Thursday, March 8, 2018

Top Ten Things: Anthrax Albums

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

What's on my mind today is legendary thrash metal band, Anthrax!  One of metal's vaunted Big Four (along with Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer), Anthrax formed in New York City in 1981 and set themselves apart from other metal outfits with their muscular, kinetic sound and underlying sense of humor.  Where bands like Slayer strived to be as dark and demonic as possible, Anthrax kept things a little fun and nerdy, taking cues from heroes like Iron Maiden by including literary elements (mostly Stephen King) and comic booky subject matter.  Anthrax were also one of the first metal bands to tackle topics like racism, homelessness and genocide, attempting to raise a bit of social awareness and build their sonic brutality around positive energy.  And with their rap-metal crossover hits "I'm the Man" and "Bring the Noise" (the latter being a Public Enemy cover that actually featured PE), they foreshadowed the rap-rock craze that emerged in the late '90s.  Maintaining a drug-free lifestyle, Anthrax has aged much more gracefully than some of their metal brethren; their recent records have sounded just as vital as their earlier work and they show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.  The three-pronged rhythm section of Charlie Benante's impossibly ballistic drums, Frank Bello's gritty, pulsing bass, and Scott Ian's jackhammer guitar riffage (easily on par with their Metallica counterparts) has served as the band's signature foundation for over three decades and in 2018 is just as asskicking as ever.

Here now are the Anthrax albums, ranked (The only full-length LP not to make this list is their debut Fistful of Metal, which featured Neil Turbin on vocals and Dan Likler on bass, and sounded like a band still trying to find its identity).....

10. Stomp 442

John Bush's sophomore effort as Anthrax's frontman had a crisply produced, punchy sound that was initially very promising and a step up sonically from Sound of White Noise, but unfortunately the songs on Stomp 442 were nowhere near as strong.  This being the mid-90s, when metal was about as uncool as could be, Anthrax veered more into alternative groove-metal on this record (something akin to say, Biohazard), and the songs blurred into each other a bit.  This record is steeped in midtempo sludge, with only a few noteworthy tracks that for me don't even crack the band's top 20.  It also loses a point for the lack of Anthrax's cool-ass logo on the cover (their logo is one of the most awesome ever created); for some reason they opted for a totally generic stoner rock-type logo instead.  This album fared poorly on the charts and they were soon dropped from Elektra Records as a result.  But not to worry, things improved.  Side note: To this day I still don't understand what the title is supposed to mean.  Side note #2: The album cover was originally intended for Bruce Dickinson's second solo album but he couldn't afford it, so Anthrax scooped it up instead.

Key Tracks: "Riding Shotgun," "In a Zone," "Nothing"

9. Volume 8: The Threat is Real

The 1998 followup was no classic album by any means, but where Stomp 442 featured a slate of mediocre chugging tracks, Anthrax took a much more adventurous approach on this album.  The overall sound and production is muddy and has a late 90s DIY feel, but the songwriting is actually quite solid here.  It seemed like John Bush, whose vocals had up to now felt, for me, a bit "square peg" on an Anthrax record, finally found the right melodic strategy on Vol. 8.  Songs like "Catharsis," "Harm's Way," and the pretty supberb "Stealing from a Thief" showed a band less concerned about fitting a particular style and happier just writing good, grungy rock tunes.  Volume 8 has a varied set of hard rockers plus the touching hidden track "Pieces" (written and sung by Frank Bello, who's brother had recently been killed), and the result is a significant step up from Stomp.

Key Tracks: "Crush," "Harm's Way," "Stealing from a Thief"

8. State of Euphoria 

SoE was the first Anthrax album I ever heard (back in early 1990) and it hooked me right away.  I was familiar with the name of the band and for some reason based on the T-shirts I'd seen I envisioned a band similar to Guns N' Roses.  I was surprised to find they had more in common with Metallica, albeit with Joey Belladonna's much cleaner vocal style.  Right away it was clear this band was a little different, letting their playful personalities shine through amid the high-energy metal heft.  The opening track "Be All, End All" carried an upbeat message, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" took on phony, studio-enhanced pop stars, "Make Me Laugh" attacked the hypocrisy of celebrity preachers, and the sardonic "Now It's Dark" was inspired by the David Lynch cult film Blue Velvet.  But Anthrax scored a solid hit with their cover of "Antisocial," originally recorded by French metal band Trust (Incidentally this song is featured in the 2017 film It).  State of Euphoria runs out of steam about two-thirds in and Joey's vocal parts clung way too closely to the guitar riffs for my taste, but it's a solid record that still has sentimental value.

Key Tracks: "Make Me Laugh," "Antisocial," "Now It's Dark"

7. For All Kings

Anthrax's eleventh (and as of now latest) album took what worked on their triumphant comeback record Worship Music, and did more of it.  It's essentially Part 2 of that record, but I didn't hear any complaints from the thrash faithful.  Despite losing lead guitarist Rob Caggiano (whose presence is missed, don't get me wrong), the band kept chugging right along, delivering their melodic speed metal in spades.  Joey Belladonna's vocals are still the best they've ever sounded (Who peaks in their 50s?  Honestly.) and the production is as crisp and weighty as you'll hear in the genre today.  This album doesn't inspire awe like Worship Music, and the band seemingly ran out of ideas before they ran out of disc space, but For All Kings is still a very solid effort with at least one or two career highlights ("Breathing Lightning" is an all-time top ten song for them).

Key Tracks: "You Gotta Believe," "Monster at the End," "Breathing Lightning"

6. Spreading the Disease

The band's second full-length record, and the first to feature Belladonna's strikingly clean tenor vocals, is for me where Anthrax as we know them really began.  The album's bright, shimmering production is sonically not unlike Metallica's Ride the Lightning, with sharp, edgy rhythm guitars and clear, cracking drums.  The nine songs aren't as consistent as they might be, but Anthrax grew leaps and bounds over their first album and delivered a few of their best tracks here.  This album is one of their most high-energy, moving along at a very brisk and exhilarating pace and never overstaying its welcome.

Key Tracks: "AIR," "Stand or Fall," "Armed and Dangerous"

5. Sound of White Noise

The departure of Joey Belladonna and arrival of replacement John Bush (formerly of Armored Saint) essentially changed the band for the next decade.  Their vocal styles are so different it was actually jarring to hear the band's sixth album when it came out.  Gone were Joey's clean, soaring vocals and in their place was Bush's raspy, Steven Tyler-esque howl.  Scott Ian's thunderous thrash guitar tone was replaced by a fuzzy, mid-range grunge sound.  The double-time runaway train feel of their classic tunes had given way to a more somber, open style of midtempo riffs and grooves, a mix of early 90s Seattle and early 70s Black Sabbath.  This album was as tough to embrace as an Anthrax offering as Sammy Hagar's run in Van Halen must've been for David Lee Roth loyalists (for the record I prefer Van Haggar overwhelmingly).  Once you get past that though, Sound of White Noise is a rugged, consistent set of dark alt-metal tunes that signaled the band's willingness to reinvent itself once traditional speed metal was on the outs.  John Bush's vocals, if a tad pitchy and awkward at times, certainly fit Anthrax's new direction much more snugly than Belladonna's would have.  So for the time the change was the right move.  Whenever I pop this album on I'm reminded that it's far better than I remember.

Key Tracks: "Potter's Field," "Only," "Packaged Rebellion," "Hy Pro Glo" 

4. Among the Living

The band's third album is considered by many their apex, and like Slayer's Reign in Blood or Metallica's Master of Puppets (coincidentally also their respective third albums), Among the Living displays considerable growth, a sound-defining new approach to songwriting and production, and a staggeringly brisk pace.  I'd liken listening to this album with watching a Mad Max film - the driving motility of Benante's double-time grooving and Ian's machine gun riffs is relentless, but the band keeps things just light enough to make it fun rather than exhausting.  With two Stephen King-inspired tunes (including the title track), the Judge Dredd song "I Am the Law," and some sociopolitical commentary on songs like "Indians" and "One World," the band tackles more sophisticated subject matter than either previous record.  And with its non-stop, percussive metal assault, Among the Living would become Anthrax's prototypical album for the next five years until Belladonna's departure.  My only gripe about this record is that sonically it's a bit boxy; I'd love to hear a remastered version.

Key Tracks: "Among the Living," "Caught in a Mosh," "I Am the Law"

3. We've Come for You All

John Bush's last album with Anthrax was also his best.  WCFYA boasts a wide variety of timeless metal and hard rock styles, following up each unique, killer tune with another.  While on previous albums Bush's voice sometimes seemed either tentative or off-key, on this one he seemed to finally find his niche; his voice meshes perfectly with the band's plethora of grooves, sounding surefooted and convincing.  Another great aspect of this record is Rob Caggiano's soloing, lyrical and in-the-pocket.  The songwriting on WCFYA is far and away the strongest since Bush joined the band; no longer beholden to current hard rock trends, Anthrax was free to just make good, heavy-groovin' metal music, and this album sounds like a band righting the ship.

Key Tracks: "What Doesn't Die," "Stand and Resist," "Think About An End," "We've Come For You All"

2. Worship Music

After eight long years and no fewer than two lead singer changes, Anthrax went back to their glorious thrash roots on their tenth album, and emerged in 2011 with an incredible return to form.  The now 51-year-old Joey Belladonna had been restored permanently to his rightful place on an Anthrax record, and the results were astounding.  Joey's vocals were more aggressive, more elastic, and more powerful than they'd ever been; he legitimately sounds twenty years younger on this album.  Add to that the pure molten awesomeness of Scotty's shredding, Charlie's drum barrage, Frank's roaring bass, and Rob's vibrato-laced solos, and Worship Music marks one of the most remarkable comeback albums I've ever heard.  This album is 60+ minutes of some of Anthrax's best work, released thirty years into their career.

Key Tracks: "The Devil You Know," "In the End," "Crawl," "The Constant" 

1. Persistence of Time

For me though the Anthrax pinnacle is and will likely always be their fifth album, released in 1990.  Persistence of Time stylistically continued what the band had been doing but boasted a darker, more serious tone, reflected in the complexity of the music.  Opening with a 7/8 riff (the first time I'd ever heard such a thing in metal), the album pummels the listener with stout, crunchy riffs (Scott Ian's guitar tone here is MASSIVE) and rumbling drums while tempering the speed just enough to allow the progressive songwriting to unfold.  The first three tracks alone total just over 21 minutes, while a two-part suite on side 2 runs another eight.  Persistence of Time signaled a shift away from the fun-loving quintet we heard on State of Euphoria, toward more profound, thoughtful prog-metal.  This is one of my all-time favorite albums by anyone.

Key Tracks: "Time," "Blood," "Intro to Reality/Belly of the Beast," "One Man Stands" 

And there's your ranking - hope you fellow Anthrax fans enjoyed this.  Comment below, and join us on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter (@EnuffaDotCom)

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