Ten albums, a million records sold worldwide, not bad for an unrepentant and purist metal band from the tall pines of Western Canada. Annihilator, for a dozen years now the loud, riff-mad baby of one Jeff Waters, has engaged the metal world with a sound that is perhaps the clearest, cleanest, most tasteful bridging of huge, steaming riffs to the idea of the perfect song, a concept that both Megadeth and Metallica forged in fire on their way to critical and commercial acclaim many metal years ago.
But Annihilator have never stopped crafting and crunching, not since the early days when Waters (after moving west from Ottawa), created expert anthems of songful shred-ability, resulting in two very successful, very seminal Canadian thrash albums, Alice in Hell from 1989 and Never, Neverland from 1990.
Throughout the ‘90s, Waters never ceased to create visceral, memorable metal nuggets. Yet a revolving door of singers and other personnel stemmed the continuity of the band’s trajectory into the upper echelon of the world’s classic metal ranks. Jeff Waters has seen the trenches no doubt, and now, the thoroughly reformed bad boy looks back with a sense of bemusement. “For some reason, it’s always been like a solo project. If I’ve learned something over these 12 or 13 years, if it’s your band, even if you’re a nice guy, people will leave. Because I mean, I wasn’t easy to get along with in the early days. I was like a dictator/drunk, which is always a really bad combination. But even after I quit drinking and things were going well, I found that a lot of guys who were really talented - or the opposite, who aren’t that talented at all and are insecure - they get in and they realize they aren’t getting all the attention and it’s really hard to keep them interested in the band. Because they realize that it’s not their thing, they go off and do other projects, which makes them happier.”
But quietly, Waters has built a core engine for Annihilator that is as professional as it is loyal. “Russ, the bass player is here in Vancouver,” answers Jeff with respect to the living locales of his band. “Dave the guitar player, is in Victoria. Joe, of course is in Rochester, and Ray, our drummer, he lives really close to me too. Technically speaking, David and Ray, and I have played together for probably seven or eight years, those two leaving briefly in ‘93, and Russ, two years.”
And boom! Into the fray wades a new singer, perhaps the band’s most forceful and recognizable yet at that position, Joe Comeau, ex-guitarist for Overkill, now doing what he really loves, growling away as frontman for a band nearly as rich in history as his old outfit. “Joe’s best quality is sounding like whoever you want him to sound like,” offers Waters. “That’s great for me because I can get the ideas in my head sounding in the final analysis exactly how I wanted them. He has the ability to just clone any of the other Annihilator singers, including myself, plus he has his own style. So I think it’s a cross between most of our records. There are vocals on there that remind me of our more melodic albums like Set The World On Fire, and then there’s material that has the Randy Rampage Alice In Hell style, and there are quite a few songs that have a little bit of me as well. Plus one of Joe’s favorite bands is Judas Priest and he does a wicked Halford.”
“Joe’s other amazing quality is his work with phrasing,” notes Waters. “Which is what I would call where the words go, where you put them, because there are a million different places you can stick them. You get totally different ideas. When I hear a piece of music that I write, I always go, ‘oh, I know where the words go’, but years later I find that my decisions don’t always make for variety. Joe, every time that I give him a piece of music, he puts the words in a completely different place, and I would initially go, ‘no, no, that doesn’t sound good’, but it DID sound good. So I found it really good writing with him. On the next one, I’ll probably give him all the songs and say, take a stab at it and whatever he’s having problems with, we’ll co-write together.”
But the Waters/Comeau team has proven itself explosive. Carnival Diablos is the band’s most wide-ranging, yet metallically focused album yet, all about metal, even, as Waters would venture, all about the ‘80s metal that still courses through his veins, bands like Metallica, AC/DC, Megadeth and Maiden still prime influences on the man and his plan. “Carnival Diablos obviously means ‘the devil’s carnival’” ventures Jeff. “The album is so versatile. It’s not a complete thrash album and it’s not a complete melodic metal album. The only consistent thing on the record is that it’s ‘80s metal-inspired. At the same time, there’s so much variety on the songs. So I said, let’s come up with a title that denotes this crazy mix, so you’ve got Annihilator’s devil’s carnival of songs (laughs).”
And true to that analysis, Carnival Diablos is studded with massive riffs, wrapped like sheets of barbed wire around killer metal songs. ‘Denied’ rips the album open in prime Annihilator style, Waters coming up with one of those fearless, fathomless, exacting riffs that we’ve come to expect from a man who has, not once but twice in his career, been talked about as potential second guitarist in Mustaine’s Megadeth. “One thing I like about that one,” notes Waters, ever the riff academic, “is that there’s this pre-chorus in the song and I was going ‘where the hell did I get that riff!?’ It finally clicked on me a few days ago, that it was from a band called Possessed. And I was going ‘wow, that’s kind of neat. I was influenced by band from 15 years ago called Possessed.’”
‘The Perfect Virus’ demonstrates the Waters knack for textures within slow muscular frameworks, jagged, slashed riffs countered by brief jazzy bridges, over which Comeau sneers an affected vocal and lyric that Jeff says is “about the perfect computer virus that destroys everything. Joe thought of it as being about AIDS or some disease, so you can also generalize it that way.”
Next up is the vicious, delicious ‘Battered’, Waters remarking that “true to the name of that one, it’s a full-blown Master Of Puppets Metallica ripper (laughs). No hiding the influence on that one. I don’t have a problem saying that; it’s not a rip-off, but hey, that album was sure a big influence.”
‘The Rush’, “all about the adrenaline rush and any way you can get it” is a track packed with metal groove, pounding rhythms and hooks that kill. It is easily one of the band’s most addictive compositions ever, Comeau grabbing at the lyric and delivering it like a man on a mission. Of the title track, Jeff notes that “that one is a little bit different. It’s got a lot of melody on the voice and it’s got a really heavy Michael Schenker groove to it, which is kind of weird for Annihilator, because we haven’t really done something like that; sort of a lighter ‘80s metal tune.”
Elsewhere, ‘Time Bomb’ anchors a record often strafed with ripping leads and even faster rhythms. “That’s sort of a robotic, futuristic song about the cliché metal monster that comes in and destroys the earth,” offers Waters goodnaturedly. “But it’s a really slow pounding song. It’s the kind of song that I want to play three times in the set live: beginning, middle and end (laughs).”
Closing the album is perhaps the album’s emphatic lasting statement, ‘Hunter Killer’ reminding one of prime Reign In Blood Slayer, smacking one upside the head with the often misplaced knowledge of why people crave metal in the first place. “’Hunter Killer’ is a full-blown thrash speed tune, with some severely wrist-breaking guitar stuff on there,” recalls Waters with a wince. “I remember being in semi-traction for a few weeks after that. It’s funny, because when I write the material I also record a lot of the guitar tracks as I’m writing it. So by the time I’ve written a song I usually have the bass and rhythm guitar tracks already completed. And when I’m writing, I usually haven’t played guitar in a few months. I just go down there, ‘OK, it’s time to write songs’ and I remember that one was so damn fast and I hadn’t played in a few months, I remember having to take a few weeks off because my wrists were so swollen. Which is bad, because you’re supposed to warm up for a few weeks before you start doing crazy stuff (laughs).”
We all know that a metal record turns and attacks, or turns and chases tail, based on the power and quality of the riffs enclosed. And Waters indeed is the ruler of that particular domain. It turns out that the man is bombarded by these snippets and segments, and that in the taming of these pieces, Waters builds the tracks that for ten records, have spoken to the inner headbanger in all of us.
This album was written and recorded in exactly the same manner every record I’ve recorded since 1993 was done,” explains Waters. “And that is, I sit down with a drum machine, come up with say, 20 guitar riffs in an hour, and at the end of that hour, get a coffee, pick out all the ones that are garbage, throw them out, and then have maybe four left from that 20 (laughs). And then I put them on a tape. And I do this for maybe a week and a half or two weeks, and then at the end of the two weeks, I’ve got maybe 60 riffs that I think are good. And then I take some time and listen to them and chuck out another 20 or 30, and you’re left with maybe 30 or 40 riffs. And those basically become the basis for verses, choruses, solo riffs, intro and outro riffs. And it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Now you know you’ve got good riffs and you just try and sort of fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Which is a really twisted way of doing it. Most people just start at the beginning and write a song and make it flow. But for some reason I like putting it together like a jigsaw puzzle. And I think one of the many reasons that Annihilator is still going and still has a fanbase, albeit not of the Metallica size, or even Slayer or Megadeth, is because of the way I do this jigsaw puzzle thing. I just piece all this stuff together in an unorthodox way. I think that’s what gives us our own stab at originality. It’s not complete originality, but I think it’s a much more original way of doing it than most people who write songs within the metal style. That’s probably one of the reasons we’re still around.”
And another reason Annihilator have been a rock critic’s dream for more than a decade, is undoubtedly the strength of the resulting songs, not to mention Waters’ self-production skills (at his own studio), and the fact that this indisputable guitar god picks his shredding points wisely. “The main development I seem to have in my guitar playing is in songwriting. I think when it comes to the guitar, there isn’t anything I’m doing that is ground-breaking or new or inventive. I think it’s all just a progression in songwriting. I don’t sit in my room and practice eight hours a day on scales and try to be the next fast guitar god. I mean, a lot of people have said, managers and stuff, why don’t you do that? (laughs). But I just like writing songs. That’s my number one thing. I’m quite happy playing a two-chord riff if it’s a good song, although I do have the ability to play something crazy and fast and hard to play and all that. But I don’t use it like other people do&ldots;”
So you can consider Carnival Diablos a clinic in songwriting, from a man who could easily be doing clinics for the next wave of little Yngwies. That’s perfectly fine with Jeff Waters, his band, and their stomping new frontman Joe Comeau. It’s always been about the perfect headbang, and at this demented and devilish metal festival, that’s what these Canadian thrash legends emphatically deliver: stacked and whacked hi-fidelity power chords, crafted to white-hot perfection.
Sanctuary Records ~ 2000
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