Oldie but Goldie: Annihilator – Alice in Hell

Alice in Hell
Alice in Hell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Annihilator – a band which will always find themselves prefixed with the title “Canadian thrash legends”, which is no bad thing. It’s also well-deserved given their long-running history (thirteen studio albums) and recognised influence on other acts. The only founding member still with the band is Jeff Waters, a man who keeps himself busy as a producer of other artists’ work when he’s not writing and touring with Annihilator.

The first time I saw Annihilator was back in 1991 (March 27th if my old ticket and setlist.fm are to be believed), opening for Judas Priest. A few of my friends had gone to a nearby record store (Volume, I think?) earlier in the day to get their copies of the band’s second album signed.

A friend and I managed to get tickets on the day from the box office (remember the days when people queued to get tickets instead of just tried to log on quicker than anyone else?) despite the protests from the nice lady selling them that they were near the front and it may be a bit loud!

We arrived in time for Annihilator coming on stage and a lad in the front row told us to hurdle the seats and join him rather than watch from three whole rows back. We stayed there for the whole set and through Judas Priest’s headline show, too. It was the Painkiller tour, just in case anyone’s interested.

And all that sets us up with the album in the title – Annihilator’s first: Alice In Hell.

This is a cracker. Always has been, always will be. The sawtooth-edged guitar distortion used by Waters in this first album has followed the band through its lifetime right up to the present day and the band’s most recent – and eponymous – release in 2010. The pace of the faster tracks is breathtaking, yet there are plenty of acoustic breaks and solos that really showcase the finger-picking skills of Waters and Anthony Brian Greenham.

From the opening classical guitar solo “Crystal Ann” to the feedback and whammy-bar induced shrills fading out at the end of “Human Insecticide” there isn’t a duff track. Unusually for a thrash band of the era, there was a bit of a sense of humour in the lyrics (“Schizos (Are Never Alone)”, for example) and the band didn’t just go all out for speed. Mind, it wasn’t short on that.

Production is excellent. Whereas Kill ‘Em All and Killing Is My Business…, for example, had a really tinny sound that didn’t do them justice, Alice has a much meatier sound to it. Each note and drumbeat is loud and proud, and Randy Rampage‘s vocals are perfectly clear throughout.

It’s a testament to the band’s songwriting that the music has stood the test of time so well and still appears on the current touring set list, mixed with a similar number of tracks from the equally as good Never, Neverland. Twenty years on and the album still sits on my phone getting regular play.

I’m listening to it now, and trying to pick out the highlights but I just can’t. The whole thing is just one good song after another. The title track is dark and has your head bobbing as soon as the intro’s passed through your eardrums, despite it’s seemingly inconsistent segments of slow heaviness next to clean widdly solos. I don’t know how, but it just works. Rampage shows a decent range of vocals on here from screams to growls, helping make it a great signature track for the band.

“W.T.Y.D.” (Welcome To Your Death) is much more like a steam train just thumping along to  Ray Hartmann’s thumping bass beat, giving the listener occasional pause with a light guitar solo or duet. Listen to the fantastic layered segment around the two minute mark. Great stuff.

“Burns Like a Buzzsaw Blade”, part-written by original vocalist John Bates (who actually continued to assist with song-writing through the first few albums despite not appearing on  any of them to the best of my knowledge) is typically disjointed and head-pounding.

“Word Salad” and “Schizos” are both a little weirder but nonetheless excellent tracks, paving the way for the superb “Ligeia”, based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name.

The aforementioned “Human Insecticide” rounds things off wonderfully leaving you just wanting to put the album on loop and listen to it again. And again.

This is an album I’ve listened to regularly over all the years since I got my first dodgy copy from a mate’s cassette recording of his vinyl album. I think I have it on vinyl myself, up in the loft, as well as a CD copy. It’s what early thrash was all about and it’s heartening to see Waters, at least, continuing to fly the flag with semi-regular releases and tours.

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