Canadian metal royalty Jeff Waters knows the business of the grind and the grind of the business of metal. He's been there and done it across three decades and counting as the man behind thrash titans Annihilator, and now he's taking some well deserved time to rest on his laurels. If only slightly, but not really.
Waters has signed off on a career spanning re-release of nearly the entire Annihilator catalog through earMUSIC, kicking off with an overhaul of 2007's Metal, now aptly titled Metal II.
Mixed by the legendary Mike Fraser (AC/DC, Van Halen), Metal II features Into Eternity vocalist Stu Block on "re-invented" lead vocals alongside the iconic Dave Lombardo (Dead Cross, Suicidal Tendencies, ex-Slayer) behind the kit.
"When this pandemic stuff hit I got COVID extremely bad," Waters recalled during a sit-down with Metal Injection, delving into the genesis of the deal with earMUSIC. "I had it really bad so that when I actually recovered after the severe part, which was about 12 days for me when I kind of got out of that funk, it took me six months to get my lungs back and this was April 2020. This is when we didn't really know what was going on. I took stock of my life, man. I was fifty three.
"I went, what are my three things here? The number one was, if I died tomorrow, does my family love me? Do my kids know I love them. Yup. Check that one off. Are they going to be OK financially? Yup, they're good. OK, third. What's your little legacy? What have you done on Earth? Have you done anything good? Have you done anything you want to leave? I've always wanted to own or run a dog charity for stray dogs and for abused dogs. And I could never do that while Annihilator was going because you just can't look after something as time dedicated as that. So I would donate to charities and stuff. But I thought that's something I'd like to leave… but I had basically thought Annihilator has done some good, made some people happy, and it seems to change a few lives at least, which wasn't my intention. But hey, I'll take it.
"I didn't have my house in order for that. It was scattered albums that had expired from different record companies. They weren't available on Spotify or iTunes or any of that stuff. No hard copies. eBay was like $100 a CD from some company that still didn't have the rights to make them and bootlegs. I thought I better take this seriously and my little legacy, no matter what it is. I need to take care of mine. So that was my third priority. I took care of this for three months in the studio. My studio in the U.K., I spent three months getting all these masters and bonus and all that fun stuff, getting everything I could back. I got 22 out of the 26 releases I've done back, put them all together, made them sound as good as I could for some of them being pretty shitty sounding and not so good. And I simply said, this is it. I'm going to look to the future."
Featuring a guest list reading like a who's who of the metal world (Will Adler, Steve Kudlow, Danko Jones, Angela Gossow, Jeff Loomis, etc.), Waters said he feels the original Metal from 2007 served as a perfect launching pad for the re-tooled Annihilator catalog simply in the understanding that, at the time, the finished product did not meet the desired result of all hands involved.
"There's one album where the three guys that recorded it, all three of us were distracted," Waters shared of Metal. "We were all distracted at the time, and that made for the perfect storm of lack of feel and lack of creativity on our part. And I wish I could redo that one again because it had 12 killer guests on it. Release the first one and release this one called Metal II and do a different take on it. Find a singer you like and a drummer you like and get them to redo it. Have someone else remix it for you, some fresh ears, and that's what I did.
"I was lucky enough to land my fourth favorite drummer of all time (laughs), Dave Lombardo. And if you really want to know it's Neil Peart, Bruce Gary and the drummer from The Sweet are my first three. Stu Block has always been one of my favorite singers, a fellow Canadian and I heard he was free and didn't have a gig at the time. I called him up and asked him if he would sing on it. The three of us jammed 'Painkiller' on the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise a few years ago. And I think right then all three of us were looking at each other while we were playing and going we should do something.
"Dave and Stu were kind of freaked out because I essentially told them I don't want to do this in a super expensive studio. I just want you guys to do three takes of each song and we'll pick the best take and make it not this computerized, fixed digital, incredible sound, big budget thing. Let's just have Dave Lombardo raw and Stu Block raw and see what they come up with. And so this isn't a perfect amazing set of recordings, this is just two legends doing their thing without any direction for me. No producer, no guitar player telling them what to play or nothing. And this is what they came up with. So that was a kind of neat way to announce the catalog coming out."
Waters shared that he dedicates Metal II to the timeless guitar-god Eddie Van Halen – who he cites as his 'guitar father' – and friend and collaborator on the original Metal track "Downright Dominate," Alexi Laiho of Children Of Bodom.
"The amazing Alexi Laiho, who I credit for being one of the very few guitar players after the Seattle scene that realized that to play lead guitar, you needed to practice six to 10 hours a day for at least a half a decade, if not more. And he went back to the Randy Rhoads, the Eddie Van Halen's. Then he went a little later to Marty Friedman," Waters shared of his late friend and certified guitar-master/wizard.
"If you discover Alexi Laiho and you're a 15 year old guitar player and you heard Alexis' first couple of Bodom records, you realized you couldn't play it. You had to learn. Well, how do you learn? You got to go back and spend the time and learn where he got it from and learn it. And he was one of the people that started that rebound effect of here comes the 80s and 70s guitar greats again. Finally, people are realizing you've got to put the work in and they got to look into the history to be able to play like that, like Alexi."
And while this re-tooling and re-release of the Annihilator catalog is a fitting testament to the history of a band who has weathered the highs and lows of the thrash metal rise, rocky road and resurgence, Waters himself remained noncommittal on potential new material from the band in the future, rather noting that 2020's Ballistic, Sadistic could serve as a fitting close to a storied legacy.
"Annihilator's 17th record was January 2020, and I think that's probably the best one. You know, that quit when you're ahead kind of theme or idea has always been in my mind," he shared. "At some point you're living off the old stuff and and hopefully what you're doing now is good, but you gotta be realistic and I decided, you know what? This last one we did Ballistic, Sadistic, it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks, I know that was sort of the peak of the last five, six years for me. So I think that's my 'quit while you're ahead' one."
Though Waters did tease that, COVID-restrictions pending, he does aim for Annihilator to embark on a series of anniversary tours, reuniting past vocalists, and including Stu Block for his own interpretation of the seminal Alice in Hell album.
"This whole damn catalog thing, I just wanted to get it together, put it to bed and say goodbye. And here's the future," Waters explains. "In the future is anniversary tours with the original singers, Stu Block singing for the Alice in Hell album. We're going to do that as soon as this opens up, hopefully 2023."
But perhaps most interesting is Waters' admission that he has yet another iron in the fire in the form of a secret project that he described as "not heavy metal," with an album in development that he calls an "old school record."
"I've got another band and it's not heavy metal at all. This has been waiting for like 40 years to make this record. Basically, it's a hard rock album. It's not a cheesy AC/DC wannabe. It's not a joke or a kind of throwback to the 80s. It's nothing like that. It's actually all being done as a serious old school record. So we're going into the right studios with the right personnel, right musicians, spending a shit ton of money and doing it so that when you put the CD on or whatever it is you're listening to, the idea is I hope everyone goes, 'who the f is that?' That's my goal. If I can pull that off, I'll be the happiest guy in the room."
On The Early Days
"When I started this thing, it was like December '84 with this buddy of mine who got me into heavy music. And he wasn't really into heavy music, but his friend was and his friend was playing Venom, and I'd already liked the first Exciter record and the first Anvil record, and the second album too from those two bands.
"I started [Annihilator] in December 84, when the singer [John Bates] that I started with, we wrote our first songs and one was called 'Alison Hell,' and it was kind of theatrical kind of King Diamond meets Alice Cooper time changes and a whole lot of different riffs. And I started it off with a classical guitar piece. That was probably a bit from John Bates influences, which were Rocky Horror Picture Show, Alice Cooper, Meat Loaf. The theatrical side of things and I was coming from a heavy metal and new early thrash roots all of a sudden, and I mixed it with his sort of dramatic theatrical influences.
On Lineup Shakeups
"I ended up pretty quickly just hiring musicians to do albums and to do tours, and they didn't have to necessarily be the same people doing the tours that were on the album. Hopefully the singer would be the same and last till the end of the album cycle. But I kind of got used to that and I enjoyed doing it that way and playing the bass on all the records and all the guitars and all that stuff. I liked that. It wasn't because I had to.
"When our singer left after our first record and the Alice In Hell tour, he left at the last week of a major tour of the USA and Canada with Testament on their Practice What You Preach album. And we were touring for Alice in Hell and our singer at the time left, jumped off the bus and we had no idea why he left. None of us knew why he left. We asked the bus driver where's Randy? 'I just dropped him while you were sleeping at the airport. He was mumbling about something about losing his seniority at his job as a longshoreman in Vancouver. So he had to get back.'
"Imagine that you're on this Alice in Hell record, which apparently is selling hundreds of thousands of records every week in Europe and starting to really take off in the States and Canada and you wake up one morning and you're coming back from the airport and your tour is finished because your singer left."
On The Turbulent 1990s
"We were dropped by Roadrunner in 1993. We were told our career is done. Unless you're going to cut your hair short, change the name of your band, and play music like Sepultura, Biohazard, or Pantera, and that was a quote, then we're going to have to let you go. So I was just like, 'huh?' And I was depressed for a few months until my manager said what are you talking about? We got bigger deals being offered in Japan, England, and Europe.
"And then we put out an incredibly successful record called King Of The Kill, and I was thrown into vocals thinking that it was kind of a joke because I'm not a singer. And it was like I had to learn how to play guitar and sing just like my idols Dave Mustaine and James Hetfield. And I was all of a sudden playing in these huge tours and crowds with no experience doing that or talking to the crowd or anything, and I was thrown right in.
On Balancing Career & Family
"The mother of my child, who's now 25, died and I was a single father and I was living in Vancouver, a little place outside of Vancouver in the the King Of The Kill era. She passed away from cancer and my parents came out to help me. I had my beautiful little son and I thought, of course, 'OK my career is done with this one. King Of The Kill was a successful album. Maybe my career is over?' My dad came up and said 'what do you like to do? What do you love?' Well, I'd like to make music and play in the band. And he said, 'why would you not do it? You can still do it.'
"So I found ways with neighbors and especially family to help with my son so that I could very wisely only tour a certain amount of time a year and be away. And I could be a full time dad and add the hours up and I was home just like every other dad can be home after their nine to five jobs and the weekends. So I ended up doing like three months of touring spread out in a year and my parents would come out or someone would come out to look after my son while I was gone for three weeks touring. So I was able to make that work. And all of a sudden I was doing that every year. I moved to the city where my parents and sister lived and that made it even easier. So somehow I was a dad, only parent, and then wannabe rock star flying away all the time.
On Canadian Heavy Metal Greats
"A lot of people don't realize even to this day, the first two Anvil and Exciter records were extremely influential on where metal is today because they influenced the the big four. Robb Reiner's crazy drumming style and the weird time changes that he and Steve in that band were doing. Exciter, they were so impactful on that Heavy Metal Maniac. A little bit of Violence & Force, but that Heavy Metal Maniac record, they were at the beginning of speed metal. They took Motörhead and made it fast.
"If you look at the Big Four and all these, those first two Anvil and those first two Exciter were the big guys for the big scope of thrash metal and heavy metal. Sacrifice had some influence. But if we strip it all away, it's not Annihilator, it's not Devin Townsend, it's not Voivod. It's Exciter and Anvil's first two records that are the big international influence on the metal scene on the Big Four and everyone else.
Metal II is out February 18 through earMUSIC. Pre-orders are available here.