Thursday, July 1, 2021

Top Ten Things: Anthrax Songs (10-1)

Alright, we've reached the pinnacle of Anthrax Mountain.  The Top 10.  The songs that make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.  Here are my picks for Anthrax's ten greatest tunes....

Click for Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3...

10. Potters Field

I mentioned while discussing "Only" what a radical change Sound of White Noise was for Anthrax fans, with its grungy, midrange-saturated guitars and dearth of thrashy palm muted attack, but what softened the transition for me at least was the album opener "Potters Field."  Beginning with the literal sound of white noise and a strange little voiceover intro ("This is a journey into sound...") and building to a full-on explosion of metal pummeling, "Potters Field" blasts out of the speakers with the synchronized rat-a-tat of Charlie's snare and Scott's guitar before settling into a sinister midtempo groove.  By the time John Bush's sandpapery vocals kick in with a resentful invective from the point of view of a damaged adult wishing his parents had aborted him, we're fully prepared that this will still be a brutal metal record, just from a different angle than we're used to.  "Potters Field" is an absolutely killer opening track from a reinvented Anthrax, still delivering that signature driving double-time beat.  

9. Armed and Dangerous

Anthrax's first foray into kinda/sorta power ballad territory was this early tune which they released twice - once for the hastily released Armed and Dangerous EP (put out to showcase their new singer Joey Belladonna) and again for their second full-length record Spreading the Disease.  "Armed and Dangerous" begins with a crystalline, shimmery acoustic guitar riff, over which Joey demonstrates his powerful clean vocal style, intoning sorrowfully about being trapped in a cage (metaphorically speaking).  Halfway through though, the crunchy metal guitars kick in and the song moves into its heavy phase, building to a monstrous, thrashy triplet feel, and the lyrics take on a defiant, vengeful bent - "We'll take on the world with rebellion/We're dangerous down to the last."  Already on their second album Anthrax was demonstrating their aptitude for writing powerful metal anthems.

8. SSC/Stand or Fall

Speaking of powerful anthems, our next entry, also from Spreading the Disease, is positively life-affirming.  Simply about overcoming life's obstacles and persevering anyway, "Stand or Fall" (the "SSC" piece is a little acoustic intro) is I believe the earliest Anthrax song written in a major key.  Its impossibly energetic thrash gallop hurtling along at a dizzying pace, the song gushes positive energy, something of a rarity in early 80s speed metal.  Joey's squeaky-clean singing style fits the tune and its subject matter perfectly.  If "Stand or Fall" doesn't energize you, it's possible you're just dead inside...

7. Among the Living

The opening title track of Anthrax's third album is steeped in Stephen King lore, inspired by his grand opus The Stand.  The intro to this song immediately perks my ears up, kicking off with a clean riff conveying a sense of desolation and uncertainty before the full band erupts with a metalized variation.  The song settles into a midtempo groove, almost serving as an overture, and then comes that trademark Anthrax double-time sprint as Joey chronicles the saga of the supervirus called Captain Trips decimating the world's population.  "Among the Living," coupled with its parent album and said album's cover art, was a perfect marriage of musical content and art direction that captured a dystopian mood, launching Anthrax to the next level of their career.

6. In the End

If 2011's Worship Music proved Anthrax had successfully returned to their Belladonna-era roots, "In the End" proved they could still write majestic, commanding anthems.  An homage to fallen metal icons Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrell, "In the End" is a somber midtempo dirge dripping with heartfelt appreciation for their musical and personal contributions, featuring some of Scott's most unusual riffing, some of Joey's most expressive vocals, not to mention a brilliantly crafted chorus hook.  This song is a later-career high point.


5. Packaged Rebellion

For me the Sound of White Noise album apex is (surprise) another anthem, taking to task the idea of the trendy rebelliousness of early 90s youth.  It's a statement against pretending to buck the system, wearing co-opted "rebel" fashions, and throwing around counterculture catchphrases cooked up in a corporate board room, as opposed to actually standing up and taking action to change things.  It's one of the least thrash-sounding songs on the album but for my money the best-written, boasting a brilliant descending chorus riff and some of the band's most thought-provoking lyrics.  "Revolution on your sleeve" is rife with multiple connotations and sums up the song's message succinctly - don't just talk it, walk it.

4. Blood

The second track from Persistence of Time is one of the band's darkest, tackling the subject of human beings destroying each other over their petty hatreds.  The bouncy main groove of the verse and chorus are interrupted by a syncopated pre-chorus that is unique in the band's catalog, almost veering into rap-rock.  Following the "Blood on your hands/blood in my eyes" bit, the chorus hook detonates with harmonized descending guitar lines and an ominous vocal - "A wave of hatred comes like the flood/Brother on brother on/Brothers in blood."  For a band that often affects an uncharacteristically cheery tone for their genre, this song is an oppressively bleak indictment of humanity.

3. AIR

The opening song from Spreading the Disease (and the proper introduction to Anthrax-plus-Belladonna) provides the perfect template for the band's unique brand of speed metal.  A double-time barnburner of a song with a chunky, stomping main riff, "AIR" (an acronym for Adolescence in Red, paying tribute to Black Sabbath's "Nativity in Black") is about the loss of innocence and onset of harsh accountability that comes with reaching adulthood.  Anthrax has made a career of anthemic metal tunes, and this was their first great one.

2. Intro to Reality/Belly of the Beast

Man, what an epic pair of tracks.  "Intro to Reality" is listed as separate from "Belly of the Beast" but as the former leads directly into the latter and one of its motifs creeps up again near the end, I count them as one piece of music.  "Intro" begins with a soundbite from a Twilight Zone episode wherein a former SS officer revisits a Nazi concentration camp, and that should tell you all you need to know about the song's subject matter - it's a rebuke of the Holocaust, particularly the Nuremburg officers who claimed they were just following orders.  "Intro to Reality" has a surrealist atmosphere that echoes the Dali-esque album cover, while "Belly of the Beast" is an aggressive, chugging triplet-feel song that later changes gears to a straight syncopated feel.  Combined they form one of Anthrax's most ambitious works. 

1. Time

As you can tell, I absolutely adore the Persistence of Time album, and my favorite tune on my favorite Anthrax album happens to be my #1 pick.  "Time" knocked me on my ass the first time I heard it back in 1990.  I was vacationing with my family up in New Hampshire and happened to catch that week's episode of Headbanger's Ball on MTV, where they spotlighted Anthrax to promote their new album, set to be released that Tuesday.  Wellsir, I demanded that as part of our travels we stop by a local record store so I could pick up said album.  I popped the cassette into my Walkman, and was blasted into my seat by an explosive opening track whose main riff was in 7/4 time(!?!?).  Never before had I heard a metal song played in that time signature, and seven minutes later I had a new favorite Anthrax song.  "Time" is a masterful piece of sophisticated thrash metal songwriting - brutally crunchy rhythm guitars, pounding, virtuosic drums, jangling bass tones, philosophical lyrics about the irreversible inevitability of time passing, and one of the best guitar solos from Anthrax's largely unsung hero Danny Spitz (Seriously, this solo is the balls).  "Time" is for me the perfect Anthrax song, encapsulating everything I love about this spirited, uncompromising thrash metal outfit.  I consider it the band's masterwork.

Thanks for hangin' with me to talk about Anthrax - comment below with some of your favorite tunes!

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