Annihilator may be driven by the persistence of its sole original member Jeff Waters, but it conducts business very differently than similar dictatorships like Iced Earth and White Wizzard. Despite member turnovers on par with your neighborhood Burger King, Waters is an affable goofball that all accounts declare lives up to every “Canadians are nice” stereotype you’ve ever heard. He is also more versatile with his vision than most in his position tend to be, often mixing a foundation of speed/thrash metal with elements of classic metal, hard rock, groove, alternative, glam, and whatever else he feels like doing at the time.
Of course, having such an approach span a discography as prolific as Annihilator’s is bound to be a mixed bag. While the band has kept to some core elements since their 1989 debut, a combination of shifting inspirations and varying musicians’ contributions can turn deciding favorites into a divisive affair. The highs are high, the lows are low, and even Waters himself is quick to admit when ideas work and when they don’t. With that in mind, brace yourselves for what should be my most fascinating Rank and File to date!
16) Suicide Society
Jeff Waters’ first album as an Annihilator lead vocalist since 1997 was a very rough homecoming. He does a pretty decent job vocally, reviving the gruff yet goofy character of the King of the Kill era, and his guitar work is as fantastic as ever. Unfortunately, the songwriting is some of the laziest of his career. The title track is easily the worst opener he’s ever put together. When he isn’t awkwardly ripping off Metallica and Rammstein with “My Revenge” and “Snap,” he’s repeating himself with “Creepin’ Again.” Annihilator has always been Waters’ band first and foremost, but I get the feeling that he wasn’t quite ready to go back to a truly solo format.
Final Grade: F+
15) All for You
Vocalist Dave Padden didn’t exactly make the best first impression on his first Annihilator album. His Mike Patton-esque tendencies never sat right with old school fans and this was an admittedly rough performance compared to the ones to follow. On top of that, Waters gave him a real mixed bag of material to work with, as would-be bangers like “Dr. Psycho” and “The Nightmare Factory” are bungled by questionable arrangements, the title track is a cringy nu metal anthem, and “The One” could very well be the most saccharine power ballad in existence. A stellar drum performance from now Dream Theater drummer Mike Mangini and the greatness of “Both of Me” are enough to keep from falling into the scrap heap, but the good never outweighs the bad.
Final Grade: D+
No matter how you feel about any Annihilator era, Remains is always regarded as rock bottom. The drum programming and occasional whispered vocals are enough to warrant an industrial tag, but it’s all very awkward as Waters didn’t seem to understand the genre all that well. The songwriting never caters to these elements and ends up completely losing interest in them to just revert to mechanical thrash by the second half. I can appreciate “Sexecution” and “No Love” in an ironic sort of way but “Tricks and Traps” does prove to be a legitimately solid thrasher. There’s nothing that I would call outright awful on here but it’s a very hard sell for anybody but the most forgiving diehard.
Final Grade: C-
13) Schizo Deluxe
Jeff Waters has identified Schizo Deluxe as one of his favorite Annihilator albums and I can see why even if I don’t agree. The lyrics on songs like “Maximum Satan” and “Plasma Zombies” may be corny as hell, but the riffs are tighter, and Padden’s vocals are more confident than they were on All for You. I also think “Clare” is one of the best songs from this era. On the flip side, the album is severely crippled by the inclusion of the closing “Something Witchy,” which may be the worst Annihilator song ever recorded. It honestly deserves a higher score, but it’s a sad case where one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.
Final Grade: C-
Annihilator’s last album with Dave Padden is one of their most inoffensive efforts. While it features the bag of tricks as its predecessors, the highs and lows aren’t as extreme this time around. “No Way Out” and “Demon Code” are solid thrashers though nothing amazing, while the funk rock influenced “No Surrender” and diabetes-inducing ballad “Perfect Angel Eyes” aren’t as offensive as some of the band’s past blunders. I can’t tell if the band reached a point of consistency or if they were just on autopilot. It’s one of the era’s most serviceable efforts but in a morbid sort of way, I find myself wishing it was weirder. The fact that the band included a re-recorded greatest hits playlist may be a good indicator of their headspace at the time.
Final Grade: C
Metal was easily Annihilator’s gimmickiest album ever. It’s perhaps best known for the guest appearances from famous metal players, ranging from the soundalike solos from noted shredders like Trivium’s Corey Beaulieu and Jeff Loomis to the bizarre Angela Gossow/Danko Jones duet on “Couple Suicide.” Gimmicks aside, this is a surprisingly decent album as the music was Waters’ most polished in a decade and Padden finally sounds like he belongs in this band. Songs like “Army of One” and “Smothered” are still overbearing, but “Clown Parade” is a thrilling opener in the old tradition, and “Haunted” is a hard-hitting long runner. It’s hardly essential and leans heavy on that gimmick, but it could’ve been so much worse.
Final Grade: C+
Self-titling an album so late in a band’s career is always a questionable move and Annihilator’s thirteenth full-length is no exception. It feels like “just another Annihilator album,” the most intense of the Padden era but frankly unexceptional in the grand scheme of things. Songs like “Coward” and “Betrayed” are basic but effective thrashers while others like “25 Seconds” and “Nowhere to Go” are unsuccessful experiments. I do have to give them props for the surprisingly enjoyable cover of “Romeo Delight” at the end; if anything, the “Eddie Van Halen of thrash” accolades make way more sense now…
Final Grade: C+
9) For the Demented
While For the Demented is nowhere near the best of Annihilator’s modern era, it’s the first time that the band has sounded like itself in a very long time. The song arrangements are some of their most extreme and intricately riff-driven in decades and there’s a macabre tone that I don’t think has been this prominent since at least Criteria for a Black Widow. There’s so much more energy and conviction on songs like “Phantom Asylum” and “Altering the Altar” that you almost forget how awkward the title track and “The Way” can get. The vision still needs more focus and I desperately want the band to get another full-time singer (Come on, Jeff, Ripper Owens has gotta be available!) but I can’t help but to keep rooting for them.
Final Grade: C+
8) King of the Kill
After three albums featuring three different singers, King of the Kill set up a new status quo for Annihilator. Waters assumed lead vocals himself in addition to his usual guitar and bass duties with only drummer Randy Black for companionship. His Mustaine meets Hetfield gruff in conjunction with a greater emphasis on groove metal is a noticeable departure from past efforts but there is some good stuff on here. “The Box” makes the most of this groove emphasis and the title track is the band’s energetic anthem to date. Part of me thinks certain songs like the moody “Hell Is A War” and the bouncy “Second to None” would’ve benefitted from a more dexterous vocalist, but it’s all good fun that was enough to keep them afloat. I hear talk it was big in Japan.
Final Grade: B-
7) Refresh the Demon
Refresh the Demon is basically King of the Kill, Part 2. Songs like “Syn. Kill 1” and “Voices and Victims” lean more heavily on groove metal but the album features the same mix of styles all helmed by Jeff Waters’ vocals and guitar finesse. The songwriting is also at a similar quality level as the opening title track sets up an explosive precedent that the subsequent tracks can’t live up to regardless of their serviceability. This album and its predecessor are about even in quality, but I think this one edges it out ever so slightly.
Final Grade: B-
6) Set the World on Fire
Often remembered as Annihilator’s “commercial” record, Set the World on Fire seems to have no idea what it even means to be commercial. Offering a weird mish-mash of pop thrash, acoustic ballads, and quirky alt tinges, it’s an album that likely alienated everybody in 1993 yet somehow could’ve only happened that year. Fortunately, Waters’ guitar prowess is enough to keep things recognizable and third one-time vocalist Aaron Randall gets in a memorable performance. The weirdness will make it a guilty pleasure for even the most diehard fans but it’s downright stable compared to the albums that would follow in its wake…
Final Grade: B+
5) Carnival Diablos
Recruiting vocalist Joe Comeau was one of the smartest moves Annihilator ever made. His blue-collar melodicism gives him a distinct character and his chameleon-like tendencies brought new life to Waters’ off-the-wall variety. He exercises Bon Scott swagger on “Shallow Grave,” Halford-style screams on “Time Bomb,” and channel Bruce Dickinson on “The Rush” and “Epic of War.” It’s all very derivative but the talented musicianship and clear enthusiasm from everyone involved makes for a very fun listen. It doesn’t have the same vibe as any of the band’s classic releases and its follow-up is infinitely superior, but old school metal fans should really gravitate to this one.
Final Grade: B+
4) Criteria for a Black Widow
Annihilator technically never went away, but Criteria for a Black Widow was a conscious attempt at a return to form. Alice in Hell vocalist Randy Rampage was brought back, and the songwriting is at its most focused since the days at Roadrunner. The band could never hope to replicate that era’s rawness as Waters’ techniques are much more polished and Rampage’s voice is an aged croak, but there are plenty of great tracks on here. “Bloodbath” and “Back to the Palace” are excellent old school thrashers, “Schizos are Never Alone (Part 3)” may be the band’s strongest instrumental to date, and “Nothing Left” and “Loving the Sinner” are driven by compelling desperation. A couple awkward tracks keep it shy of essential status, but it remains a highlight.
Final Grade: A-
3) Waking the Fury
If Waking the Fury had better production, it would be mentioned in the same breath as late-era thrash classics like Ironbound and Tempo of the Damned. The ever-buzzing guitar tone may be a deal breaker for some, but the riffs are among the most intense that Waters ever played and are accompanied by Randy Black’s equally relentless drumming and Comeau’s adept howl. There’s still room for fun in the AC/DC stylings of “Nothing to Me” but the meat of this record is balls to the wall thrash. “Ultra-Motion” is among the band’s most powerful openers, “Torn” balances catchiness and speed, “My Precious Lunatic Asylum” is a dangerously elaborate voyage, and tracks like “Striker” and “The Blackest Day” are adventurous adrenalizers. It’s a damn shame that Comeau left after this release as it is easily on the same level as the first two, if not outright superior.
Final Grade: A
2) Never, Neverland
In hindsight, it’s miraculous that Annihilator’s sophomore album didn’t kill the band. I can only imagine how shocking it was back in the day to go from Alice in Hell’s rawness and gritty vocals to Never, Neverland’s flashy polish and melodicism, especially in just a year’s time. Thankfully the continued emphasis on Waters’ blinding rhythms and signature melodies was more than enough to justify the name connection. More varied songwriting also worked in the band’s favor as “The Fun Palace” and the title track are sweeping yet compact epics, “Stonewall” aims for accessibility, “Phantasmagoria” beats out that lingering macabre thrash, and “Kraf Dinner” is a headbangable display of goofiness. It’s a true testament of talent when my preference between two very different albums basically amounts to a coin flip.
Final Grade: A
1) Alice in Hell
Though Annihilator’s debut album spawned the hyperactive guitar runs and quirky song variety that defines the band to this very day, it is truly in a league of its own. The tone is darker than anything else the band has ever done thanks to its raw production, consistently thrashing tempos, twisted lyrics, and a haunting aura on songs like the title track that would never be replicated. On top of that, vocalist Randy Rampage’s untrained snarl is completely devoid of the melody that would be more prevalent among his many successors yet somehow delivers the hooks on here quite nicely. It is the one Annihilator release that can be safely labeled thrash metal but is well crafted enough for any listener to get a feel for it. It may not be Annihilator’s most representative album overall, but there’s a reason why it got so much hype back in ’89 and remains so well regarded.
Final Grade: A