With the 1991 release of the Black Album, Metallica irrevocably changed both the course and public face of heavy metal. The genre was changing; evolving into a mass-marketed medium that was willing to sacrifice the high-speed tempos and thrash mentality that had carried the genre through much of the 1980's. In place of that idiom stood a sound that attempted to bridge the gap between Judas Priest and Slayer, Black Sabbath and Nuclear Assault. Metallica had established a tenuous beachhead on the precipice of both mainstream accessibility and superstardom. Whether intentional or not, their leap away from unblinking beats per minute to a new era extended a hand back through the din to any who would join them.
In 1994, Canada's RSVP to Metallica's invitation came at the whim of Jeff Waters, guitarist, songwriter and end-all be-all for The Great White North's highest selling heavy metal band, Annihilator. With "King of the Kill," Waters composed a pile of music that attempted to have its cake and eat it, too.
What makes the album such an integral note in metal’s history is the way that the songs fearlessly combined metal elements that were established with those that were just dawning. While the song structure and cadence of “The Box” or “Annihilator” (the song) are fitted with the bleeding-edge, slowed-down-for-accessibility payload from the early 90s, the guitar tone was the crunchiest of crunchy (coming just a little short of the famously crinkly “…And Justice For All,”) leaving no doubt of the band’s roots in the thrash days of the previous decade. “King of the Kill” probably ranks in my personal top 15 of “guitar tone” albums ever, which places it in company with Boston’s iconic first album and Judas Priest’s “British Steel.”
Annihilator’s album uses a number of tricks to create a unique sound within the frame of radio metal sensibility (before that became a dirty term and well before radio metal had no sensibility,) beginning with Waters’ guitar virtuosity. While he was (is) several shades short of being a top flight vocalist, the strength of his talent lay in his acumen for harmonizing the lead guitar. Waters’ fills and solos carry more emotion than his words ever could, bringing a tangible creativity to the songs; they are the most interesting pieces of each selection.
Second to that, several cuts on the album utilize the double kick, which was still somewhat revolutionary for its time, especially when played throughout an entire song. Now, the double kick then was not the double kick now; picture Motorhead’s “Overkill” and you’re on the right track. Equipping his title cut and a handful of other pieces with this early version of metal’s calling card lent the album a sense of urgency and pulse that it would have lacked without (Waters continues to use this trick all the way through his most recent recordings.)
Thematically, “King of the Kill” is very much an old thrash album that dressed up for the occasion. Similar to Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth and the other fathers of thrash, Annihilator’s album was possessed of the same distrust for authority and refusal of the norm as those albums which had come before (including Annihilator’s own “Alice in Hell.”) Unlike most metal from the early 90s, such as the first Rage Against the Machine album, that was written from the point of view of the listener rising up and embracing their individuality and rebellious nature, Annihilator writes from the paradigm of the decadent and oppressive despot. Writing ironically in the voice of a dictator was common well before doing things “ironically” was usurped by hipster doucebags for their nefarious ends, but metal had largely stopped speaking to the audience as “you” by that point in its history. Still, Waters chose to take on the role of bad guy in an effort mock those things, and he personified targets ranging from faceless, greedy politicians to television (he truly, if perhaps not subtly, demonizes TV during the brooding, wary “The Box.”) I think this album might contain more “I” sentences that any other album I can remember on short notice.
Part of the beauty of "King of the Kill" is that there is a certain measure of unintentional comedy on the album. Listening to Waters sing the word ‘snow’ with an adorably long Canadian ‘o’ warms the corners of my heart. Meanwhile, longtime rock and metal fans can no doubt think of at least three songs that their favorite artists have written on the subject of card playing. And of course, by card playing, I mean thinly veiled sexual allegory. AC/DC's "The Jack" is probably the most prominent example of this phenomenon, but there are literally hundreds. Annihilator decided to dip a toe into the pool of card playing coitus with the jumpy, staccato "21." Ostensibly, this is a song about blackjack, but it's actually about....blackjack, I think. Either this is the only card game song that's actually about cards, or it's the single clumsiest sexual metaphor ever written by someone aged over puberty. Either way, the lyrics don't inspire a great swell of ambition: "I was in debt right up to my neck / I wasn't having any fun," and "God, just let me win / I gotta win / Or I might as well be dead." While simplified ideas like these can be refreshing for a moment's respite from the convoluted, tangled miasma that is typical of bands like Yes, these homespun lyrical wonders were hardly going to win any awards. And this was all before the lexicon was brutally dumbed down by callous texting and vicious social media.
So, if you have a spare hour and have never heard it, sit down with Annihilator’s “King of the Kill” and drink in the cleverly blended milkshake of what had been and what was coming to be. The album is an anachronism that could only have existed at that specific time period when metal was in flux. Where most bands had to choose a side for the upcoming battle of media friendly metal bands versus those true to the underground, Canada released an album that tried to be both. Come for the delicious downbeat pacing and unintentional lyrical comedy, but absolutely stay for the soul-satisfying tone and virtuosity.