Review: Annihilator ”Never, Neverland” [Roadrunner Records]

Review: Annihilator ”Never, Neverland” [Roadrunner Records]

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Summary
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Please just take me away to Never, Neverland

Think about it – how many Annihilator albums do you love from start to finish? How many of their records are consistent in terms of quality and sound, yet offer enough variation to satisfy your cravings without throwing you off due to 180° turns and questionable stylistic choices? If you’ve been following the band for a while, you do know that there can only be one true answer to this (no, it’s NOT the debut) = it’s Never, Neverland.

Of course there’s quite a crowd moaning now because so many thrashers out there think that Alice in Hell is the crowning achievement of Annihilator’s catalog but while their debut is definitely something I’d put into the classic category, this one here is where all elements of Annihilator‘s initial sound appear fully established and everything just falls into place – which is something that the predecessor sometimes struggled with.

I do acknowledge that the amount of pure thrash-riffs has decreased, but not because there’s a lack of tempo here; surprisingly, some of the faster riffage has more in common with classic speed metal than with its more cutting-edge offspring. This might seem like a regression considering its 1990 release date, but that’s not at all accurate since there’s also the utilization of newfound modern, groovier rhythms present, which was very much the opposite of a backwards development in the pre-Vulgar Display of Power-era.

In terms of songwriting, this is the pinnacle of the band’s career. Their most complex, finger-twisting thrasher is on here (“Imperiled Eyes”) as well as Annihilator‘s first successful venture into more balladesque territory (“Never, Neverland”). It’s also not really a secret that “Stonewall” was actually conceived to be kind of a sellout-song, with its ultra-infectious chorus hook, a lighter sense of distortion and a lot of clean guitars present – but it just works on all levels. It’s catchy, it’s memorable, it features a great vocal-performance by Coburn Pharr while retaining enough grit and attitude plus a fucking sweet solo on top of simplistic, but efficient headbanging riffage. It’s not surprising that Jeff Waters is still trying to craft songs of this caliber up to this very day, but so far he has not quite managed to reach similar heights very frequently. He actually tried recycling these “Stonewall” hooks and structures almost note-for-note and turn them into a new track (check out my Ballistic, Sadistic review for more info) but obviously it didn’t work out nearly as well.

Sweet fucking solos. Definitely! While I’ve become an Annihilator fan many years ago due to Jeff’s rhythmic capabilities and low string wizardry, this is an album including some of his finer solo creations. The harmonized melody after the intro on the title track features the most memorable (I call it his trademark) lead-guitar writing in the history of the band. It’s so good that it comes back a little later in the song – extended! Hell, Jeff even reused it on the next album (“Brain Dance”)! Other soloistic highlights include the lead section (almost the whole damn song is melodic delight) in “The Fun Palace”, as well as the exceptionally memorable lead runs in both “Road to Ruin” and the aforementioned “Stonewall”.

Excellent, masterful riffs. Obviously! This is the Mariana Trench in Annihilator‘s large pool of rhythm guitar adventures! Never before and never again have there been so many killer riffs contained within a single Waters record. Be it the more modern super-heavy uptempo stop-start-riffage in “Sixes and Sevens” and “Road to Ruin” (a lot of classic speed metal in there too) or the frenetic thrashing glory of “Imperiled Eyes” (the chorus will tear you apart, the bridge section will devour your remains) and “I Am in Command” (yes you are!) – it doesn’t matter, it’s all gold. If you want some of that Alice in Hell darkness then “Phantasmagoria” is most reminiscent of that aura and will ultimately please the earliest of fans. Even if some typical later Annihilator goofiness is what you are craving for – check out “Kraft Dinner”, the very first of its kind. Want some riffs along with your cheddar cheese? This is the place to go to because the track is not just relying on the comedy effect while forgetting about song qualities – this would happen later in the band’s career – it’s a nicely written and highly energetic speed/thrash-attack with over-the-top vocals and lyrics about the glorification of…Macaroni.

Speaking of vocals – Coburn Pharr might be the best vocalist to ever grace an Annihilator album, both in terms of tone and skill. However, this is not an opinion set in stone, because the triumvirate of Pharr/Comeau/Waters (yeah, Jeff too!) towers above the rest of the group of vocalists coming and leaving the band throughout all these years and it totally depends on my mood whom I enjoy the most. But for this album, the distinctive voice of Pharr is most fitting as he’s the perfect middle ground between the charismatic, aggressive non-singer that was Rampage on the debut and the glam-ridden, juvenile performance of Randall on the successor. Possessing both mansuetude and respectable force, he delivers the power-metalish edge suitable for the slightly less aggressive but more complex endeavor that is Never, Neverland while having a convincing voice for calmer moments as well (check out the 1991 demo recordings for Set the World on Fire with Pharr at the helm – oh what could have been if he had not left after that).

Production-wise, this is pretty close to being perfect for 1990. Everything can be heard well (including the bass), there’s no instrument drowning out the others and the vocal mix is excellent without ever overpowering the band. The bottom-end is a lot cleaner and heavier than on the predecessor, naturally losing a bit of previous dirt and roughness in the process which fits the more intricate compositions just fine. The drumkit is also given more weight this time around, which serves for a more even and complete package all-around.

Well, to put it bluntly: I wrote this up because I just wanted to pay tribute to this album for being the best in the vast Annihilator catalog and also to celebrate its 30th birthday this year. Three decades have passed since this record first hit the stores and while their discography has entertained me for many, many hours and I came to love most of their experimentation – the recurring awkward- and goofiness of Jeff Waters’ body of work – over the years, it’s still their most complete offering and their only full-length that I would rank among the greatest of the thrash metal genre, it deserves a place in the spotlight.

So if you have not heard this yet (how dare you?) and you are a fan of the more technical, elaborate side of thrash, speed or even power metal, then please go ahead, do yourself a favor and revel in the wondrous world of Never, Neverland, Annihilator‘s crowning achievement.

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Marko Köfler

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