrash experience, but I don't think any of the subsequent material comes close to my appreciation for this debut. Again, I hope to be proven wrong as I re-explore the decades of Jeff Waters' dedication to this craft, but Alice in Hell is a hard act to follow.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10] (No one listened to your fears)