ANNIHILATOR “Ballistic Beyond Belief” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

When you start your music career at the top, it puts a ton of pressure on your later output. Ask Jeff Waters, guiding force behind Canadian thrashers ANNIHILATOR. The band’s first LP “Alice In Hell” was so perfect in conception and execution that it was considered almost impossible to properly follow up. Amazingly, many felt that the sophomore ANNIHILATOR album “Never Never Land” did as good a job as possible of following the sterling example of “Alice In Hell”...a terrific one-two musical punch that only the best of the best could pull off.

Since “Never Never Land”, though, ANNIHILATOR has struggled to match the great start to their career.  The band has been prolific and hard at work trying to capture lightning in the bottle...and falling short, not only according to the omnipresent music press but to Waters himself.

On the band’s 17th studio album “Ballistic, Sadistic”, Waters feels he has succeeded at last. I’m inclined to believe him, because this effort has the indefinable “it” factor that surrounds a classic. The record scorches all the way through, mixing aggressive technical thrash with memorable melody and songcraft. 

I hooked up with Jeff recently and WOW, does this guy have a lot to say. He’s a verbal machine gun brimming with ideas and opinion...the conversational equivalent of the blazing riffs he churns forth. He really bares his soul here, touching on the difficulties of meeting expectations and crafting classic tunes. Along the way, he speaks about his many influences and how they all melded together to form the entity known as ANNIHILATOR. It’s a wild ride inside the head of a master metal engineer…

Strap yourself in and prepare to go ballistic...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES:  The album “Ballistic, Sadistic” has now been out on the market for a while. Are you pleased with the response to it? Was it what you thought it would be?

JEFF WATERS:  It’s funny because you do these records sometimes and you finish it up...we finished this one up at the end of August last year with all the mixing and mastering...and it’s like a whole new year and a whole new life. We did a two month tour in Europe and some other things. It’s funny when I hear somebody talk about the record and I go “oh, that old thing!” (laughs). You gotta put yourself in the frame of mind that it is old to you, but still new to a lot of people and they might want to pick it up and have a listen. When you’re the main songwriter of a band who hires all the guys to help with the recording and touring, when you’re the main guy who plays most of the instruments in the studio and managing and booking and putting everything together and basically managing the whole band, when you’ve been doing that for 17 records, it’s really hard for ANY band to have a great record consistently for 30 years . I look at my favorite bands like PRIEST and MAIDEN and VAN HALEN, SCORPIONS, KISS, SLAYER, METALLICA...I’ve got all the albums and CDs from those bands and I’m quite certain that people like me and you who listen to all the albums from their favorite bands, we don’t listen to every single CD. We have a “go to” bunch of CD’s that we like the best. If bands could tap some kind of drug or magic formula so every album would be as good as “Back In Black” or “Reign In Blood” or “Master of Puppets”, we would all be doing these incredibly classic albums nonstop but the truth is you can’t. You just can’t do it. Different things happen in your life.

WC: I wonder if it’s even advisable to have every album in your career be a super classic album. People wouldn’t appreciate it as much!

JW:  Yeah, for sure! You cannot do the same things you did years before. For songwriters, artists, painters or anybody who creates anything, you’re in a different frame of mind and a different place when you do this stuff. One thing I did like, and this kind of relates to my record in a way, is that I was always the kind of hardcore fan where it was always the first four METALLICA albums that worked best for me. And I know that the “Black” album was a great commercial success, the production from Bob Rock and Randy Staub was amazing. The band took it to a different level in a different area and the band exploded even more in popularity when they were already huge. The song “Fuel” I really liked, but I was one of those guys where no, it was the first four albums that were METALLICA. I was one of those old school farts.  After “Justice”, I lost it a bit. 

But then I remember when “Death Magnetic” came out. Well, I’m a fan, I’m going to buy it anyway, I don’t care if it’s an album I don’t really like. I heard a guy say that it was a kind of return to the roots of  “And Justice For All”. I went, yeah, right. As if METALLICA can go back recapture what they were about in the Garage Days. So I got it and I remember sitting in my Camaro in Vancouver and cruising around in my Camaro the day I got it. I put it on and I will never forget, as a fan and a musician, cranking it up and cruising through the city, I listened to it 2 times. I went through it 2 times in full. And I found myself criticizing it...”Ah, that sounds like a “Justice for All” riff. Then I realized as I was driving and after the second run, holy shit, I’ve been smiling the whole time, I’ve been banging my head the whole time and I almost killed myself. And I loved the fact that the record brought me back to the METALLICA that I loved and was a fan of. And I really think that that is the best you can do when you’re a band that has put many records out over a long period of time, like METALLICA and ANNIHILATOR.  If you can have some songs, like the song “Psycho Ward” on my new album, that reminds folks of that song on the “Never Never Land” album, my biggest selling album, called “Stonewall”. That made me smile and remember that song. If you can get people to do that 20 or 30 years later, that is called success. And that’s pretty cool!

WC: Was the main idea when you went into the studio to reclaim the early sound of ANNIHILATOR or was that just the happy by product of a natural process?

JW:     Yes and no. Both, because first of all the sound of ANNIHILATOR is mostly me. When the vocals are happening with any singer or my vocal, I’m producing those vocals. And I’m writing all the lyrics. And also I’m writing all the melodies and the drum tracks and bass parts and guitar parts. Now I do have co-writers and some of them have been essential to how good a song would turn out but when you hear all the singers, you hear different voices but it’s always my vocal production and my influence on how those vocals are done. I”ll demo the vocals on CD and let them kind of clone it but add their own thing and make it sound like them. When you go back and try to get to the roots, it can be done and it’s probably been done sometimes, but it usually fails because how can you possibly go back 20 year, 30 years or however long it is and do it exactly? You just can’t do it! It’s just a different time completely, it’s different technology! There might have been different band members at that earlier time, you might have been drunk or smoking a joint. Now all of a sudden you’re married and you got three kids and you got bills to pay. That’s going to change your perspective. Family relationships, friends, work, getting wiser, getting stupider...anything you can imagine can affect your output. You can’t go back and clone yourself.

Now there are bands that I really respect and am influenced by. I remember this band called JUDAS PRIEST. They came out in their bluesy early days like “Rocka Rolla” and did all this ground-breaking stuff. And then they changed their style and started evolving. They weren’t throwing stuff against the wall to make it commercially successful and it was so good because it was a natural evolution. They weren’t like, oh, we have to write a popular song. PRIEST could never have done that doing what they did. Every time they were doing something like “Point of Entry” or “British Steel” or “Defenders of the Faith”...those were all completely different in their style and approach. A lot of people at the time didn’t realize that.  Everybody has their favorite PRIEST album because they’re all great in their own way. Priest wound up being a couple of decades old after putting out the most classic stuff...they never really had to do anything aftter “British Steel” and “Screaming For Vengeance”. They never had to do anything else to cement their legacy of doing some of the best twin guitar heavy rock around. So what happens? They make a drummer change and they come about with this unbelievable drum barrage and leads off their new album. They got this singer who has been around for decades coming out with the most incredible banshee screaming style. They’ve got a new sound using a Rockman, which is an old guitar effect created by Tom Scholz from BOSTON. They had a ripping guitar solo that went on for two straight minutes from Glenn Tipton, who never had to write another note to be one of the top legends in guitar playing. He went back to school and learned that Paul Gilbert RACER X style of guitar soloing. After 14 records or so, they put out “Painkiller” and blew the world away!

So after that, I had it in my head that I could never write perfect albums, but I have to try and write the best I can because of the artistic side of things. I have to believe in what I do and try. Not to make a lot of money and get my face on the cover of magazines but just because I can. And I have fans who will say, man, maybe Waters doesn’t hit the nail on the head every time, sometimes he’s too commercial, sometimes he’s too heavy, sometimes he writes goofy lyrics but if I don’t like this album, I might like the next one because he’s putting in the effort. And that might lead to more people finding out about us. We do very well everywhere in the world except North America. North Americans have trouble finding us because we haven’t got the right record deals. I think people are finally figuring out that hey, this guy likes what he’s doing and he’s true to it. That’s what I also loved about PRIEST. Except maybe for the album “Turbo”, you remember that one?

WC: Yeah, unfortunately. 

JW:  I loved the record, there’s a couple of songs I really like on there. But the band themselves….not my criticism, it came from the band themselves...was that they were obviously trying to hit the big time. Because a lot of the bands they toured with, like Maiden, were getting the big success and they weren’t at that time. To me, they were the biggest band in the world. But the “Turbo” album was targeted to hit the big time, play on the radio and bring them up to a level that other bands they knew were at. Other than that, these guys were just ground-breaking every time they put a record out in the 70’s and 80’s. I’ve always kind of looked to them as an inspiration and realized that I’m not going to be successful in a huge way. I could have taken the road early in my career of sticking with the same singer, the same lineup and the same style every time so I could get on the cover of magazines and do big endorsements and all that kind of stuff. I realized in the early days that as long as I was selling enough records somewhere in the world like Europe where I could keep getting record deals and make enough money to to keep touring, that would be enough for me.  I haven’t self-promoted in North America until recently. We’ve tried to come back and get a record deal again after we were dropped in 1993. Whenever I came back here, labels would say, hey, man, you were never a big band here, you’e wiser than most bands that we sign, we can’t sucker you into an illegal deal, a criminal deal. (laughs)
We’re not really playing a ground-breaking kind of music, we’re a combination of other band’s style. We weren’t something like PANTERA, we were more of a celebration of all the bands that influenced us. I was stunned that I couldn’t get a deal back in my home country of Canada or the States, but I understand why. Once you leave a territory and you don’t come back for a decade, forget it.

WC: One thing I really noticed on this album is that your vocals have really improved radically. How much work did that take or did it just come to you naturally?

JW:  Because of the hard work I did as a guitar player trying to sing, I’m going to totally accept your compliment and say it’s true! (laughs) I had two stints in the band where I was a singer...on our fourth album called “King of the Kill” in 1994/95. That barely got released or known at all in the US or Canada. Now I’m not being a showoff, I’m just telling it as it happened….my girlfriend at the time and my former singer John Bates who was around in the demo days both said, why don’t you sing? Well, I said I can’t sing, I’m not a Hetfield or Mustaine. I don’t think my voice is good enough. They both said, no, go ahead and do it! The interesting story from this is the record was unknown here, but it was a big hit in Europe and an even bigger hit in Japan. It was kind of an ANVIL type story. We were second only to BON JOVI’s “Bed of Roses” over there. I’d go to shopping malls in Japan when we were brought over there, I’d go to a clothing store or a restaurant and our songs would be playing! It was very surreal, it never happened to me before. That was my voice I was hearing and it wasn’t that good, it’s just the songs and the time was right for us in Europe and Japan. That record was very heavy metal based, not thrash metal based. 

So I had to learn how to play guitar and sing and I wasn’t very good at it. Even in a studio without computers, I had to sing parts a hundred times until it sounded good enough. But when you put me on a stage, you have one shot at it and it wasn’t that good. I was learning. Then we did another record “Refresh the Demon” with me singing, we did some touring for that and that was it. I stopped singing until 2015. So I never had to practice. Then in 2015, I said, screw it, I’m gonna try this again. I knew that when I picked it up again I was going to have to work my ass off and it wasn’t going to come right away. That was one of my goals. I knew if I was going to do this, I’m going to have to work really hard to do this. It literally took me up until October of last year when we did a two month European tour. It took that long and that many shows. You just did two months on the road with six shows a week for two months. That’s unheard of. But for all the intense touring and work that I did, wow, I finally sang good on a record and can play it live as well as play guitar. That was the first time in my whole career where I was able to hit that level  where I ain’t gonna be a Halford or a Hetfield, but I’m good enough to get the job done.

WC: It’s not the easiest thing in the world to play a very technical kind of thrash metal and sing well at the same time. The only thing harder might be to drum and sing lead, which very few can do. 

JW: If you look at James Hetfield, and it’s also how Glenn Tipton writes his songs,too. When Tipton and KK would write songs for PRIEST, they would play one note when Halford sings. It would be a single chord or something very simple when Halford’s singing. But when he stops singing, here comes the riffs! If you listen to it that way, you will hear it. METALLICA does a similar thing. Not always, but usually.  Hetfield would write an amazing riff and then he’d sing. He would do this to help him out live. The singing would be over the more simple riff. What wasn’t simple about Hetfield is that he would pick very fast on that riff. Stopping and starting that way is difficult to do. 

Now Dave Mustaine, let’s just say he’s got his own unique vocal style. The difference with Mustaine, believe it or not,  is that he can play this technical stuff, but he doesn’t do it like Hetfield or Tipton. He will literally write a riff that’s pretty damn busy and then he will sing over it. A lot of people don’t realize that Mustaine can do his vocal style over these  crazy riffs. That’s something I have a real appreciation of, because I try to do something similar.

WC: I know all of the songs you write tend to be your babies, but was there one on “Ballistic, Sadistic” that stood out as your favorite?

JW: The history on this for me is that I realized very early on in the 90’s that not everything you write is on the same level. I know a lot of people who are rock stars, who want to get their faces on the covers of guitar magazines, they all say everything they write is great. Every album I’ve done since about the third one, I will give it some time, and the amount of time varies, and I’ll realize, fuck, there’s only 3 songs on that album that I really want to hear and play live. The other ones, I forgot how they went and I don’t want to hear them. It’s not something you can fix. When you’re writing the songs, every one is good, every one is your baby because you’re doing a record and you’re excited about it. But the reality is, you are not writing ten songs that are brilliant for every record. Remember the trend back in the days of the Seattle scene, FOO FIGHTERS and all that? It was, let’s just get one really big single and a second one if we’re lucky. SMASHING PUMPKINS was another band like that. The whole industry became, as long as as you have two killer songs we can do videos and singles for, who cares about the rest of the album? The industry very much revolved around that. I’m still from the old school where the whole damn album has to be good.  I rate my records and realistically go, shit, there were only two really good songs on that record.

In recent history, we’ve had three albums with me singing on them. “Suicide Society” in 2015, “For the Demeneted” in 2017 and now this new one. I think back and I go, wow, I wish I knew this when I was writing, but the one song that stands out for me in recent history is a song called “No Way Out” off our 2014 album called “Feast”. That’s a song I will play live for the rest of my career with ANNIHILATOR. That’s a damn good song. And it’s pretty shitty in a way because we had three albums before the new one and this is about the only one I’d listen to. That’s not because they all suck, it’s just that they are not at the same level. On “Ballistic, Sadistic”, I was excited because what we did is listen to it on the tour bus. I looked at the other guys and went, am I crazy or are there six killer songs on this album? And they’d say, yeah, dude, there’s not many albums from ANNIHILATOR where you can say there were six kick ass songs. “Alice In Hell” and “Never, Never Land” had the bulk of great songs on them and then you go to an album like “King of the Kill” which is still a successful record and I only remember one song, “King of the Kill” itself. So I rate my own albums and a lot of guys don’t do that. A lot of people in this business can’t put their ego aside and realize your shit does stint sometimes and you don’t write perfect albums and songs. It’s amazing when you get the egos out there.

WC: When I got ready for this interview, I went and looked at a lot of ANNIHILATOR videos and one I saw was “No Way Out” and that has 2 and a half million views so someone must agree with you!

JW:  You gotta remember that ANNIHILATOR is a band that pretty much have no releases or much of our back catalog even available in North America.  You can imagine if we were a band that was able to stick around in the States and keep going on a regular basis...those views might be 20 million, 30 million! We’re not as well known as we should be in North America. It’s hard to explain but if you go other countries in Europe, it’s a different world. I sure wish I’m able to get back in the States before the end of my career to play at least a few shows. We’re having a hell of a time. Here’s something that may seem like showing off but is actually pretty sad. Three of the Big Four thrash bands have offered to take my band on tour in the States and Canada. They did it because they’re always questioning why the hell aren’t you playing in the States and Canada? The bottom line is, as soon as I got these offers, I would run to label guys that I know in the States and say hey, listen, so-and-so just offered us a fuckin’ four week stadium tour. Are you going to sign us now? I’m not asking for money, I’m asking just to be signed and get the record out and play. The managers of the bands and the tour agents would come back to me and say, Jeff, if you can’t get a record release in this country, we can’t take you. Ironically, I go to these labels and say, hey, guys, I’m not asking for much at all. Just sign us for a couple of records. No big advances, just support us. This band has offered us a tour, how’s that for promotion for our new record? And the labels  would always be hesitant and say they didn’t want to take the risk.

Therefore, with me wanting to play for the small but hardcore number of ANNIHILATOR fans in the States and maybe finding some new fans by opening for some of the bands that really changed my life, I couldn’t even do that!

WC: It’s a sad situation. I remember a quote from Freddie Mercury back in the 70’s where he said that someday people would look back on this time as the Golden Age of music, a time when human beings performed music before machines took over everything. He hit it on the head. He knew what was coming.

JW: I think that metal became so big, where it was easily the number 2 or number 3 genre in the world, it was such a massive corporate money making machine, it couldn’t go much farther. It really wasn’t the fault of the glam metal bands, who get most of the blame. I think it goes back to the birth of MTV, when you had the VAN HALENs, the DEF LEPPARDs, DIRE STRAITS, “Video Killed the Radio Star” and all that. It became such a visual medium and then the labels figured out that hey, all we need is one or two singles that we can turn into videos and then people buy the records. So now the other songs don’t seem as important. This is before computers and all that stuff. Metal had joined pop and country as the biggest genre...maybe it was even bigger than country! Historically, when things get that big, they have to cycle out. Hopefully it will cycle back in at some point, but not often will it be as big as it was before. I think the glam bands were coming to the end of the cycle….all the lipstick, poofy hair and makeup. I can actually remember a time when ANNIHILATOR and SLAYER had the makeup early in their career, believe it or not! (laughs). You had stuff like WARRANT and RATT and even DOKKEN with George Lynch. And of course, MOTLEY CRUE, who were huge. Then you started to get the second tier of bands like this. C level copycats would come out with all the hairspray and lipstick and it got totally ridiculous. It was like turning on MTV to see who could have the puffiest hair and most colorful bandannas. It started with Steven Tyler, then went to MOTLEY CRUE and then it went insane.

I think that would up being a good excuse to get rid of it. OK, it’s gotten ridiculous and now it’s time for it to go.  So major labels in 1993 sent out word if you have any bands on your roster that are glam metal or thrash metal or metal period, get rid of them unless they’re selling millions of records. That’s exactly what happened and it cycled out. It came back in its own time and in a different way. PANTERA was a big part of it. We shared a bus with them when we were together on the JUDAS PRIEST “Painkiller” tour in Europe. They were an unknown support act then and they were having a new album come out soon called “Cowboys From Hell”. I had heard of them when they had the spiky hair thing going on, on the “Power Metal” album.  I didn’t know how they’d fit on the bill, but when I saw them play, I said, holy shit, you guys are playing heavy stuff! Aggressive and killer. I had missed the boat on these guys. I was expecting something else. The singer would be wearing these shorts and it was almost like a punk thing. That was never seen in the traditional metal crowd over in Europe. Half his head was shaved and he had a ton of tattoos. He would put his middle finger in the air and tell the crowd to “F off” because he wasn’t getting the right reaction. Some times the crowd would boo. You didn’t see that kind of approach with European metal. They were literally booed off the stage some nights. But it was Halford who brought them on the tour and he knew what they were going to turn into. He knew what was going to happen. To me, Phil Anselmo was the guy who changed things. He took this fuckin’ heavy raw voice stuff to a new level and a new crowd. He schooled these kids who came up in the 90’s. Today you are hearing what Phil Anselmo did to the vocalists who came after him.

WC: To be honest, there are a ton of local bands everywhere who sound like PANTERA knockoffs with the roaring vocals. It has become extremely cliched almost tot he same level the hair metal vocals were at. I keep hoping heavy music will come around big again. I can’t believe the stuff like mumble rap or bro-country with digital beats.

JW: I think we both sound like old grampas that kids make fun of. That’s what happens when you get old. But in our case, I think it’s the truth that our music was better. It’s experience and knowing the rock and roll that came out in the 70’s and how that was transformed into metal like BLACK SABBATH and BUDGIE that progresses to VAN HALEN and then to PRIEST and MAIDEN. We know what went on there. But now because of the internet, kids will see like David Lee Roth do his Las Vegas act and wonder what made him so great. 10,000 people shit on the guy on the internet and they don’t see that he was one of the greatest showmen ever.  This is one of the things that really pisses me off. People look at Gene Simmons from KISS or Angus Young from AC/DC Now Angus is one of the best blues guitar players ever, but he’s wearing a schoolboy outfit. So a big chunk of press call it a gimmick and overlook that his playing was some of the top blues playing in the history of music. Then you get a guy like Gene Simmons. Now this is a big one for me. I don’t care what he’s like personally or whether he’s arrogant or what not. When you look past that and the makeup and the blowing fire and spitting blood, the fact is, if you take the first six KISS albums, the bass playing on them is phenomenal. It’s like a John Entwhistle thing where he wasn’t just following the guitars. He had his own style and he was a genius bass player. People also forget how brilliant his voice was. I mean, he can still sing. But he got shit on because their shtick is a circus with breathing fire and putting on a damn good show. Like RAMMSTEIN!

So let’s go back to David Lee Roth, who gets shit on now for forgetting words. Go back and Google the old tours he did in 1979 or 1980 or 1984. At selected spots in the set, he would intentionally go “I forgot the words!” And he changes the words and he does it exactly the same every time. He pretended to be drunk and forget the words. He left out the words just to make it look like he didn’t give a shit. He’d sit in front of the crowd with a bottle of Jack Daniels and he could talk to an audience of 25,000 people for a half hour or more and he made it seem like they were in his living room having a party with the guy. Like Angus and like Gene Simmons, his actual talent, his vocal talent, was second to none. He was right up there but people didn’t catch on to it. And now kids will look him up on the Internet and see the first couple of Vegas shows...which he changed, by the way, when he realized he had to concentrate more on singing. So kids these days have no fuckin’ clue that Roth was one of the best frontmen along with everybody from Freddie Mercury to Rob Halford. It’s too bad that some people’s shtick and entertainment factor overshadows things and people don’t get the talent behind it!

WC: Any last words for the faithful?

JW: Just go out and give a listen to “Ballistic, Sadistic”. I know there’s always bullshit about everybody’s new album being the best ever, but after listening to me, you know I’m pretty honest about my output. This is one of the best things I’ve done. If you’re a long time fan, you’re gonna love it. If you’re a new fan, this is the best one to get a taste of ANNIHILATOR. I’d love to come play for you all and I’m always working towards that end.