Tuesday, September 13, 2011


In high school my favorite bands were Aerosmith, Dokken, Tesla, and Anthrax. (I didn't really fall in love with Led Zeppelin until my senior year, we've been going steady ever since.) All four of those bands survived the intervening years in some way or another. Aerosmith probably survived with the most commercial success, and due to Stephen Tyler on American Idol they'll probably blow up all over again next summer. Tesla took a very long hiatus from rock after 1995, but began releasing albums again about six or seven years ago, and all of them have been stellar. They remain one of the few bands that has never released a "bad" record.

The other two bands on my list have had varying degrees of mediocrity and failure. Dokken put out a great record in 1995, and then dissolved a few years later. That band still tours, but absent half of its original members. Lead singer Don Dokken has put on a ton of weight and now chain smokes during concerts, as a result his voice is absolute crap. It's kind of embarrassing to be a fan of an ass-clown, but I have trouble setting behind my childhood and the music I cherish from that era.

Somewhat more troubling is the band Anthrax, and for a number of reasons. Anthrax was the one "metal" band of the 1980's that should have been just as huge in the 1990's and beyond. They weren't a hair band, they were a thrash metal band, and they anticipated the eventual merger of rock and rap that would result in platinum records for shitbags like Limp Bizkit by ten years. They even had a video and radio hit with "Bring the Noise" guest-starring Public Enemy back in 1991 (they later toured with PE too). I wouldn't say Anthrax were pioneers, but they liked a lot of stuff, and weren't embarrassed to let those influences show.

I was the one kid in high school who always preferred Anthrax to Metallica. Anthrax had a sense of humor, and I liked that. They were guys who wore "jams" shorts and loved comic books. I could relate to that. Metallica always seemed so serious, and I was always much more into hearing songs about Mr. Judge Dredd. Another major part of Anthrax's appeal to me were the vocals of Joey Belladonna. Instead of being a grunter or gravelly voiced screamer, Belladonna was a rock singer, probably as comfortable singing Journey songs as Black Sabbath ones, yet still convincing while vocalizing on some of the greatest thrash metal ever produced.

The 1987 album "Among the Living" remains one of my favorite rock records to this day. It's a heavy rocking album full of comic book references, horror movie nods, and the metal shout along classic N.F.L. (Nice Fucking Life). It also had a few serious moments, most notably the equal rights anthem "Indians" (Belladonna is a Native-American, and Anthrax has always had that "we love everyone" vibe to them). "Among" also had some great melodies in it, it was accessible without wussing out, I freaking loved Anthrax.

Their later releases were good too, and many of them were even more political (Keep It in the Family again about racism, was especially powerful). While Metallica were singing about dudes with no arms, legs, hearing, sight, etc., Anthrax was writing songs I could relate to. In 1992 the bottom fell out of Anthrax, and despite middling degrees of success afterwards they were never the same to me ever again.

In 1992 Anthrax fired Belladonna and hired John Bush. Bush is a great singer, but it never worked for me in Anthrax. His hiring changed the personality of the band. The songs were no longer about goofing off, comics, and B-movies. Anthrax were now a "serious" band interested in writing songs about more conventional "metal" topics. The first Anthrax album with Bush was a success, going gold in 1993 and debuting
at number seven on the Billboard charts. It was the last success Anthrax would ever really experience.

The band recorded with Bush for the next eleven years and continued to release it grind it out style metal albums. A lot of Anthrax fans prefer that incarnation of the band, but to me it sounds like a different group. The mis-steps with Anthrax were not so much recording with Bush, it's what happened after that in the mid-2000's. I saw them once with Bush, and dude was great, but the core of the set-list was Belladonna-Anthrax with a different singer. That tells you what era the bands strongest material came from.

The band began to turn into a joke when they kicked Bush out of the band to go on a poorly planned reunion tour with Belladonna. (A tour I got to see twice, and I thought was awesome, but publicity for it was about zero.) Barely two years into the reunion with Belladonna he either left the band or was kicked out, and John Bush was brought back in at the last minute to save some gigs. Bush didn't really want to come back, but is kind of a stand up guy. When offered the full time Anthrax gig again Bush turned it down so he continue to do voice over work in Hollywood, which is probably far more profitable (he's done a lot of work for Burger King). The band then settled on a guy named Dan Nelson, whose tenure with the band resulted in an unreleased album and a few live shows before he was kicked out.

You probably know where this is going now right? Bush came back yet again to do some live shows, and then a year later Belladonna rejoined the band. Last summer Anthrax was invited to be a part of the "Big 4" tour in Europe, featuring the biggest 80's "thrash" bands: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. By virtue of having toured in a station wagon the last ten years Anthrax was the opener. When the "Smaller Three" went on tour last fall (all bands minus Metallica) it was again Anthrax who opened. When I saw that tour I was again the one dude there for Anthrax. Some things are hard to give up.

Today the band released it's first new studio record with Belladonna in twenty years, "Worship Music" (much of which was originally recorded with Nelson). What am I listening to right now? You know the answer to that. Who will be the lead singer of Anthrax next week? Probably Rob Halford, and then Bush for a few days, and then Sheryl Crow for a month or two.

Anyways, I'm geeked to be listening to new Belladonna Anthrax. It's not quite as good as the stuff from twenty-five years ago, but it's big, loud, metal, and probably the best rock/metal album so far this year. Listen to Fight 'Em Till You Can't if you've been missing the old school metal.

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