Annihilator – Alice in Hell

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.

Rating: 50%

Sepultura – Chaos A.D.

Silence means death

For many, Chaos A.D. marks the beginning of the end for Sepultura – this highly divisive album is seen as their fall from grace and their first step into the pits they inhabit today. While sonically it did pave the way for the slop the band would put out after it, the transition made here is a successful one. On this album, Sepultura underwent a fairly drastic shift in sound to groove metal – obvious comparisons to Pantera can be made, with the riffs here being much simpler than on previous efforts. The band relies on texture, directness, percussive heaviness and simplicity for impact as opposed to an assault on the senses through speed and technicality. Max’s vocals always tended more towards shouting than growling but here he sounds higher pitched, a bit more monotone, consistently louder and more angry sounding. The soloing and drumming meanwhile is in fact more active and technical than on past efforts – in a similar fashion to Pantera the reduced technicality of the riffs means the soloing and drumming has been spiced up to provide more variation to the songs.

However, the feel of this album certainly isn’t merely that of a Pantera clone, as there is a distinct punk spirit running throughout the album, which manifests mainly in the focus of the music. The various songs here are much more stripped down in presentation than even something like ‘Walk’, with a lot more focus going towards big and simple messages and motifs within the songs, with anything else taking a back seat. The soloing for instance has been stripped of most of its melody, and as such they exist solely to serve the song by being a point of contrast within them for some variation. While there are a good few riffs in any given track of varying types, they are the principle motifs of the songs and exist to be as memorable as possible, with the band stripping them down to the bare minimum to make them and thus the songs as immediate and high-impact as possible. The drums exist to accentuate those riffs and give them impact by doubling up their percussive nature. The songs are built around verse-chorus song structures with very catchy, simple choruses usually consisting of just a few words, as well as simpler verses. The vocals are more straightforward too – they are there simply to relay the lyrics and as such are stripped of what little tonal variation they had. Everything exists solely to turn each song into an engaging and memorable vehicle for the band’s anger and their messages – it’s all been stripped down to the bare essentials.

Music this focused and stripped down requires a great deal of passion and creativity to get by, in a similar fashion to punk and alternative rock, and it is here where the band succeeds. They have a knack for making things stick by picking only the most memorable riffs to put in a song, as well as penning the most memorable lyrics (this album’s lyrics are full of earworms and quotables – this review’s title being one example.) The solos, while noisy, atonal and technical, never go overboard and start noodling or otherwise detracting from the focus of the songs. The drums are hit hard, and despite the simple nature of the music the drum performance is loaded with lots and lots of interesting fills (often influenced by tribal music) to back the riffs up. The guitars sound heavy, textured and thick, and the riffs are played with a great deal of conviction. The vocals too sound righteously angry, with Max making for a convincing, truly captivating frontman. It sounds as if he put his heart into the messages he is shouting forth which makes it much easier to take them seriously, and the general passion of the performances all around results in songs that feel very crucial, as if the band have to get their sounds out there. The band also does well to mix it up in songs too, with very few tracks ever stagnating on one idea for too long. There’s always a faster thrash/hardcore influenced section, breakdown, solo or some other contrasting section around the corner, with each part consistently bringing its own memorable ideas to the table (a riff, a set of lyrics, a drum pattern or another idea entirely.) For all the deliberate stripping down Sepultura’s music has undergone, most of these tracks are as energetic and dynamic as before and due to their simplicity have a much more immediate impact on the listener as the band waste no time in getting to the meat of a song’s ideas and messages.

The album mostly remains within the realm of hardcore/groove/thrash, with some songs leaning more towards one or two of the three. The opener, title track and most famous song here ‘Refuse/Resist’ is a perfect mission statement for the album as a whole. The song drips with a rebellious, angered spirit that translates into how furious and strong the performances are, with its mid-tempo verses and undeniable hook backed up by a set of fantastic groove riffs, before the band break into a speedy bridge as Andreas solos away like there’s no tomorrow. Tracks like ‘Territory’, ‘Nomad’ or ‘Amen’ go for more mid-tempo, crushing grooves while ‘Biotech is Godzilla’ is excellent and to-the-point crossover thrash song and tracks such as ‘Propaganda’ and ‘Manifest’ mix up faster and more mid-tempo sections. ‘We Who Are Not As Others’ in an interesting, mostly instrumental, piece that continuously builds up from a slow groove riff to the climax of the band shouting the title, with an increasingly frantic drum performance, strings and leads accenting the song nicely. The New Model Army cover is a successful translation of the song to the album’s style, creating a rather dark track that thematically fits in quite well and provides some variety to the album. Another interesting track is ‘Kaiowas’ – an acoustic jam with pounding tribal percussion that functions as a protest song of sorts, one that fits in perfectly with everything else here in spirit if not in style.

Whatever it may have represented for the band and metal as a whole, Chaos A.D. will remain as a truly remarkable milestone and one of the genre’s crown jewels for years to come. It’s an extremely creative, potent and cohesive blend of aggression, memorability and passion, one that remains virtually unrivalled in metal to this day. It’s not for everybody, but giving it a chance and allowing it to grow on you might just turn out to be very rewarding.

Rating: 90%

Metallica – …and Justice for All

Mechanical, yet human, fury

I understand that a Metallica review today might be one of the more redundant exercises in writing about music, but hear me out. If there was a Metallica album that was in need of more reviewing, this is it. Not part of the much lauded holy trinity of thrash that preceded it or the string of sharply polarising and much derided works that followed, …and Justice for All is neither famous (aside from ‘One’) nor infamous – it’s simply there for most listeners, an odd diversion by the band that led to nothing. Which is a shame, as it’s easily my favourite Metallica album. I firmly believe it to be one of the greatest metal albums ever conceived, and an incredibly unique one at that.

It’s probably the most controversial and legendary aspect of the album, and to my mind the most important: the production. It really is as dry and sterile as everyone says – there is no warmth to the sound at all. Everything sounds very thin and trebly, and while there are bass frequencies to the sound there is indeed no bass guitar to be heard. I know for a lot of listeners that this is a major turn-off (though I’ve never had a problem with the way the album sounded, this may be because it was one of my first metal albums and as such the sound didn’t strike me as especially odd, no stranger than the albums that came before it), however I can’t imagine this album without it, and I highly doubt the album would benefit from a more normal sound. It’s not an accessible or indeed objectively good production style at all; however it casts every single second of the songs in a new light, by stripping the instrumentation of any human touch they may have had. What would be a warm, reverby drum kit is now a stark, clicking yet thudding timekeeper that marches in the background, and the guitars turn into serrated, thin razors that grind away endlessly. And while it was terrible of the band to haze Newstead by turning him right down, I do believe the removal of the bass guitar only furthers the coldness of the sound – the album is better for it.

This harsher, colder backdrop fits perfectly with the vocal performance, which is another notable aspect of this album. Never before did James ever sound this angry, or bitter, or resentful. He easily delivers his harshest, heaviest and *best* vocal performance here, without question, and is given a rougher edge by the production. Paired with intelligent but still memorable and concise lyrics on environmental destruction, corruption in the justice system, wanton psychotic violence and the horrors of warfare, and you have the righteous anger of a man disillusioned of the world delivered over the most aggressive sounding riffs and drum beats Metallica would ever write. Slow burning, almost grooving tracks like ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ or ‘Eye of the Beholder’ become relentless crushers that flatten all in their path. Already supercharged barnstormers like ‘Dyers Eve’ or ‘Blackened’ become some of the most intense thrash ever written; the former in particular still floors me to this day with its rapid fire gun-like double bass and unbridled resentment.

It’s not as if the instrumentation is merely a backdrop, either. More often than not it takes centre stage, and even peering behind the vocals reveals incredible performances all around. As has been mentioned, some of the band’s most aggressive and destructive riffing comes through here (‘Dyers Eve’, ‘The Shortest Straw’), and even during the more mid-paced moments the riffs still shine as being highly memorable, with the band working some monolithic grooves into their songs (‘Harvester of Sorrow’ or the descending riff of ‘The Frayed Ends of Sanity’; a nice fit to the theme of the song) and lacing these slower moments with chugs, giving rise to a drudging heaviness not unlike doom metal. The same can be said of the drum performance; when Lars isn’t functioning solely as a timekeeper several of the patterns and fills on here are quite technical, and on the whole Lars pounds away on the kit relentlessly, particularly with that distinct pattern on the title track or the incessant double bass of ‘Dyers Eve’. The soloing is at its most technical too, it’s not a major point when they occupy relatively short slots in these much longer songs but they do serve to give a little variation to the album, a brief respite from the endless onslaught of riffing.

A complaint this album often receives is the sheer repetition of the material, and a general sense of the album being too long for its own good. To my ears however, this is part of the reason for the album’s potent atmosphere. The riffs repeat for relatively long stretches of time, as do the drums. In doing so, combined with the sound and atmosphere already present, they take on a very mechanical and almost… industrial feel to them. The likes of ‘Eye of the Beholder’ or ‘To Live is to Die’ really build on this with a principal chugging, groovy riff being repeated for most of the song. Instead of making the riffs or beats stale, the repetition adds to their power, by turning them into a principal reference point that guides each song to keep them on track. It keeps the songs direct and focused, even when they approach 10 minutes in length. It also adds to the coldness of the backdrop the lyrics are set against; there is no natural variation to be found, only unyielding repetition of guitars and drums grinding against one another.

The feel of this album is unlike one I’ve ever encountered. At times sorrowful and touching (the halfway point of ‘To Live is to Die’ or the first half of ‘One’), and at times driven purely by rage – many thrash albums can do both, but none make it quite as visceral as this. That in and of itself is quite an achievement, given what they’re working with; they’ve turned one of the most mechanical sounding albums into one that conveys human emotion better than so many others. They made a focused, energetic album with a handful of riffs when some bands don’t manage that with 246. This is without question one of the greatest metal albums, and one that has aged so gracefully as to be more effective now than it was 30 years ago – perhaps due to general resentment towards the world increasing since then, but also because nothing since has come close to achieving what it has, a fact that rings more and more true with each passing day. A forgotten experiment this may have been – but certainly not a fruitless one.

Rating: 100%

Havok – Conformicide

Wake up, sheeple

Another day, another boring modern thrash band releases another boring album. Once upon a time, Havok were a band with promise, but the depths they plumb with this release are new lows for a fairly notable and respected band such as them. This is a release that commits the cardinal sins of anything you might want to be entertained by – it’s boring, unmemorable and grating. I don’t know how anyone who critically evaluates musical substance could get any real enjoyment out of this beyond the primal response of head nodding and foot tapping.

This album has almost nothing going for it in the musical department beyond the most basal qualities of having lots of riffs, being somewhat aggressive and being metal. I expect more from an album than these barest traces of personality and/or identity, and Havok fail to deliver completely. There’s nothing special about the sound Havok employ here in any way, all this album amounts to musically is a restatement of the modern thrash metal template, with chugging yet brisk and slightly aggressive riffing and completely nondescript drumming and soloing, all wrapped up in a slight technical flair. It’s competently executed on a technical level, but that is what any listener would consider to be the pass mark for an album, and at no point does this aspire to be anything more. The album is at its core, completely generic and uncaptivating, which is a theme that runs through it somewhat. The sound of the album is problematic as well – the bass is a bit too prominent in the mix to the point where at times this album takes on completely forced-sounding funk-infused overtones like the first half of ‘F.P.C.’, and in fact the production in general is polished and slick. While the sound isn’t offensive it’s far too tame and sterile, which becomes apparent upon listening to how gutted the Pantera cover at the end of the album is (but any song will demonstrate this.) In addition, given that once again this is the standard for modern thrash albums the production doesn’t help this release in the identity department. The lack of identity and the lack of memorability that results banishes this release to the land of average modern thrash, deep within that oversaturated heap of a genre.

That said, there is one element that is distinctive (for the wrong reasons), and that is the vocal performance. It is far worse than on any album Havok have delivered. The vocals are a weak, thin and throat-splittingly raspy shout that sounds garbled and outright bad. One could argue that he sounds vitriolic and angry but he tries far too hard here and becomes difficult to take seriously. I wince at the pain these shrieks must cause him while performing, never mind the fact that despite the distortion of his voice the lyrics come through quite clearly. The album’s lyricism is intolerable, as the completely non-descript music on this album makes it come across as a vehicle for preaching as opposed to music for the sake of art, and intentional or not this feeling is impossible to shake. The problem is also in the message being delivered – it’s basically tinfoil-chewing new world order conspiracy theorist nonsense that every fractally wrong individual loves to blather on about combined with shallow non-conformist attitudes, and at no point does this album try to say anything remotely intelligent or interesting. The dumb message combined with the album’s condescending and preachy feel, the ubiquity of the lyrics and the blandness of the other performances shoves the lyrics to the forefront. This makes them very hard to avoid, and the album is quite a bit worse for it.

For an album that seemingly prides its own individuality this really does follow the pack; not just in terms of its music, but also in terms of the message it tries to convey as well. It is musically stale and lyrically reads like the ranting of an edgy 13 year old, two things any metal fan on the internet has had far too much experience with long before this came along. This combined with the appalling narrator makes for a listening experience that can be charitably described as ‘dreadful’. This is an unpleasant album that no one should really have to listen to for reasons other than deriding it. It is a totally uncaptivating and inconsequential work; a shameful display.

Rating: 28%

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