Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Annihilator - Never, Neverland

Roadrunner, 1990

Coburn Pharr - Vocals
Jeff Waters - Guitar
Dave Scott Davis - Guitar
Wayne Darley - Bass
Ray Hartmann - Drums

I had written about a specific track off of this album on my regular blog back in February. I feel that that text, now significantly amended, stands well as an encapsulation of the merits of the record on the whole.

Metal music conjures potent images in the mind's eye. Most often these images are vague and not directly informed by the specifics of the lyrical material. Instead they are more like abstract, dream-like scapes in washes of violent warm colors. I think this happens because for metal bands the riff-writing is a separate act to the writing of lyrics. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of angry rock or metal bands write the music first and it doesn't later change much or at all to contend for the feel and meaning of the lyrics. In fact when we're talking about metal, the writing of riffs (of which there are many) is simply addressed separate from the writing of coherent compositions (of which there are few and far between). The former are self-contained situations, repeated for impact and then discarded in favour of linear movement. The latter is a holistic attempt to make the broader movement achieve a lateral coherency, not the forte of metalheads, generally.

It is then a small wonder when a thrash metal (of all the metal styles, the one most obsessed with riff construction) band, ends up conjuring very relevant images to the lyrics that dress them. Annihilator are such a band.

It's worth noting Schopenhauer's position on the purposes of music here.

Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas, but the copy of the will itself, whose objectivity these Ideas are. This is why the effect of music is much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself. "Music does not express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives. Yet we completely understand them in this extracted quintessence. Hence it arises that our imagination is so easily excited by music, and now seeks to give form to that invisible yet actively moved spirit world which speaks to us directly, and to clothe it with flesh and blood, i. e. to embody it in an analogous example. This is the origin of the song with words, and finally of the opera, the text of which should therefore never forsake that subordinate position in order to make itself the chief thing and the music the mere means of expressing it, which is a great misconception and a piece of utter perversity; for music always expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, and never these themselves, and therefore their differences do not always affect it. It is precisely this universality, which belongs exclusively to it, together with the greatest determinateness, [364] that gives music the high worth which it has as the panacea for all our woes. Thus if music is too closely united to words, and tries to form itself according to the events, it is striving to speak a language which is not its own."

This smart man here explains - as I understand it at least - that the reason music is a universally loved and potent art is in that it doesn't (or shouldn't) seek to describe specific emotional phenomena but instead to tap into archetypal emotions that all of life's particular scenes are derived from. In that sense metal bands might approach this definition of 'high music art' and comfortably consider their three chord riff-based abstractions to be a link to the primordial and be done with it. They'd often be right about this, too. Aside from Schopenhauer's different standard of composition, to which most metal music probably falls short of, there's a different reason I'm sceptical of leaving it there when it comes to music's capacity for emotional specificity.

I think that this concept of music as a gateway to emotional universality has been hijacked by post-modernists with a consumerist agenda. How often do you hear, when trying to discuss the aesthetics and meanings of music, the offering of "Relax bro, it's just music"? I'm not sure Schopenhauer would be particularly proud of getting anyone to 'relax'. His sentiments can and have easily been appropriated (by degrees of separation, of course) by salesmen who would exclaim that since the music expresses universal emotions, then every one of us should buy all of it. If we look at popular music we see just that: distillation and abstraction of very broad emotional beats. In both form and effect it is simple music that sells best. So no offense to this smart man, but let's try to see what slightly different approaches offer us.

Annihilator above were not a band of very lofty ideals really. They were a thrash metal band and as the zeitgeist of that movement dictated, they diluted their romantic metal fantasy with prima facie 'socially aware' aesthetics and lyrics. Circa 1990, this is how metal music was trying to negotiate an unprecedented height of public interest. A lot of thrash music lyric reads painfully like a social study essay buy an introverted teenager that has only a rudimentary understanding of how and why society operates. It's painful to read because it's true.

The song posted doesn't have a high concept, then; It is in the plentiful abilities of main guitarist and composer, Jeff Waters that the composition of 'Road to Ruin' and indeed of most songs on their first two albums, had become more involved than the average AC/DC song. He sounds like he has ADD and hyperactively crams in as many licks as he can but - unlike a lot of technical metal bands - has the good sense to compare what he's adding to what the song is achieving for it. Very rarely does he leave in a phrase in that is at odds with the thrust of the song. Jeff Waters can do what Annihilator do, then, because he's both extremely able on his instrument but also because he has the good sense to let the song's voice dictate what he (over)plays, where. This is a virtue that is becoming increasingly rare in the world of modern metal.

In contrast with a capable classical instrumentalist, most metal (and rock) musicians struggle with a limited ability in shaping their voice. It is often a climb to express even a basic abstract concept in the confines of such otherwise highly structured music. Does this riff sound sad to you, or perhaps maudlin? What is the difference? Perhaps this riff just sounds like a riff, instead? This sort of confusion pushes metal musicians to throw their hands in the air and just play riffs from the gut and not worry about what emotions they're hitting. Sure, a lot of them play very fast or very precise, but what they play is often very limited and derivative. It might startle some knowledgeable Heavy Metal people to say for example that Autopsy (in the minds of most people a sloppy rude death metal band) are more erudite with their music than Meshuggah (a highly technical post-thrash band). The former simply have a larger musical and emotional lexicon. Most bands do not employ their hard-earned speed and fretboard mobility to achieve nuance and grace but instead bludgeoning force and constant pressure. You get used to beatings and you get used to pressure and when the tolerance level has shifted all that's pretty boring, however.

Not being a virtuoso is a blessing as well as a curse. When one has barely 5 riffs in them, they tend to make them count. They speak of the grandest emotions not by cerebral design but 'by accident of being human'. Put all your skill into crafting a riff and it may sing of despair and hope, of horror and awe. This is the main characteristic of Heavy Metal, really and it also explains why a lot of absolutely incredible bands often had just one great album in them, some even just a few great songs. That said, it's a pleasing variation and I feel, a worthy introduction to outsiders, to consider a minority of more skillful and considerate players that paint with a finer brush.

The lyrics set the stage here:

No control tonight, the lights are going dim
The floor begins to tilt, it's blurring to a spin
Just let me find my keys, look down below
Fresh air is all I need, then I'll go

Leading up the road to ruin
You're full of alcoholic speed
Leading up the road to ruin
No last chance, don't bother to plead

High, over the limit, got to take it slow
Concentrate, kill the radio
It's not the first time, it'll be the last
I've said that before, in the past

Speed, I've got to make it home

Not too far to go, you're getting near
Just down the block, there's nothing left to fear
Carefree, on top of the world, feeling power
Impaired security at ninety miles an hour

Somebody's driving drunk, it doesn't end well.

The beauty of the thing is how the choices in riffs and voicings by Waters, along with the clean and tight lockstep of the capable rhythm section underline and amplify the sense of barely controlled chaos of the situation. Nearly every section of the song for me augments the picture, it supports the otherwise pretty simple broad strokes with nuance and detail.

Note the natural harmonics lick at the end of the theme at 00:30 and how even before the plot is introduced a sense of instability and fragmentation hints of it in an otherwise straight ahead speed metal riff. Speed is the thing here but also blurriness, incoherency, confusion. These are the emotional elements that Waters's guitar pyrotechnics are most suited for.

In fact, for the duration of the verse, pay attention to how the regular palm muted riff is commented upon by a variation of different end licks, most of them choppy or syncopated, almost never repeating themselves, offering the listener no sense of security. Have you ever had manic thoughts that seem to dissolve before you're able to make them cohere to a larger structure, only to reappear and taunt you to try again? Have you ever gotten blindingly drunk?

The chorus, with its more austere and controlled rhythmics speaks in the second person. You're leading up the road of ruin, you're full of alcoholic speed. Look how effectively Waters shifts perspectives without any confusion just by musical cues. The unstable, chaotic riffery belongs to the protagonist of the tale, the slower and regimented responses belong to an objective authority, a beholder. The listener feels compelled to empathize with both: id and superego together, schizophrenia. This is the overarching theme of Annihilator's early output.

Not to say that the song doesn't default to the familiar trappings of rock music, with its melody, verse, bridge, chorus, solo and repeat. This is because Annihilator did not consider themselves purveyors of modern classical composition or anything, they probably had not heard of Schopenhauer. nor did they enjoy programmatic music. They were writing hooky pop songs, but their inner ambitions overpowered the form. This is the basic definition of Heavy Metal in relation to its bordering musical genres, actually. The positives of the skeletal remnants of the basic pop song composition under this song are that the themes are reaffirmed and the listener is put to a hot-cold alteration between musical coherency and safety and then the wild chromatic deviations of Water that constantly upset.

In the artier side of modern metal, much is made of super-structural music that is meant to be 'experienced' but not enjoyed per se; Deathspell Omega with their heady metaphysic thematics and austere aesthetics are a commonly cited example of this. I do not disbelieve proponents of this approach are gratified by it (you get a lot out of a piece of art if you put a lot of effort in making it work for you), nor am I saying 'Relax bro, it's just music'. Modern art made a big deal about not being enjoyable or beautiful but instead a commentary on psychological and sociological situations, starting almost a hundred years ago. It took a while for metal music to be informed by that approach, but here it is. A distracting game happens however when proponents of either school of thought clash. Modernists attempt to shoehorn modernity in the primary space of enjoyment that most simple art is taken. It's that depressing situation where the communist is trying to explain to a layman why his beloved social realism is 'just as good as real art'.

Broadly, I think it's a distracting lingual argument to dance around terms until we can make something ugly appear 'beautiful to us' and make something very unenjoyable appear 'enjoyable because I am involved with it'. Most of the time people cannot accurately gage how they feel, this shit is not making it any easier. The more nuanced the emotion the more at a loss we are at self-reflecting on it. Being graced by beauty and feeling inspired are some of the clearest emotional states that music can achieve for us (Schopenhauer makes a roundabout return) and Heavy Metal often achieves those peaks. It's a disservice to that achievement to try to fit ugly music that is meant to shock and confuse us in that category too. Ugly art is potent and powerful in its own right. Confusion is an emotion too, dissociation is an emotion. If people seek these emotions, good for them, they'll certainly lead somewhere. But people that like songs that they enjoy instead of semi-incoherent experiences that they traverse are not dumb either. Annihilator here make masterful songs that anyone would recognize as such (which is why I think they're a good entry point for outsiders). They reach through riff artifice to beauty that overcomes their pedestrian lyric and this approach should never be considered outmoded because it's briefly culturally passe at the time being.

Check out the abrupt stop-starts under the first solo voice how they comment on its almost sonorous and hopeful tone (the driver hopes that he's going to make it home) but the second solo comes in mockingly, bending, rolling, laughing with this hope. It is appropriate that the most 'rock and roll' sounding part of the song is the voice of a higher fate, it's as if Annihilator are saying 'you're gonna crash and burn and let the devils dance in the flames'. This is in its own way as metaphysical as Deathspell Omega ever get, the big difference is that the music is meant to be enjoyed, not witnessed.

After a third chorus, the main riff is punctuated by sharp turns, futile floor breaks and finally the winding guitars signal the inevitable sounds of a crash. Every time I listen to this song I hum for hours after it not just the chorus or some melody but three or four parts in a row. I get hooked on a emotionally involving composition. I really love early Annihilator.

As a personal anecdote though, I really hate early Annihilator too. If you are, like me, a guitarist of meager skill and at that crucial juncture in your teenager years - where you had ample free time - were pulled in many different directions instead of studying with your guitar for 8 hours a day, this stuff will be hard to play. I can sorta hit the beats in the first two songs but the cleanness and tightness of them elude me. It's perhaps the more convincing argument on the merit of this record that I still like it as much as I do, after connecting it so thoroughly with a reminder of my own shortcomings.

Not every song here is so rich in musical imagery, but most are. The most enjoyable ones actually are those written to lyrics of mental instability, Annihilator's forte, they let Jeff Waters go, appropriately, a little nuts. Always a light band however, they're an easy way to get new listeners to appreciate Heavy Metal in other ways than just as a primal force that paints bluntly only the basest of scenes, screaming and growling and bludgeoning what is in effect existential ennui. The strength of Annihilator is that unlike many of their peers, they achieve beauty here and are far more graceful about it than their lowbrow American thrash culture signifiers might initially suggest.


  1. Man I really love early Annihilator as well. I have a big Alice in Hell back patch on my "metal vest" actually to emphasize this. I feel that on Never, Neverland Jeff were a slightly more focused and coherent song writer but there's something about the debut that makes it a more important album for me. There might be some nostalgy to this but perhaps it's also the way Jeff goes totally nuts with his leads and some how makes it sound so joyful and easy. Listening to Wicked Mystic for example is ecstatic. It's so-fucking-flashy! Can't.. Resist..

  2. Yeah, that it sounds so easy is why I tried to learn to play this stuff. It's not.

  3. "This is in its own way as metaphysical as Deathspell Omega ever get, the big difference is that the music is meant to be enjoyed, not witnessed."

    Terrific sentence and shotgun analysis. The Satanic bully pulpit has become as tiresome as its supporters, me included.

  4. Thanks.

    It'll be interesting to look back at the Deathspell Omega thing ten or more years from now. To see what place - if any - it will take in the grander scheme of Heavy Metal. Unknown to a lot of that 'orthodox black metal' crowd, the experiment with punishing music that is meant to shock and alienate, coupled with vague ontology is not a new one, not even in HM music. There's for example this band 'Psycho Symphony' that put out a single record a couple of decades ago that hits the same emotional beats without having to do with satan at all. But nobody cares about Psycho Symphony now. I wonder if anyone will for Deathspell Omega in the future.

  5. Always trust Helm to drop a name of another technical/progressive thrash metal band you haven't heard before. ;-)

  6. Honestly, man, I always viewed Annihilator as a joke for a couple reasons: (1) the stuff of theirs I heard back in the day on a metal radio show here in Arizona, and (2) the dismissive comments of other metalheads. So I never bothered to check out their discography, but now after reading this and listening to that song I feel compelled to check out their early stuff. I really liked that song you posted. I'm more of a black/death metal guy, but I can get into this.

    By the way, I think this blog is superb. I've read all of your entries and you've said things that have been in the back of my mind for a long time but that I find hard to articulate. Keep up the good work, dude.

  7. A very gratifying comment. Thanks.

    Yes, Annihilator actually very much became a joke later on in their career, putting out mediocre to very bad records, shifting through a lot of personnel and definitely succumbing to the trends of the time. Last time I checked they were playing metalcore, so that should tell us something.

    Doesn't change the brilliance of the first two.

  8. Very interesting. A nice case study to discuss the experience of art, particularly music, regarding the conscious appreciation (and later articulation) of all the nuances of the composition.

    I wouldn't be so hard on the "relax bro, it's just music". It is frustrating but it is also an admittance in the form of unconscious defense of the inability to articulate what it is exactly that moves the listener. I like what Schopenhauer says about the universality of music, it agrees with the position that music is the language of the soul. That the mind struggles to perceive, learn and translate this language is a separate undertaking, for those that seek to go further, to reach a higher understanding. But the important thing in listening to music *is* enjoyment and the experience of those universal feelings.

    I think you are giving the consumerist sales people more credit than they deserve: What they are effectively doing is packaging emotional candy with hi-tech colorful wrapping paper. I like candy and I often enjoy a well produced and arranged pop song by the most blatantly commercial junk food "artists". But the crucial point here is that people look for more substantial food for the soul, a more honest language if you will, so pop music is riddled with ephemeral hits, you have to get your fix by getting a new candy, this one has lost its flavour, or look elsewhere for the truly satisfying stuff.

    Metal musicians who go by the gut are no less capable of identifying a good message for the soul. When they write a riff, they keep what speaks to them and reject something else, perhaps their conscious operates in vulgar terms, such as "this is cool", "this is shit" but it's equally effective. Technical ability coupled with the thirst and hunger make a great combination, and Annihilator is a great example. I would also include Helstar's Nosferatu and Megadeth's Rust in Peace from the relevant sound.

    What went wrong with Annihilator? Set the World on Fire was a good album, just obviously sub-par. It suffered from the change of singers and Waters wanted to relax on the crazy guitar stuff as a reaction, coupled with their status in Roadrunner, they had become the top band along with Sepultura by then, which is ironic because their third album was a failure, ballads didn't do them any good. Since then, Waters always gives me the impression of chasing the glorious days and satisfy his love for more modern un-metal stuff. Which also hints that he was also operating on gut feeling a lot more than it seems, he never managed to replicate the sheer brilliance of the first two, only glimpses of it, hit and miss.