This is the sort of album that is very easy to like, but for some reason is also extremely hard to completely fall in love with. If a couple songs on here were either dropped or revamped, this album could have outshined their late 80s classic “Alice In Hell”, but unfortunately consistency often takes a backseat to variety where ANNIHILATOR is concerned. But in spite of the occasional misfire, most of what is on here is so damned good that you can forgive the occasional necessary employment of the skip button.
What ultimately sets this album apart from somewhat similar albums stylistically, such as “Refresh The Demon” and “Criteria For A Black Widow” is Jon Comeau’s vocals. Yes, the same guy who turned the early Power Metal visionaries LIEGE LORD from a solid Metal outfit into a veritable colossus circa 1988. His voice just oozes power and attitude, even when doing a lighter clean voice for harmonized backup tracks. His lead vocal work goes through a wide range of characters, bringing to mind such well known front men as Blitz Ellsworth, Jon Oliva and occasionally Rob Halford. What he brings to the outfit is something that the band had lacked in the previous 8 years, and that was a voice that could be the center of attention without dragging things down.
When things kick off with the starting Speed Metal killer “Denied”, things seem remarkably similar to the ill-fated “Refresh The Demon”. But when Comeau’s jagged edged shouts take over, things really get a much needed kick in the guts. It should also be noted that Waters spares us needless repetition and jams about twice as many riffs into this baby as he did the title track of the afore mentioned release. Towards the end of the album a similar yet slightly more melodic speed anthem in “Epic Of War” draws again from the band’s mid-90s sound, but succeeds in being twice as killer due to a superior vocal delivery, though it’s also helped by a slightly helping of Thrash riffing. When hearing these songs I often wonder why Jeff Waters wasn’t begging Comeau to join his outfit after Aaron Randall made his exit, sparing ANNIHILATOR’s fans a good 6 years of mediocrity and botched attempts at remaking the band.
Although this album doesn’t completely go back to the root sound of “Alice In Hell” as some have suggested, some songs on here definitely flirt heavily with doing so. “Battered” is the first riff monster on here that leaves the straight up Speed department for something more akin to the thrash glory days of old, often invoking mid-80s SLAYER riff devices, as well as some early 90s MEGADETH atmospheric quirks to give it a more epic feel. The guitar work gets pretty ridiculous at times, and almost dwarfs some of the band’s earliest opuses in the technical department. The album’s closer, “Hunter Killer”, takes the route of SLAYER’s “Hell Awaits” and has this extended 2 minute riff intro before kicking into high gear. After the introductory material, it’s total “Reign In Blood” riff madness married to Waters’ fret board shredding, similar to the attempts at recapturing the spirit of the band’s debut heard on “Criteria For A Black Widow”, but with much more structural cohesion and a superior vocal delivery. Hell, I’d argue that Comeau delivers a better Thrash vocal attack on here than Rampage did on “Human Insecticide”.
Ironically the point where the album really catches my attention is when it goes into PANTERA territory, which was previously a liability for this outfit. “The Perfect Virus” gets a lot of its ideas from “Cowboys From Hell”, although with a bit more of an Industrial aura to it, which is a little difficult to truly put into words. It’s mechanical sounding, but it doesn’t put forward anything Techno-like, save an intro riff with guitar harmonic work that avoids being as overdone as what MACHINE HEAD puts forth. It kicks into this brilliant Thrash section in the middle that goes back into 80s territory, yet manages to fit the song perfectly. The best stand out track, “Time Bomb”, basically defies any established premises about this band by ridding one very Groove oriented riff, and puts all attention on the vocal delivery. Comeau largely sounds like a throaty Jon Oliva until just after the 2:00 mark where he pulls off this perfect Halford imitation. Taken as a whole, the song could easily be mistaken for something on one of FIGHT’s albums or HALFORD’s first solo album, and yet somehow it’s a lot catchier than anything heard on those albums.
A lot of what remains is where the album loses some points, mostly because the songwriting gets pretty confused. The AC/DC cover “Shallow Grave” is a little out of place amongst all the Speed Metal on here, yet comes off relatively solid as Comeau can imitate Bon Scott just as well as he can Halford, and features Waters doing what he does best, pouring tons of sugar onto a simplistic rock tune with solos galore. “Insomniac” suffers from the half-ballad meets bad Groove Metal syndrome that plagued much of “Refresh The Demon” and nearly all of “Remains” and basically meanders between quiet and loud sections with little cohesion. There are a few good riff ideas here and there, but between all the off-the-cuff changes and too much spoken/whispered vocal sections, it’s a really hard listen. The title track, “Carnival Diablos”, is an instant throw away. Half the time it’s stuck in redundant 2 chord land, and when that annoying chorus comes in you’d swear you’re hearing that annoying as hell FUEL song “Hemorrhage”. Surprisingly enough, Comeau seems equally as competent as sounding like a bad Alternative Rock singer if Waters tells him to.
Despite a few glaring blights on this track list, “Carnival Diablos” is a worthy pick up for fans of ANNIHILATOR’s brand of technical Metal, especially those who really liked “Never, Neverland”, to which this has quite a few similarities. In addition to drawing from a wide range of styles, both good and bad, Jeff Waters has outdone himself in the humor department yet again. If you doubt this, listen to the really goofy Pop Punk spoof “Chicken And Corn” that’s hidden after “Hunter Killer”. It’s way funnier than any gay novelty song about masturbation that GREEN DAY ever put out.
(Online November 6, 2008)