Shred Lords: Jeff Waters of Annihilator
Written by Brett Kihlmire
Thrash metal is one of the most popular heavy metal genres in the world. Though the Big Four are all Americans countless great thrash bands have popped up throughout the world. Many bands have come and gone but Annihilator stuck has stuck it through for over 30 years. Much of their survival is thanks to their legendary guitarist and frontman Jeff Waters.
Hailing from Ottawa, Canada, Jeff Waters grew up with a taste for music. At about age six his mother noticed him watching guitarists with a keen eye and eventually she decided to buy him a guitar.
“That was around the time with disco, so I was a little kid listening to disco and later rock,” Jeff says before explaining what sparked his taste for heavy metal. “Some friend of my mom…their kid had this Kiss album he wasn’t supposed to show me.”
Hooked on the rock’n’roll style of one of the biggest hard rock bands of the era, Jeff started off with Kiss, but really got into rock music thanks to an album from the British hard rock band, Sweet. He would later graduate to the likes of AC/DC, Scorpions and Van Halen. Least to say, rock’n’roll caught Jeff early, but it wasn’t until that he discovered heavy metal with Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath that he started noticing the full scope of heavy music. By the early 1980’s, with the emergence of the Big Four of thrash metal, Jeff was hooked and knew heavy music was what he had to do.
“Basically, as a guitar player I was doing most of my learning off of heavy metal and the hard rock stuff with Angus, but then there was Van Halen. I didn’t try learning the Van Halen stuff because I knew that it was new and unique. I had foresight as a teenager not to practice what my friends were practicing, which was Van Halen. I just listened to the band and it turned into my favorite guitar player of all time,” Jeff says. “I’m lucky I got the real guitar playing from the melodic stuff, you had the Randy Rhodes, Van Halen, Scorpions, Angus Young. Then I once I hit the heavy stuff I started learning rhythm guitar from Hetfield, Gary Holt, Hanneman and King.”
Learning by listening, Jeff quickly established his melodic thrash metal sound and formed a thrash metal band called Annihilator in 1984. Developing his style for years up to this point, Jeff was ready to unleash the demon within. His fret shredding lead guitar style and blistering riffs quickly brought on the attention and after five years of rocking the underground clubs and passing out demos the band cut their first album, Alice in Hell. Their debut was a major hit, as was its follow-up, Never Never Land, both of which launched Annihilator into the consciousness of thrash fans everywhere.
“After Alice in Hell we went from the basement to the tours,” Jeff recalls, though he was always grounded with the understanding that he wasn’t breaking new ground in music; he was simply carrying the torch passed on by the pioneers that came before him like Tony Iommi and Jimi Hendrix.
Simply appreciative of being able to tour the world Jeff recalls hanging out with legends such as Phil Anselmo and Dimebag, or as he knew him, Diamond Darrel Abbot of Pantera as they toured overseas in the early ‘90’s during the Cowboys from Hell era.
This tour opened Jeff’s eyes on the way the successful bands approached their music in order to stand out better. And though Pantera was definitely a band to model their approach on, Jeff was unwilling to give up the thrash meets progressive metal nature of Annihilator in favor of creating a comfort zone like Pantera did with their groove metal with a tinge of progressive style.
“Maybe I didn’t attain that commercial success, but I can do anything I want to do musically. If fans don’t like something we do I know the listeners will be back for the next album to at least check it out to see if it’s any good.”
By the mid-90’s Jeff faced a major challenged with Annihilator – he was the only member left. Fortunately, where most bands fail Annihilator succeeded. Being an extremely talented musician and songwriter Jeff was up to the task. He would go on to write and record all but the drums for Annihilator’s fourth album, King of the Kill. This would mark not only mark the first time Jeff performed lead vocals in addition to lead guitar, his position as the sole original member left him as the de facto leader of the band, which he would eventually have to reform from the ground up.
Under Jeff’s leadership, Annihilator carried on as a duo with Randy Black on drums, releasing Refresh the Demon album before parting ways in 1996. The following year, going completely solo and utilizing programmed drums, Jeff released the Remains album under the Annihilator name. The album failed commercially and is regarded as one of the lowest points in Annihilator’s career.
“Remains is probably the only album I should have held back and done a solo album,” Jeff explains. “That was at a time, the only time, in my career where I was so depressed about the music scene, the metal scene, basically. If you were in my shoes where I lived in Vancouver, it was the most devastating time for traditional heavy metal bands. I was literally at the time we did the Remains album ready to pack it in. That was the only year or two in my life that I was like ‘this is ridiculous.’ The whole scene was just fucked.”
The source of Jeff’s depression was the dwindling enthusiasm for metal in North America. All of his favorite bands were either splitting up, playing smaller shows than they used to, changing styles or swapping out their singers, such as was the case with Iron Maiden and Judas Priest at the time. And though he was considering quitting music all together it was a Slayer concert at a small club in Vancouver that saved Jeff and Annihilator.
“The thing that kicked my ass was I watched the whole set and didn’t bang my head or do the drum fills. I literally just stared at them and realized that these guys are playing like they’re in front of 50,000 people and their music is the most important thing in the world.”
Jeff went home that night and woke up the next day with the realization that he was going to make music his life and he was going to do it until the end. In the short term, Jeff passed on a high paying job with a video game developer. A year later, he reformed Annihilator as a full band with Annihilator alums Randy Rampage (vocals), Dave Davis (rhythm guitar) and Ray Hartman (drums) returning for Criteria of the Black Widow.
Though not a breakout album like their first four, Criteria was the shot in the arm that Jeff needed to keep Annihilator and his music career going strong. The lineup would remain roughly the same for 2001’s Carnival Diablos but with Joe Comeau (Overkill, Liege Lord) replacing Randy Rampage. And though Carnival Diablos and the follow up, Waking the Fury, were well-received and marked the band’s return to form the band was plagued by lineup changes in the following years. fortunately, Annihilator was able settle with a vocalist and rhythm guitarist that would stick around longer than anyone aside from Jeff – Dave Padden.
For ten great years Padden and Waters worked together to make Annihilator a household name again in thrash metal and it worked. Over their decade with Padden at the mic Annihilator released five well-received albums, an extended play and a live album, as well as toured the world before massive roaring crowds. It was no question that Jeff’s decision to keep going way back in the late ‘90’s was a wise choice.
“You know, if I didn’t need the money to keep the machine going I’d just give it out for free,” Jeff says, showcasing his passion for the band and his music. “It’s your baby, you love it.”
Today, Jeff is back as the lead vocalist, as well lead guitar, and he’s in charge of all of the business for Annihilator. Though the band is without major label support he’s gotten the band to the point that they’re playing the big stages in Europe once again, which he attributes to his decision to just try and make the very best album he can without compromising his artistic approach.
Today, Annihilator is gearing up for a long awaited Canadian tour and the release of their sixteenth album, which is not yet titled, though Jeff has an idea in his head. As for his approach to the music this time around, he plans to follow some instructions he wrote to himself while recording Suicide Society.
“One thing I did on the Suicide Society record was I put a note to myself,” Jeff says.
His notes had three demands of himself: Don’t succumb to pressure to go back to roots, don’t continue writing songs with a purposely catchy chorus, and don’t subconsciously mimic Hetfield and Mustaine.
As the new album nears completion, Jeff kept his promise to himself and is proud to say that he hasn’t noticed a single moment on the album where he inadvertently emulated a band he appreciates. In fact, the new album has a vibe much closer to the King of the Kill album, which many say was the last great album before the new millennium.
Though Jeff has seen the ups and downs of the music industry as the main man of Annihilator, he’s determined to keep this band marching on into the foreseeable future. Having toured with some of the best ever, brought his band back from the brink of death and unleashed what is soon to be 16 albums, Jeff Waters is nothing short of legendary, even if it won’t admit it himself.