Annihilator: The Great Canadian Trendkill

Jeff Waters and Annihilator are back with an album that finally aspires to the lofty expectations foisted upon the Canadian thrashers, after their classic debut and sophomore releases so many years ago.

 

You can't help but get the sense when talking to Annihilator's Jeff Waters that he knows he's put out some albums that have left people scratching their heads, wondering where all that initial promise went. After putting out two classic thrash albums, Alice in Hell and Never, Neverland in 1989 and 1990 respectively, the following two decades saw the Ottawa natives release some mediocre material that served, if nothing else, to remind the metal community that Annihilator was still around, plugging away, and not changing for anybody, trends be damned.

When grunge was in and metal was out, and major labels were putting pressure on heavy bands to go in a more market-friendly direction, Waters stayed the course. Annihilator signed to Roadrunner/Sony in 1993, when Soundgarden and Alice in Chains were relegating even the mighty Slayer to the club circuit, and it was suggested to Waters that he should conform to the sound of the few metal bands that remained commercially viable at the time. 

"Roadrunner wanted me to change the name of my band and write more like Sepultura, Biohazard or Pantera, or else we’ve gotta drop you. And I just said, ‘Sorry man, I appreciate it. Thanks for everything you did. You did some amazing things for me, but I’m done. I guess that’ll be it.’ A year later we had one of our biggest records, King of the Kill, out on Music for Nations in Europe. That was a big shock. I thought I was pretty well finished.”

In the ensuing years, few, if any, have questioned Waters' musicianship or skill. Megadeth's Dave Mustaine even came calling, twice, asking him to join his rotating cast of support shredders. Faced with the choice of doing his own thing, or playing second fiddle to MegaDave, Waters chose the former, and continued to do things his own way on album after album. Even so, to this day there are some who, embarrassingly, think Waters' latest offering, the eponymous album Annihilator, released in May of this year, is just his third album.

“There’s actually one country, England, that we stopped touring in, and I just did a press trip there a few months ago for the new album and there was people that came up to me and said, ‘So, this is your third album. How does it feel doing an album how many years after Never, Neverland?’” 

Third album? Were these particular so-called metal journos too hung over to plug Annihilator into Wikipedia that day? Add ten to that and you've got it right, genius. Just like its Canadian counterpart, Anvil, Annihilator now has 13, count them, 13 albums to its credit, and by most accounts, the latest one is the strongest since Annihilator's early days. Most reviews have been overwhelmingly positive and praiseful of the songwriting, something Waters seems grateful for given the hit and miss nature of the creative process.

"It’s a bit of a surprise for us because (vocalist/rhythm guitarist) Dave (Padden) and I just make the records and do ‘em for ourselves. With any artist or painter or musician, you create something and you think it’s good but you really don’t know until later on when you can look back on it. But magic happens sometimes and everything comes together and you get a good record, and sometimes it’s not there, you just don’t know it at the time.”

One aspect of the album the press have really latched on to is the amount of solos on the record. Though it doesn't seem to have been a conscious effort on Waters' part, he definitely brought the shred to Annihilator with a renewed sense of urgency, scattering an astonishing 66 solos among the album's ten tracks. But it was a byproduct of the overall aesthetic of the album, rather than a concerted effort to further affirm his already entrenched place in the pantheon of metal guitar gods. It may come as a surprise to those who have guitar tablature books under their bed instead of well-worn copies of Playboy, but solos have never meant that much to Waters.

"They’re the least important thing on a record, to me. The solos were kind of the icing on the cake. I was never into that thing where you do the flashy solos and get on the guitar magazine covers.”

Guitar wizardry aside, Annihilator is, by most accounts, the long-awaited return to a a well-rounded, solid slab of thrash Annihilator fans have been hoping for all these years after the first two albums. So what changed? Perhaps Waters is benefiting from having a steady collaborator for the first time.

For much of his career, Annihilator has been Waters' solo project, with a slew of hired hands filling in the ranks for varying amounts of time. But for the past six years and five albums, Padden has evolved into a full-fledged collaborator and, increasingly, an indispensable part of the modern Annihilator sound. It looks like the pairing may have finally found their stride together, and Waters seems pleased to have someone he can bounce ideas off of.

"He went from another singer in my solo project to, all of a sudden a few years ago, I was phoning him up and emailing him for advice on ideas and decisions and business things for Annihilator that I’d always done myself. He developed into more of a partner than a band member.”

Though Waters has never been known for subtlety or nuance in his lyrics, he has found in Padden a talented conveyor of his stone-fisted musical message. And it quickly becomes clear that, while he holds no grudges against current trends in the metal world, he's not above firing a few tongue-in-cheek shots at them. The opening track on the new CD, The Trend, features Padden acerbically spitting the humorous line "Hey man, I think they're having a sale down at Hot Topic, let's go." It's Waters' typically Canadian nice-guy way of calling out those who, unlike him, aren't above changing their image to suit the contemporary landscape.

“The song is a stab at a couple of bands I noticed. Three, four years ago, they never would mention the word metal in their biographies. They never wore metal T-shirts. They never said that as a part of their influence. Then when the trend of metal became popular lately and labels were running to sign metal stuff, these bands all of a sudden would wear Slayer shirts and tell everybody about the early Metallica albums."

You couldn't blame Waters for being bitter, if that were even remotely the case. Though anyone who knows anything about metal recognizes the name Annihilator, the band has gone largely ignored on Waters' home turf, so much so that he hasn't toured his native land in 17 years. Meanwhile, bands of decidedly dubious talent continue to get booked for high profile North American tours and festivals, while Annihilator sticks to the European and Japanese circuits.  But Waters knows that the metalcore, crab core, and neo-industrial-vegan-dance core bands that strike it big today and are forgotten tomorrow serve a purpose, which is hopefully to bring focus back to those die hard, long-term purveyors of the real deal.

"Those kind of bands that are successful in that bring a hell of a lot of attention to bands like Overkill, Annihilator, Nevermore, Exodus, Testament—the bands that have always been there playing metal and have always slaved away when the bigger bands like Megadeth and Slayer and Metallica were making the big money and having things pretty easy with jets and nice hotels."

It will probably be more buses and bunks than jets and luxury suites when Annihilator heads back to Europe in October for a two-month stint on the continent. A plan is also in the works to hit Japan in September and a country the band has yet to traverse during the course of its two-decade existence, Australia. It could be argued that Waters and Annihilator are in the best position they've been in for quite some time. Nevertheless, Waters prefers to remain realistic and refrain from lofty aspirations. He's just taking everything as it comes, as he's already far exceeded his initial vision for the band. As has become the mantra for Annihilator fans and Waters alike, who knows what the next album will bring? 

“I always keep everything level and even and just say we’ll ride it as long as it goes, but no expectations.When I did my first album, that was the only goal I ever had—to get a record deal and put one record out. After that record and touring for that album I had absolutely no idea what do next. Ever since that first album it’s been like, ‘Wow! You mean I get to do another one? What a job!’ Whatever the fuck happens just happens.” 

Annihilator's latest album, Annihilator, is out now on Earache Records.