Annihilator came roaring out of the Canadian wilderness (okay, Vancouver) in the late 1980s, led by shredtastic guitarist Jeff Waters. He played both guitar and bass for, as well as writing and producing, 1989's Alice in Hell, an album that combined lyrical concepts worthy of King Diamond (on the title track and "Ligeia") with a goofy humor on tracks like "Word Salad" and "Schizos are Never Alone," all the while blasting out a lightning-fast version of speed metal that left even genre kings like Metallica and Megadeth coughing in the dust. The 1990 follow-up, Never, Neverland, was every bit as ferocious as its predecessor, and found Waters moving in an even heavier thrash direction at times. But it took him three years to release the next Annihilator studio album, and by the time Set the World On Fire appeared in 1993, he had an entirely new backing band, and the music had evolved quite a bit.
Songs like the title track, "Snake in the Grass," and "Don't Bother Me," among others, found Annihilator embracing funk and groove metal sounds to a degree never previously heard from them, while "Phoenix Rising" and "Sounds Good to Me" were surprisingly tender ballads, anchored by almost jazz-fusion bass lines. Indeed, there's a strong element of progressive metal on Set the World On Fire, no surprise when you consider that this was the first studio album to feature the playing of current Dream Theater drummer Mike Mangini. Even back then, his playing was taut and precise. Still, the album wasn't very well received by Annihilator fans, who wanted more head-down thrash and jokes, and the band left Roadrunner. But 20 years later, Set the World On Fire is an album well worth revisiting - the songs are extremely well-written, and the performances absolutely smoke.
Last year, we interviewed Mike Mangini about the sessions and working with Jeff Waters; he said, in part, "The experience was a pinnacle point in my career, because of my lack of knowledge of how records like this were made. I wasn’t aware that when somebody wanted a perfect drum part it had to be to the grid, not a millisecond off, as if it was a drum machine, not a human. I went in and did this, but it was my first time and I couldn't do it perfectly, but I didn’t know about punch-ins. I played songs front to back and rehearsed until I got it perfect. So the interesting thing was, how do you make a record where you don’t know the songs? Well, you can do it in sections. And we changed drum heads every song, because I’d never hit that hard in my life...I’m so proud of that record because there are no samples. It’s one of the clearest drum sounds I’ve ever gotten on any record."
When asked to name his favorite tracks from the record, Mangini said, "I like the riff in 'Knight Jumps Queen.' It’s almost painfully double bass and heavy, but the nature of the notes and how Jeff plays it...also 'Bats in the Belfry' is really heavy."