Guys, I really tried with Anthrax. I fully intended to write a defense of Anthrax as a Big 4 band. Ask my girlfriend. Ask the editors. Ask anybody who lets me talk about the blog to them. I really wanted to do that. I had a great plan! I intentionally started the Testament column with “ANTHRAX SUX LOL” because I wanted to write, “And whoever that idiot was who said Anthrax sucks can go play in traffic!” It was going to be so great. Self-deprecating humor is disarming, even if total comment thread dopes can’t understand tongue-in-cheek humor via the written word.
I had listened to some Anthrax records before, so I had some idea of what I was in for. “Sure, there might be some stinkers here, but overall I’ll find what I need.” And then I started listening. And I kept listening. Fistful of Metal. Spreading the Disease. Among the Living. State of Euphoria. When I got to Persistence of Time, a thought occurred to me.
I still can’t defend Anthrax. I just can’t do it. Let me clarify: I don’t think Anthrax is a bad band. I just don’t understand why they’re given the Big 4 label. Why are they considered such a giant? It just doesn’t make much sense to me. To make a sports analogy, Anthrax just seems like an also-ran. They’re a team that made the playoffs but bowed out unceremoniously in the first round. To me, Anthrax is the metal equivalent of the current Milwaukee Bucks: they have a legendary member but the rest of the band is just kinda there.
However, this is not going to be some more Anthrax trashing. That would be totally unfair to do, and I don’t believe in trash talk without any evidence. I think there are some real positive aspects of the band but also a few glaring negatives about Anthrax that warrant further discussion and discuss these we shall!
Pro #1: That Tone Tho
While we can hem and haw about whether Anthrax should be considered important, there’s one thing they objectively did right: create a sound. If you’re talking about early underground metal, you have to have very crunchy guitars. Anthrax has that in spades.
Just listen to the “Madhouse” riff. There’s a texture to the guitar tone that is both undeniable and unmistakable. Thousands of aspiring metalhead guitarists have tried to make that tone work for them and it simply doesn’t. It’s got that sparkly crunch that sounds good with a band. It’s the studded leather arm band of guitar tones. Scott Ian also writes riffs that benefit from that tone, much like the intro lead in “Madhouse”. Nobody has that same tone that sounds so good with this band.
Con #1: A Thrash Metal…Singer?
This one is a little more subjective, but it remains to be said. Thrash metal has its roots in punk music just as much as early metal. Punk music is where we started using the term “vocalist” instead of singer. These guys just didn’t sing in the traditional sense. They could still utilize rhythms in their shouted lyrics, but they rarely used singing tones.
Hearing early Anthrax, there was clearly some Judas Priest worship going on. Fistful of Metal really is just a Priest cover band writing original material with original vocalist Neil Turbin. The band evolved after that with iconic Anthrax vocalist Joey Belladonna who was also more of a singer. Future frontmen were also closer to singers than metal vocalists. It’s fairly uncommon in the genre, with some exceptions, and it just makes them stick out in an odd way.
Pro #2: Having Scott Ian
It’s hard to find good personalities in metal who can speak to the genre and comment on it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t sound like just pure garbage. Scott Ian is one of those few. Ian has this headiness about him that allows him to think deeply on things, like heavy metal or history or racism. He is an excellent personality to have representing metal fans and musicians. He also has been rocking that bald head and super goatee for years, so it helps that he’s got “the look”.
While I continue to be mystified by why Anthrax is considered a great, it wouldn’t shock me to learn it’s because of the force of Scott Ian’s personality.
Con #2: Who Else Is In This Band?
Whenever you see video coverage of Anthrax, you’re usually just talking about Scott Ian. Part of that is due to the fact that he’s the only true original member of the band, and there has been a rotating cast of characters throughout the band’s lifetime. Drummer Charlie Benante has been on every recording of the band, and Frank Bello has been their bassist the entire time with one short break to play with Helmet. But who the hell are Benante and Bello? We want Scott!
A contributing factor is the rotating nature of vocalists. The classic Anthrax vocalist Joey Belladonna was really only a featured player in the 80s for their more iconic releases. John Bush came in after Belladonna for the critically acclaimed Sound of White Noise and a series of ultimately forgettable records. The 2000s saw a vocalist debacle of more frequent rotations and band expulsions, but Belladonna eventually returned and the band has gone on ever since. The issue is that the vocalist tends to be the most recognizable member. It’s hard to establish yourselves if the most identifiable member is also the least likely member to stick around.
Pro #3: A Thrash Classic
Among the Living is absolutely a thrash metal classic. They embrace a lighter side of underground metal. A “mainstream” record with the group shouts and a closer to crossover sound definitely stuck out in 1987. But they also very much nail the sound: those crunchy, lightning fast riffs, the steady bass that drives the aggression, and super quick and aggressive drums sending the hell on wheels down the highway. It also manages to stay light, like it’s the soundtrack to some insipid and inconsequential chaos. I mean this in the absolute best way possible: “Caught In A Mosh” is the soundtrack for a Jackass stunt we never saw.
There is an incredible sound to this record. The guitar work is absolutely brilliant. It’s loose enough that it sounds chaotic without actually being undirected. It’s an extremely tight sounding record: all the rhythms hold together despite the speed and technical ability involved. And there isn’t a bad song on the album. It’s hard to even point out a weak spot on the record. Personally, I think the first half of the record is better than the second, but the same thing could be said about Master of Puppets. I honestly couldn’t even put up a highlight track. It’s just that good.
Con #3: Do They Have Any Other Records?
After reviewing their discography more times than I would have, I can safely say the rest of their catalog is a little on the weak side. At the beginning, Anthrax was trying to figure out their own sound, so no one was expecting perfection off the bat. That would be unfair. Then Among the Living was both an artistic and commercial success. It’s everything a band could want. State of Euphoria tried to repeat it but the songs just aren’t really there. Persistence of Time was an excellent evolution for the band’s sound, but the tracks are trying to catch that lightning in a bottle that was Among.
It drops off a bit from there. Sound of White Noise continued the gravity of Persistence of Time but it also lost some of that aggression the band had. Stomp 442 did as well. Volume 8: The Threat Is Real saw the band playing in more groove territory, which is an interesting decision, but it also went for a more generic sounding post-grunge sound that is ultimately forgettable. We’ve Come For You All isn’t much different. Worship Music and For All Kings brought the thrash back in a way that sounds like a faster take on a traditional heavy metal sound. It’s a great choice, but the albums are still not particularly memorable. It’s really the biggest knock against them. Their library of albums you should know isn’t very deep.
Pro & Con: They Just Don’t Match the Big 4
You really can take this either way. On the one hand, they really do stick out of the bunch in a negative way. Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer have this super grave tone to everything they do. None of the music they make could be described as light-hearted or fun. You may enjoy listening to the groups and get something out of it, but if I were describing their music, fun isn’t on the list.
Anthrax, however, is a pretty fun band. They have a much different approach to songwriting and playing than the other 3. They aren’t the first crossover thrash band, but a lot of what they do is in that style. It really just doesn’t belong.
At the same time, maybe it’s good that they don’t belong. The group could use a little bit of levity. Between Metallica singing about drug addiction, Megadeth/Dave Mustaine raving about the government hiding aliens from us, and Slayer screaming about Nazi war crimes, the 4 could use a little cheering up. Anthrax discography is full of moments like these. “Madhouse” is a solid example of a metal song not taking itself too seriously.
“Caught in a Mosh” is a solid choice here. The narration of an argument between metal head son and stick in the mud dad is something relatable to everyone, but the chunky riff helps present it in a way that’s not emotionally weighty at all.
It would be very difficult to talk about Anthrax and not bring up “Bring the Noise”. It’s the first popular example of rap metal and easily one of the best examples of the genre. Many might bemoan the birth of rap metal, but the novelty of this song is one that never really wears off.
Generally, I try not to judge a band based on a cover. But when it’s Anthrax playing “Got the Time,” it’s different. They take this Joe Jackson song and make it their own. It fits with the rest of their song library since it’s not super serious and heavy-duty. It just works quite well for them.
To wrap this whole discussion up, let’s just remember that the Big 4 of Thrash title is a marketing ploy. These were the biggest bands of underground metal in the 80s that broke into the mainstream and sold a lot of records. They’re the most well-known of them all. And this is simply a personal opinion: I think there are other bands that could’ve been supported over Anthrax. I think it could’ve been expanded to the big 5 or 6. I think the sound doesn’t make sense but that maybe it’s a plus. Love Anthrax, hate Anthrax, or don’t. They’re going to be there whether you like it or not.
Aura Noir – Aura Noire
Blackened thrash is the most consistent microgenre in thrash, the subgenre with the fewest offshoots. Aura Noir was one of the early boosters of the sound and haven’t strayed far from it since releasing their first record in 1996. I think the best way to describe this sound is what 80s soccer moms actually thought Metallica sounded like. The band very successfully meshes the chaotic sound of old school thrash with the evil ambiance of black metal and established the standard for the sound.
Their latest, Aura Noire, is more of that same sound. That may sound like a criticism, but if you’re the standard bearer then it should be your thing. No need to fix what ain’t broke. It’s very apparent from the get-go what this band is. “Dark Lung Of The Storm” consists of tasty riffs interrupted by a more narrative vocal track describing dark dreams of ill intent. If you think thrash can’t possibly sound like it came from the devil, you haven’t heard Aura Noir. Make a change in your life.
Cultural Warfare – Warmageddon
There’s been a trend among thrash bands to infuse a little traditional metal into their thrash. The outcome sounds like Judas Priest praise. Priest really did inform a lot of what thrash did, so it makes a lot of sense. Cultural Warfare is the perfect example. Lots of riffs mixed into some hot twin guitar action makes for a great record. They also have the aggression that thrash requires. It comes together in a unique package combining multiple old school sounds. Check out the title track “Warmageddon”. Tight snare drums keeping the beat with chugging guitar barre chords interrupted by twin guitar fills and a very flashy quick solo. It’s thrash for the traditional fan.
Demoniah – Demoniahlizer
Guess we’ve gotta touch every thrash subgenre. Brazil’s Demoniah plays a style of groove that calls closer to death than thrash but I’m claiming it. When a band can hit that groove, it just completely takes over your brain. Demoniah can do that. The interplay between the guitar riff and the drums on “Scorn” is key. The riff has a shoots and ladders feel to it in that it kind of climbs and falls in a way that the drums can fill the gaps between the notes. It’s also got that lo-fi quality that makes it feel very homegrown and new and harkens back to the early thrash scene of tape trading and local bands. This record came out last year, but they were picked up by More Hate Productions. Let’s hope they keep kicking and groove us a little more.