Review: Annihilator ”Alice in Hell” [Roadrunner Records]

Review: Annihilator ”Alice in Hell” [Roadrunner Records]

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Summary
86 %
User Rating : 4.1 (2 votes)

Don’t look around the corner, it might be lurking there…

Well, how to start a review about a not entirely undisputed classic? Alice in Hell, unlike many other legendary 80’s thrash metal releases, is still fighting for a better reputation among genre enthusiasts. But why is that so? Even 30 years after its release, when the patina of nostalgia should have covered the album as a whole, Alice in Hell gets flak for being too mechanical, atmospherically limited, featuring a bad singer or for simply not having enough “consistently thrashy” riffs. What’s up with all that?

First off, I do call myself a big Annihilator fan and I’ve been following their output for about a decade and a half. I’ve become perfectly used to the quality and lineup fluctuations in the band’s extensive history and I can easily admit that this is not the band to win an award for having a flawless discography – and many people only listen to Annihilator’s earliest material, completely disregarding everything they’ve put out after Never, Neverland, some even claiming that this very record here is the only worthy creation in their entire catalog. I have to wholeheartedly disagree, for this is not at all my favourite Jeff Waters record. In fact, it took me some years to appreciate this a lot more than I did initially.

So yeah, Randy Rampage was one hell of a weird vocalist. Good? Not at all! Bad? Kinda, but at least he had a flamboyant personality and a distinctive voice. If you can handle a non-singer like Sean Killian of Vio-lence fame,  you should be able to handle the gruff and anti-melodic approach presented here. Simply put: if thrash is up your alley but you’re bashing this album for Randy’s performance alone, you are missing out on a lot of excellent riffage.

Those who worship at the altar of raw, unhinged 80s thrash metal often criticize Alice in Hell for jumping the clinical, technical-for-the-sake-of-it and overtly progressive bandwagon that became so popular before the untimely demise of the scene in the dreaded 90s. Believe me, I’ve tried to listen to this album with a more scientific approach in mind, looking for elements that’d validate these arguments and found about none in the process. Sure, Jeff Waters had the technical chops right from the start, the masterful precision of his playing is already present in the acoustic opener “Crystal Ann” and does not need any further discussion on that matter, but at the same time, simple, yet super-effective thrash riffs like the introduction to “W.T.Y.D” or the main riff-set of “Wicked Mystic” plus the overall comparatively simplistic songwriting style displayed throughout the record offer a rather stark contrast to these accusations.

In terms of atmospheric qualities, the rather dead-serious lyrics about schizophrenia and psychological violence fare quite a bit better than the admittedly dodgy lecture appearing on later releases and even though Rampage’s performance has a silly touch sometimes, the dark splendor provided by Jeff’s strong and varied riff-set, including the by-then fresh and hauntingly beautiful acoustic and clean passages embedded within it, stray very far from radio-friendly territory. I have no understanding for those who can’t feel a thing when listening to this – come on, what about the guitar soloing, huh? If these splendid, highly-melodic shreds don’t rip or tear at you at least a little bit, you must be a sack of dead meat!

The inclusion and placement of said clean passages is a focal point for many of this album’s detractors and at least I can hear why this is a problem for some; while Alice in Hell is a highly professionally produced and well-written album for a debut, Jeff’s songwriting was not as proficient yet (it began to shine on Never, Neverland a year later, where all of these elements clicked right away). The title track suffers from some questionable writing choices and I do think that the mostly instrumental duo of “Schizos are Never Alone I & II” – while having a solid collection of riffs – is struggling to keep a coherent structure; it feels a bit clunky in doing so.

Arguments about the pureness of the thrashing here have been made since day #1 of my fandom, but I really don’t see the point. There is none of the controversial groove metal material to be found here (which already started creeping in a year later) and if you find yourself having a problem with the speed metal components contained within the riff-construction…perhaps you are leaning a little more towards the German and/or extreme side of the thrash metal spectrum evolving in the late 80s and should continue your search elsewhere.

I do wish that the drumming was a little more involved…most of the time it’s merely a backing track for the dominant riffing. It’s definitely true that this has always been something that Annihilator have struggled with, despite having some rather big names on their long list of former drummers. Even the bass is given more space to shine throughout the record and it’s not overtly prominent in the mix.

Well, in the end, Alice in Hell is a highly interesting thrash metal record; not only for those who have yet to discover the classics, but also for curious people who want to know more about the already quite refined core of Annihilator‘s primal sound before groove metal elements and other outside influences came to play. Hell, a strong recommendation even for the more elaborate thrasher, who’s willing to experience a darker, more abrasive but less intricately written version of Megadeth‘s Rust in Peace. Yeah, I just made that comparison.

But again – while it is indeed a lot of fun, this album is not as well arranged and evolved as its successor Never, Neverland which – to me – encapsulates everything that Annihilator is about and also stands as Jeff Waters’ greatest achievement, although it’s a step down in terms of sheer aggression and pure thrash/speed warfare. Jeff himself has repeatedly stated that the sophomore release is his finest hour, so check that one out first if you are new to this band and want to hear what you have been missing out on!

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Marko Köfler

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