A technical exercise
Alice in Hell is the album upon which Annihilator’s reputation rests for many; hailed as a speed/thrash classic in the genre’s waning years, it is seen as their creative zenith before a gradual descent toward the bottom of the barrel. Despite this however, it’s an album that consistently failed to elicit any sort of reaction from me. It isn’t that there isn’t quality here, because there most assuredly is, but more that there’s an intangible factor to it that is fundamentally lacking, something that prevents me from connecting to the music at all. To give a brief run-down of what that music sounds like, this is a technical speed/thrash metal album. It isn’t technical in the sense of it being loaded with shredding, unusual time signatures, off kilter drum patterns, odd song structures or the like, but more that the riffs on this album are pretty much speed/thrash riffs that jam as many notes as possible into a given space. This may sound superficial or not that impressive but quite honestly, the riffs on this album are remarkably detailed, varied, and well-constructed, and there are quite a few in a given song. Pound-for-pound this album is up there with the likes of Rust in Peace or Killing Technology for masterful, flawless guitarwork; it is truly a milestone for thrash riffing.
Where this album falls down is the feel of the music – for all the technical mastery going on here riff-wise, the music leaves the listener cold. It is a remarkably sterile album, more so than most others in the tech or prog metal realms, and for all the aggression and energy here the music inspires nothing in the listener beyond a detached appreciation for the riffing. The problem is that these songs really do not feel like songs, or at least they don’t feel like they were written as songs. What this sounds like instead is a glorified guitarist’s riff tape, one that somehow got distributed by a label and features accompaniment from a backing band. Despite the guitarwork being fashioned into structured songs with verse-chorus structures, every track here feels like an arbitrary collection of riffs. It’s not that the album is guitar-focused, as most metal is driven by the guitars, but more that the guitars here aren’t just one part of a collective unit. Instead, they *are* the entire band, and not even in a fashion similar to shred as on a good shred album there’s an emotional experience that is conveyed by the guitar theatrics on offer, whereas there is no journey to be had here.
These songs exist as vehicles to deliver riffs, and while in a sense that’s what a lot of good thrash metal does here it’s done in the most mechanical, unsatisfying way possible. Something like Rust in Peace has riffs woven into actual songs and have drum parts, leads and vocals to suit them and add to their impact. Meanwhile the drumming, solos and vocals here are serviceable but they could be removed and the impact of the music would be the same. The vocals are gritty shouts and shrieks with a level of expression and flamboyance typical of ’80s metal; Randy here is certainly an entertaining frontman but even with the guitarwork to back him up he feels entirely extraneous to the album. The same goes for the drumming, which for all its double bass and fills and general sense of energy adds nothing to the album. Neither of them contributes anything to the music, because honestly it feels like there is no music here. There are structured songs, into which riffs are placed, but they leave the listener so cold they flat out do not come across like them – it feels like you could swap the places of the riffs in two given tracks and the effect either track had would be the same. This isn’t a problem with production and/or performances either; everything certainly sounds clear and punchy and everything is delivered competently enough – the vocals even being rather exuberant – and it isn’t as if the music is lazy. It certainly takes a lot of creativity, passion and talent to make riffs like these, the problem is they aren’t put together in an interesting way.
I realise I’m in the minority on this album, and that the criticisms here might be arbitrary and point to something vague, but there is no other way to convey what is wrong here – it has both the style and substance of any number of classics from the time but it still manages to lack something. Music should elicit some sort of emotional response in the listener, and this album never does that. For all its shrieking vocals, double bass, wild soloing and endless stream of riffs, this fails to feel like anything more than riffs arbitrarily plugged into 8 identically structured arbitrary compositions. It manages to be so sterile it doesn’t even feel like music; it merely feels like a technical exercise from a talented guitarist. I can absolutely recommend this to any metal guitarist who wishes to hone their technique or learn how to make some truly amazing riffs, but beyond that there is no enjoyment to be had out of this. Alice in Hell is one of the greatest collection of riffs in all of metal but as music, this is truly an unmitigated failure.