ANNIHILATOR – No Surrender
August 2013 studio full-length Feast – the 14th overall from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada-based thrash metal outfit Annihilator – was preceded by May 2010 outing Annihilator, that album’s respective predecessor (Metal) also having arrived three years prior in April 2007. Annihilator’s 14 studio affairs were released during a 24-year span (1989-2013), which is arguably a prolific haul.
“Writing Feast was pretty much the same as we’ve always done,” observes Jeff Waters, guitarist and founder of Annihilator. “The only difference is we had a lot more time. This was like three years between records for us. I did a lot of festivals and special touring, like the 70,000 Tons Of Metal Cruise and different fun things. We just took our time. We were going through a bit of label issues in Europe, and that took some time to resolve. We kind of took advantage of that extra time to take not only personal time off, but to slowly write the record instead of ‘Hey, here’s your schedule. You have to write the album in five months, and have it finished and delivered.’ That’s what I was used to for all of these years, but this time was alright.
“So anyway, the actual putting together was the same as always. I just write guitar riffs in my studio to a cool drum beat – just riffs, and no songs or ideas for songs. I do it part time; I go down to the studio for two to three hours, once a week. I was going down just purely to have fun and jam riffs. At the end of a couple of years when it is time to write a record – a year and a half later or whatever – I come back to my studio. I have all of these riffs, a couple of hundred, and I invite a few friends over to tell me what they honestly think of each riff. They would simply go ‘No, delete,’ or ‘That’s okay,’ or ‘Yes, that’s really good.’ I put them in folders. I delete the shitty ones, and then I do it again a few months later and weed out the weaker ones. At the end I’m then stuck with 50-60 guitar riffs, and that’s it.
“You just start working based on the fact that you know you’ve got some really cool guitar riffs. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your songs are gonna be good, but it means that you’ve got a cool guitar riff in there. You then just build the song around that, and when that music part’s done and demoed, you start thinking of lyrics and what the song feels like, and you write lyrics over it. It’s not the way everybody does it, but it seems to work for me and hopefully gives me a little bit of energy in the guitar playing, and the end result for the listener.”
Authored riffs which have yet to surface as fully realised Annihilator compositions aren’t scrapped wholesale. “Some of the riffs I think are good,” the axeman submits. “I also have a folder on my studio computer of the riffs that didn’t make it on the record, but I still think are good. Yeah, some of those end up not seeming to fit on any of the things that we’re doing. Every time I do a record, I’ve still got that folder. I’ve got riffs in there from 15 years ago that haven’t been used, but somehow I still keep calling them good riffs (laughs). Maybe eventually they’ll make it somewhere.”
These aforementioned riffs will not form the basis of a solo project. “I think if I was gonna do a solo thing, then I probably would’ve done it a long time ago,” Jeff ponders. “Annihilator really keeps me busy, simply because I do most of the things in the band. I basically manage, and book with an agency. When we’re doing the records, I’m writing all of the music, writing most of the lyrics and melodies, and producing, mixing, engineering, and mastering the album, so that’s a lot. I spend a lot of time doing all of these crazy jobs, from booking flights to getting a hold of tax papers from different governments. When you play shows, sometimes the countries have laws where they keep taxes until you fill out proper documents and take them to your tax department, get them stamped, and send them back. There are all of these crazy, crazy jobs involved that have nothing to do with you playing your music, or writing your music. It keeps you as busy as hell.”
To maintain a proficient standard of ability, the mainman practices prior to scheduled live performances and guitar clinics. “It’s all muscle,” he explains. “It’s all rebuilding muscle, so usually I figure it takes me two weeks to get playable and three to four weeks to start going ‘Hey, I’m really playing pretty good now.’ I usually give myself two weeks before guitar clinics or rehearsing, to start thinking about touching the guitar. By the time we finish rehearsals, I’m usually ready to go. There’s the point too that if you do too much practising and you do it for so many years – all the shows, and all that kind of stuff – you may be practising and building muscle, but you’re also wearing your bone down in your finger in your hand where you pick the guitar. You’re wearing your system down, your bones down. It’s actually better to not play as much, and just to warm up properly before you play.”
Jeff’s warning is rooted in the benefit of experience. “I already have that in my right thumb area and wrist,” he informs. “My problem is if I was just playing guitar, then I wouldn’t have this problem. I also work in the studio and record my records and other things, and I also take care of the business stuff. All that involves your right hand being on a computer mouse for incredible amounts of time, and that combined with the guitar playing is deadly for a guitar player. Unfortunately, when I chose to manage and take of a lot of the business myself, that’s the price you pay. I enjoy not touching the guitar to save my arm (laughs). I’m not at all anywhere near a point where it affects my playing, but it could. If I wanted to, I could probably ruin in my hand in probably two weeks – if I really wanted to (laughs). I’ve got it under control though, so it’s not a problem.”
The composer’s ailments have proven to be an issue during certain past live situations. “On some tours, yes there have been issues,” he concedes. “That’s usually been directly related to how much computer time I’ve spent in the studio or in the office. I really try my best to use the breaks when I can. Actually in the last couple of years, when I’m in the studio recording I take a lot more breaks away from right-hand mouse computing. Not lately, but in the last few years I’ve put a basketball net outside my driveway. I haven’t done that in 2013, but I’ve gone outside and taken breaks every 45 minutes. I’ve gone outside and played basketball, because it loosens your wrists and your hands up, and your neck.”
May 2010 platter Annihilator was the ensemble’s lone Earache Records effort, Earache being the European label Jeff cited issues with. “There were basically just disagreements on a few things – just basically contractual, legal things,” he divulges. “Things that were in the contract that were… Yeah, that’s about all I can say about that one. More legal things, just disagreements on what it says in there. We basically all decided that we were not gonna work together any more, and that took a while to resolve. It took a couple of years to sort that out, but we’ve moved on. That’s about it.”
The axe-slinger’s comments suggest he feels that Earache didn’t honour contractual obligations. “Hmm, good question,” he commends. “No comment (laughs). That’s it for that one.”
To oversee the release of August 2013’s Feast, Annihilator inked a record contract with UDR Music. “We’ve just been talking to a bunch of labels since I guess December 2012 or whatever, and had some well-known companies talking with us,” Jeff discloses. “We talked with Napalm, and we talked about a deal with Nuclear Blast as well. Century Media we spoke to at some point. It wasn’t totally serious. With a couple of the companies that I mentioned, we actually went through the first contract phase where they actually send you a contract. Then we made notes, spoke to them about it, and politely argued a little bit about the terms, and tried to negotiate and all that.
“It just seemed like the people at UDR, a lot of them come from the old SPV label background. I already knew them, and they seem like really nice and honest people. They know what they’re doing. They’re just nice people, so I figured I could put a bit more trust in this. Plus, they know what they’re doing, so that really helps out. I decided to go with them. UDR are a new label, but also know what they’re doing. UDR seemed to get it, and didn’t really want to play any games. They just wanted to be honest, and tell us what they thought. I figured I would give them a shot.”
Annihilator’s pact with UDR is a global agreement. “I think this was finally the first deal that I’ve done worldwide in a long, long time,” the guitarist notes. “Since 1994 I’ve been just separating them, and doing a deal for Europe, doing a deal for Japan, doing one for Australia, doing one for… Just separating the business, and doing one thing in each territory. We’ll see what happens with UDR.”
13th studio full-length Annihilator underwent solely digital issue in North America, a situation UDR might rectify. “I think the UDR label might pick that up there eventually in the next little while,” Jeff acknowledges. “At least this one gets in there – that’ll be a good start. I think they have at least a few albums from our catalogue that will be re-released, like All For You (October 2004), Schizo Deluxe (November 2005), Double Live Annihilation (March 2003). There are some other titles as well. We’ll see if we can get the self-titled record out sometime.”
Compared to its predecessor, the Annihilator founder reckons Feast has “a bit more diversity. I’ve even stepped up the guitar playing as far as ability. I’ve stepped it up even further, because I keep pushing myself to do it for some strange reason. I don’t know why, but I just really pushed myself on the guitar this time. What else? Again, it’s got a bit of diversity. It’s got a little funky stuff in some of the stuff, it’s got a ballad, it’s got some anger, and it’s got some thrash metal or whatever. It seems to have a lot of little, neat, catchy hooks, even though the music is kind of heavy. I don’t know. It’s hard to really describe it. An Annihilator record is either gonna be a better one than last time, similar, or not as good. It’s almost like you’ve just gotta form your own opinion. You just let the album go, and let the label, the press, and the fans do what they like or don’t like. We’re kind of excited about this one, though. We’ve got a good feeling here, but we’ll see what happens.”
That description – “a bit more diversity” – perhaps fails to extend towards Jeff’s guitar work, however. “It wasn’t so much the guitar work,” he corrects. “The guitar work is fast and a little bit difficult in the picking hand for sure, but really, there’s more of a drum groove. Even though there are thrash parts and fast stuff, there’s more of a bass and drum vibe to this record than simply playing fast with double bass, and stopping and starting. This one has a little more drumming in it, if that makes any sense. Not from a guitar player’s perspective, but from a drummer’s perspective. I think the songs are a little more diverse than the last one, for sure.”
Feast was cut at the axeman’s home studio, where all Annihilator studio full-lengths have been recorded since October 1994’s King Of The Kill. Relatively little new studio equipment was purchased between records 13 and 14. “None at all, except the EVH 5153 amplifiers,” he shares. “That’s the only difference. Oh yeah, and drum software too. We used fix-ups and replaced some sounds to make things sound better. With the drums we used a program by Toontrack called The Metal Foundry, and I also use that for writing. It’s like a drum software program too where you can create your own beats, so I use that to jam on my riffs. Other than that though and the Eddie Van Halens amps, I used the same things. I have a new signature overdrive guitar pedal that I used as well, but other than that, there were no equipment changes. I don’t think I’ll change anything up for a while, unless I’m being brave of course.”
Several guitars were used during recording. “On one or two songs, there’s a little bit of classical guitar,” Jeff specifies. “In the background on a few songs, there’s the guitar I used to record the very first Annihilator song on the Alice In Hell record (September 1989), called ‘Crystal Ann’. I used a really cool Epiphone, country kind of acoustic guitar. I used my Epiphone Annihilation V, and for some solos I used a couple of Van Halen replica guitars, and a Fender Stratocaster.”
Feast’s solitary ballad surfaces in the shape of ‘Perfect Angel Eyes’. “A lot of fans have been screaming ‘Why have you left the ballads and the melodic instrumental things off your records for the last half a decade?,’ or whatever it is,” the mainman reasons. “I was like ‘Okay, I’ll put some of those on,’ because I like writing those kinds of songs. ‘Perfect Angel Eyes’ is a lovely song, and is the sixth track on the record. It’s a real love song kind of ballad, a lovey-dovey song for my fiancée – we’ve been engaged for about six months. It’s a little melodic kind of song – it’s very melodic. I think it’s kind of different than our other ballads.”
Aggression lyrically unites many of Feast’s compositions. “Not necessarily in the singing, but definitely in the lyrics,” Jeff critiques. “There are a few angry songs on this one I think, a lot of ‘F.U.’ songs on there. Sometimes I’m pissed off at something, like a label, a friend, or if something goes wrong. I could be angry at something – anything. It’s great. You can write a song about it, but you don’t have to specifically talk about the person. You can turn it into something a little different, or more general. I did that on a few songs.
“The second song on there is called ‘No Way Out’. I think that’s my favourite song on the record, and the idea for that one was spawned from a trial that’s going on in the United States right now – about a girl that murdered her ex-boyfriend. It’s been one of those sensationalised, on TV all of the time trials. We got totally hooked on that trial. We were watching it on TV, and I was always telling her ‘I would like to write a song about this. It’s pissing me off. I’m angry at this girl, and the whole thing. I want to write a song.’ It was like ‘No. You don’t wanna go there,’ but then I finally said ‘Screw it.’ I wrote a song about it. I don’t care (laughs).
“We played that live on our South American tour, just to try it out live. I think it’s definitely my favourite song on the album so far. It’s got a funky little… Okay, this is not comparable in any way and it does not sound like it, but you know ‘Toxic Waltz’ by Exodus (from January 1989’s Fabulous Disaster)? It’s got some real kind of groove to it, and Testament sometimes come up with that kind of rhythm and bass kind of groove. This song is nothing like those, but it reminds me of that kind of groove where you’re really not headbanging, but sort of bobbing your head up and down the whole way through the song. I don’t know. There’s just something about that song that makes it one of my favourites.”
Weighed against its earlier counterparts, Annihilator’s latter day material treads differing ground, the lyricist argues. “I think we’ve gone a little bit in our own direction after the last couple of records,” he judges. “We started veering off, and not repeating a lot of the things that we had been repeating. I think subconsciously, I had been repeating some of the older riffs. Now, I think we’ve moved away from being too influenced by the past stuff.”
Annihilator’s musical influences remain the same, however. “I don’t think there’s really…,” Jeff muses. “There have been little things that I’ve heard through people around me playing things or playing me something, or hearing something on YouTube or whatever. A few little things might creep in here and there, but generally, no. I reached a peak level of practising the guitar around 1990, and that’s when I stopped practising and trying to learn new things, and improve things and all that. I had so much practising and so much knowledge that I learned so quickly that I just said ‘Okay, that’s enough. Now I can write songs, and now I can play good enough to do what I need to do.’ I’d rather do something else with my band like playing, or do something in my personal life, than just sit in my room eight hours a day getting better, better, and better technically on the guitar. I listened to so many bands in the past that they’re still stuck in my brain. That influence will come out until the day I die.
“Like I told you, I do all of this work with Annihilator outside of just playing and writing the music. It takes up a lot of my time. I go to quite a few concerts. We do a lot of shows, and I spend time in the studio with other bands, mixing and mastering and things like that. I just don’t want music playing when I’ve got a break. I actually have complete quiet or watch TV or a movie, so it isn’t like the old days where I just blasted metal 24 hours a day. It’s more like that my life is metal, so when I get a break from it I usually want silence.”
Music outside of the heavy metal frame framework audibly surface in Annihilator’s compositions. “You can always hear those clips,” the axe-slinger accepts. “You know when you hear an Annihilator riff that there’s some in the thrashy, Slayer’y wannabe kind of vein, and then you know when there’s a funky, little jazzy part or a blues part that came from something else outside of metal. The ballad stuff, even that. There might be traces of classical or something in there, but if you look back at the history of metal… Even around the 80s or whatever, Iron Maiden did ballads, Judas Priest did ballads, Ozzy Osbourne with Randy Rhoads did ballads, and with Zakk Wylde Ozzy did ballads. Even ‘Cemetery Gates’ or whatever by Pantera (from July 1990’s Cowboys From Hell). That’s the beauty of heavy metal, that heavy metal is influenced by everything from classical to pop to punk to jazz to speed. It’s all in there.”
A musical influence on Annihilator, Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman succumbed to alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver on May 2nd, 2013 at the age of 49. “I met him, but I never knew him,” the other Jeff remembers. “I met him a few times at concerts and stuff, but I never had any discussions with him. I’ve had more discussions with Kerry King. When Jeff passed it’s hard to explain, because I didn’t know him personally. I was just grieving from the perspective of his family, his band members, and his management, that people close to him must’ve been really hurting. I was sad for them, but for me it was sad in the sense that I realised really quickly how big of an influence he specifically had – and Kerry King of course. He had an influence on me as a teenager listening to the Haunting The Chapel EP (June 1984). ‘Chemical Warfare’, ‘Chapter Of Sin’, and all of these great, great early Slayer songs, and then onto of course all of the other great albums like Reign In Blood (October 1986) and everything. Yeah though, he was a huge part of the whole metal and thrash / punk movement.”
One arguably becomes more acutely aware of one’s own mortality when such fatalities occur. “Every time you read something on news sites about somebody passing away or somebody getting cancer of course you think about it, but you can’t dwell on that,” the guitarist cautions. “Any of us can go at any time for any reason. Be careful with what you’re doing. If you can avoid physical, dangerous situations then great, but other than that, you just can’t think about things like that.”
Mike Harshaw stepped behind the drumkit during Feast’s recording sessions. “What he did is he came to my studio and played on electronic drumpads, those kind of fake drumkits that are more electronic pads so you don’t make too much noise,” Jeff chuckles. “A lot of bands do that, and then you play along to the finished guitar and bass tracks. We then used that Toontracks / Metal Foundry program to put the really good sounds in, and fix a few things up. He just basically tried to tighten up what the drum was playing, and make it sound tighter. The thing about that is it’s very tempting to make it perfect, but that’s when it sounds like a robot machine.”
Mike wasn’t wholly responsible for the record’s drum groove, though. “I’d say I came up with about 80% of that, and then Mike sort of really added in some really cool stuff that a guitar player like me couldn’t add, stuff that only a drum player could add,” the founder relates. “That’s kind of what I was missing for a little while, since I had Mike Mangini in the band.”
Feast marks the fourth studio full-length opus to be recorded with vocalist Dave Padden. “It’s been ten years now, so that’s really cool,” Jeff enthuses. “He’s more of a partner. He’s involved in a lot of the decisions about the records, about where we’re going with certain songs. Not musically, but with lyrics, melodies, and things like that. He’s actually somebody who’s really good now for me to bounce ideas off of and get opinions from, and he’s a good lyric writer. Especially on the road, too. It’s kind of neat, because for a few years now he actually takes over a lot of the little things on his own. He’ll take over, and explain to the musicians about certain things – new countries and rules, respect and etiquette, and the soundcheck, and how things work. All these little things that you do when you’re touring. He sort of takes over and teaches those guys now, so that’s kind of a load off of my back.”
Although his Annihilator tenure spans across a decade at the time of writing, Dave Padden’s Annihilator status isn’t equal to the axeman’s. “Well, no never, but very close,” he muses. “You’ve always gotta give him his opinion and really consider it, because often he’s right. He’s also someone who listens to a lot of music all of the time. He’s always got his headphones on; he’s always listening to all of the old and new metal stuff. He’s got some good opinions, that’s for sure. Of course when you get people who know what they’re doing, you need to get their opinions, otherwise you would definitely not go anywhere eventually.”
Annihilator lends itself to the impression that it is actually a solo entity, as opposed to a group endeavour. “I think up to around 2005, it was,” Jeff confesses. “I think that’s when Dave sort of stepped in, and for some reason I naturally started calling him or emailing him, asking questions about what he thinks. That was the first step, and it just evolved into where it feels like it’s his band too in a way. I mean, come on. I write all of the music, and I don’t need him to write lyrics. I could just write them all by myself, and produce, mix, master, and engineer the record, and do the stuff. Clearly it’s still my baby and I could just do the whole bloody thing myself, but he’s such an important part of the band right now to me, and now finally to a lot of fans. It’s just more of a partnership in the way we tour, and in the way we rock.”
The names Jeff Waters and Annihilator are synonymous, much in the same way the pairing of Dave Mustaine and Megadeth are. “Yeah, pretty much,” the mainman admits. “I guess that I let him in a lot more than maybe Dave Mustaine lets other guys in, though. But remember, I was the same… Hey, there is a similarity though with Dave and I. Dave and I think the same way; it’s our baby, it’s our band, and we hire the other people. The only small difference is that Dave Padden has just sort of crept into this position of being more of a partner now, that’s all.”
Dave Padden’s studio output count as Annihilator’s frontman surpasses the respective output count from past vocalists where microphone duties are concerned. Prior to Dave’s addition to the ranks, the identity of Annihilator’s vocalist changed on a seemingly frequent basis. “Since it was never really a full band – an equal band kind of thing – I ended up looking for…,” Jeff elaborates. “The first singer, for example. Randy Rampage, to be specific. He was perfect for the band and just perfect for Alice In Hell, but he actually quit the band because he had a job back in Vancouver. We were on a tour with Testament in 1989, but near the end of the tour, Randy Rampage said that he was leaving the tour because he was gonna lose his job back in Vancouver. We tried, and Roadrunner tried, and managers tried to keep him. We tried to basically pay him more money to do whatever we had to do to keep him, but he left.
“I was stuck after a big album called Alice In Hell trying to find a singer, so I got the second singer called Coburn Pharr. We did a bigger album called Never, Neverland (September 1990), but then basically there was just too much partying going on. It was just craziness, and when you’re doing a bunch of stuff that you shouldn’t be doing, you kind of don’t act reasonable. When you don’t act reasonable you cause problems, and so he had to leave the band. We then got a third guy for the third record Set The World On Fire (August 1993), but he went after that album. He went back home and started a family, because that’s what he wanted to do. On the fourth one I sang, and I sang for two records after that. I couldn’t fire myself for a while. It was just more bad luck, but at the same time it was good luck because those singers all were very, very important reasons why those first four Annihilator albums were very special.”
‘Deadlock’ inaugurates Feast, meanwhile. “It’s not like that’s the best one – it just seems like that was the way to start it out,” the songwriter contends. “It actually starts off not the way I would want it to, but it just fit. It was sort of like old Metallica, off of the Kill ’Em All record (July 1983) or something. It’s just the way it ended up on there, I guess.”
Feast’s album title was inspired by its eventual cover artwork. The artwork was designed by Hungarian artist Gyula Havancsák, who has overseen artwork duties since October 2004’s All For You. “The cover was done, and it had the amazingly brand new, ground-breaking concept of zombies,” Jeff jokes. “Well, not really ground-breaking. I didn’t initially want zombies on the cover of an Annihilator record, but at the same time, when I saw the artwork it was… And the model on the cover was made up with make-up, plus the artist did some things. When I first saw it, I was like ‘Holy shit, that’s a cool cover.’ Zombies is not what I would have wanted, but at the same time this was too cool of a cover not to use, and we didn’t have a title. I think the main shot is one of the main zombie girls biting into some flesh, or a heart, or doing something like that. I can’t remember – a piece of meat, or whatever it was. I was just scrolling through a thesaurus or a dictionary though, looking for one word that could relate to that cover. I got to the word ‘feast’, and stopped. I looked at the cover, and looked back at the word. I went ‘Okay, that’s it right there’.”
Certain Annihilator fanatics might perceive the artwork’s central subject to be a zombified version of Alison Hell. “Not really, but there’s a smaller, little zombie on the front right of the cover which is kind of a throwback to the last album – some crazy, psycho freaky ghost zombie on the front of the last album cover,” the axe-slinger describes. “The main girl on the front of the Feast cover is actually a model, again in make-up, and painted by the artist. I guess it can all kind of tie in in some way, though. When you look at it, you can go ‘Oh, Okay. That must be Annihilator.’”
“The artist originally came up with this kind of idea, and then we got the model to do the photoshoot. He then sent those photos to the artist, and he put his background in behind her picture. Then he messed around with his tools, and did some work on what she looked like.”
Entitled Re-Kill, Feast’s bonus disc consists of 15 Annihilator re-recordings, the compositions selected from across the outfit’s back catalogue. “I had never liked the idea,” Jeff tells. “I was kind of shying away from the idea of ever re-recording one song, because those songs were in the past, done, and were good for what they were then. I just didn’t want to touch those things, incase we screwed them up. You couldn’t make them better than the originals, basically. Dave came up with the idea of maybe using that as a bonus disc, rather than a release on its own. Maybe just taking the songs that we were eventually probably gonna play live from the old stuff, and do them with him singing so people can hear that.
“They can go to the show, and hear the same guy singing the same version. Also, a lot of the fans that we have now seem to be younger. A lot of people have been saying ‘Hey, we can’t find the six or seven albums in the middle of your career.’ They’re really hard to get, so we figured we would put a lot of songs from those albums on this bonus thing. You can pick up the disc, and also get 15 songs from the middle and early years of Annihilator. Older fans can get a kick out of hearing the new guy singing them in a different way. They’ll like it or they won’t like it, but still they’ll be able to hear those songs.”
Feast was released in Europe on August 23rd, 2013 and subsequently on the 27th in North America, all via UDR Music.
Interview published in August 2013.
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