80s, 90s classic Anthrax
Sound of a Rapidly Diminishing Audience
the '90's and 2000's
by Pete Crigler
When the '90's began, thrash metal had asserted its dominance. While they were nowhere as massive as hair metal and its ilk, bands like Slayer, Testament, Megadeth, and others had become huge nevertheless, selling tons of records and tickets. Of course, the behemoth of them all was Metallica, but it would be impossible for any other band to overtake them. These bands and dozens of others were perfectly content with their spot in the metal world and kept on, despite diminishing sales throughout the decade, amid a heavier reliance on grunge and indie rock. Some of these bands like Testament and Slayer kept persevering and making records. Others like Exodus and Death Angel sat out the nineties for the most part. Then there's Anthrax, a band that started off the decade with a bang and then would spend upwards of twenty years trying to reclaim their relevance.
The band had broken through with 1987's Among the Living, a record still seen as one of thrash metal's shining moments. By then, the band had stabilized their lineup with vocalist Joey Belladonna, bassist Frank Bello, guitarists Scott Ian and Dan Spitz, and drummer Charlie Benante. The band had signed with Island/Megaforce and had hits, including "Caught in a Mosh," "Indians" and the rap-rock hybrid "I'm the Man." Even 1988's rushed State of Euphoria contained classics like "Antisocial," "Be All, End All," and "Who Cares Wins." The band had begun to feel pigeonholed as a result of their sense of humor and the comical clothes they were constantly seen wearing in videos. They started to rebel against this image and decided the next record was going to be dark and serious.
As they were starting to demo songs, a fire at their rehearsal space, costing them a large amount of gear and equipment. The band used this setback to their advantage though when they went into the studio with longtime associate Mark Dodson. The result, 1990's Persistence of Time, is probably one of their strongest albums and contains two of their all-time best tracks--"In My World" and "Belly of the Beast"--not to mention a killer cover of Joe Jackson's "Got the Time." The record was critically hailed, and the band toured for over a year with the likes of Slayer and Public Enemy, but the album only attained gold status, selling the same as the last two. It's a mystery why the band couldn't break through in a massive way like Metallica and Megadeth had. The songs were there, the musicianship was definitely there, so what was it? It was a question the band were to ponder for the rest of their career.
The band went into 1991 on a high. During the year, they embarked on the Clash of the Titans tour with Slayer, Megadeth, and Alice in Chains. They also did a co-headlining tour with Public Enemy with openers Primus, and they appeared on a classic episode of Married... with Children (where they perform with '50's TV star Edd "Kookie" Byrnes). Moreover, they released an outtakes/covers comp, Attack of the Killer B's. This record was also certified gold, was nominated for a Grammy and contained their collaboration with Public Enemy on PE's remake of their titanic single "Bring the Noise," now redone as a rap/metal hybrid.
Seemingly on top of the world, the band came off the road towards the end of 1991 and began work on another record. But by the spring of 1992, the band's plans had gone completely haywire. Out of nowhere it seemed, the band parted ways with Belladonna and replaced him with Armored Saint front man John Bush. Bush was now the band's third singer, and it was shocking to a lot of fans at the time as to why they would make this change. Even Belladonna was confused by the whole thing. Around the same time, the band also parted with Island and Megaforce and signed a $10 million deal with Elektra, home of Metallica. All of this upheaval created an interesting time in the band's history, and there was no doubt that it was going to be challenging for them to see if they could come up with an album as strong and memorable as its predecessor.
John Bush era Anthrax
In May of 1993, the band finally unleashed Sound of White Noise, produced by Dave Jerden, best known for his work with Alice in Chains, Social Distortion, and Jane's Addiction. He had also produced Armored Saint's last album, Symbol of Salvation. What we got was a thicker, meatier sound with less emphasis on speed and more on a loud, heavy crunch. There were some grunge influences as well as groove and Pantera-like guitar tones all throughout. Despite all the sonic differences, the band created some of their most memorable material, including "Only" and "Room for One More." Other singles included the "Twin Peaks"-influenced "Black Lodge" and the almost-haphazard "Hy Pro Glo." The inspirations for certain elements of the album ended up being a bit strange: the title "Hy Pro Glo" came from a bag of dog food and the sample at the end of the otherwise-excellent "This Is Not an Exit" came from the Macauley Culkin B movie My Girl. But I guess inspiration can come from anywhere.
Even the B-sides off this album are outstanding. "Poison My Eyes," with turntable scratches from Public Enemy's Terminator X, was utilized on the soundtrack to the disastrous Arnold Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero and was probably the first ever Anthrax song I heard when I was seven. A cover of The Smiths' "London" was utilized on the soundtrack for the Adam Sandler cult comedy Airheads, while a decent cover of the Beasties' "Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun" came out on The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience. But although the Sound of White Noise album debuted at number seven, an all-time peak for the band, it still only went gold, keeping up with their previous releases. This had to be disappointing for everyone involved, but they still went out on tour for nearly a year. However, the tides were changing.
In the summer of 1994, lead guitarist Dan Spitz announced his departure. He was a part of the band from their first record and lay down multiple noteworthy solos, so his departure would leave a hole in the band that would take years to fill. They took some time off and regrouped at the beginning of 1995 to begin work on the next record. Deciding to shake things up a bit, they teamed up with hip-hop producers The Butcher Brothers, at that point best known for producing Urge Overkill. This was not going to be a great experience nor a great record.
By the time Stomp 442, named after a powerful car engine, was released in October 1995, metal was no longer as relevant as it had once been and a lot of surviving metal bands, including Metallica, had no clue what to do, so most of them decided to go in different directions, trying new things and seeing if they could recapture the world like they had before Nirvana and Pearl Jam took over. In this case, Anthrax ended up making one of the worst records anyone could have possibly done. I have no songs from this in my iTunes, and I don't own a CD copy. The only thing I have from this record is one lone outtake, "Grunt & Click." Anyone that knows me as an Anthrax fan should know that means something if I have hardly anything from this disc.
The album's first single, "Fueled," feels like it's made up of four or five different parts that were thrown together in a desperate attempt to create something notable for this album. The song is all over the place--there's notable alt-rock elements throughout, and it just comes off as a disaster to these ears. The song flopped on radio and without its presence on MTV's "Headbanger's Ball" show, the video had absolutely no chance. Worse still was the video for the follow-up single, "Nothing." Set on a frozen, snow-covered farm, the band are supposed to appear as anthrax-like molecules on a diseased cow. It's stupid, lame, and makes no sense, not even as a performance clip. The rest of the record is completely unmemorable and one of the lamest metal albums I've ever heard.
Audiences felt similarly and the record tanked, not even breaking the top 40, and it quickly disappeared. By 1996, on the road with Pantera, with guitarist Paul Crook picking up the extra slack, the band's downward trend had spiked, and things would only get worse. By the end of the year, the band had been dropped by Elektra, with President Sylvia Rhone allegedly telling them that she would never have signed them. Other than a song for the horror movie Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood, the band went away for quite a while before attempting another record. The first thing they had to do was to try to find a suitable record deal, and this is where the band stumbled very badly. They seemed to have this mentality that they were too big for indie labels like Relapse, Nuclear Blast, or even Roadrunner. So, even though sales weren't there, they still felt that they were a major label quality band, which they weren't at this stage in the game, though they were damn determined to rise to the occasion.
Into this abyss, the band signed with Ignition Records, a startup that was funded and distributed by the renowned hip-hop label Tommy Boy. At that point, Ignition had just begun and they only had three artists, including Samiam and Spring Heeled Jack U.S.A.. Still, the band signed on the dotted line and proceeded to work on finishing their next disc.
By the summer of 1998, Volume 8: The Threat is Real was ready to hit stores. Produced by the band in their own home studios, the record was a bit of a return to form with more of the thrash and speed elements, returning to their original sound while still maintaining an alt-rock sound. Tracks like the lead single, "Inside Out," and "Crush" are a big improvement over anything that was on Stomp and the band even returned to a humorous style that had been missing for over a decade. A song such as Scott Ian's Descendents-like ode to coffee, "Cupajoe," wouldn't have been allowed on earlier discs, but with less pressure from outside sources, the band lightened up for a bit and made a better record as a result. The album's hidden track, "Pieces," was written and performed by Frank Bello after the unsolved murder of his brother the previous year. Among the album's B-sides were covers of Radiohead's "The Bends" and a really good take of D.R.I.'s "Snap/I'd Rather Be Sleeping."
Unfortunately, the album totally underperformed, only getting to number 118, by far the band's worst showing to date. A video was made for "Inside Out," which was an homage to a classic Twilight Zone episode and was miles ahead of the videos made for Stomp. But the label was sinking as fast as the record. By the end of 1998, the label was essentially dead, and the band was left to search for another home. They ended up signing with Beyond, an independent with major distribution that was home to Blondie, Yes, Motley Crue, and others. By the summer of 1999, they were prepping their first greatest hits release. Return of the Killer A's boasted a new cover of the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" with vocals by both Bush and Belladonna, which was seen as a bit of a coup at the time. There was also a push to promote "Crush" from Volume 8 as a single, but that failed. There was also an attempt to tour with both singers but allegedly, Belladonna had some money issues with the band and the tour fell through. Instead, they ended up touring with Megadeth and Motley Crue.
Then the 2000's began, and the band were at their lowest ebb. By 2001, Beyond had essentially ceased to exist and the band hadn't been able to get a new record out. By this time, Paul Crook had left for good and had been replaced by Rob Caggiano (Boiler Room), who was soon made a full member. The band continued touring, and then 9/11 happened and (with a horrible irony), the NYC anthrax mail attacks occurred.
The band were under fire because suddenly people knew what anthrax really meant and in this case, it wasn't connected to a pioneering thrash band. There was briefly talk of a name change, but at a 9/11 benefit show for New York firefighters, the band emerged wearing white lab suits bearing the slogan "We're Not Changing Our Name," to loud cheers from the crowd. With all of that settled, the band began work on a new record, despite the lack of a deal.
By 2003, progress had been relatively quick, and the band announced a new album was forthcoming. In February of '03, the album was released in Japan as an American deal was still being finalized. It was reported that the band was in talks to sign with ArtistDirect Records, which was yet another upstart--this one had financing from Interscope--but those talks never got very far. Ultimately, the band signed with Sanctuary, home to metal legends like Corrosion of Conformity, Biohazard, Overkill, and others. Finally in May, We've Come for You All was released in the States and Europe by Sanctuary. The album was preceded by the single "Safe Home," a more melodic take on the classic Anthrax sound. It was a decent song for sure, but it doesn't jump out of the speakers like "Only." Even a video featuring Keanu Reeves wasn't enough to drum up interest in the album, which peaked at 122 in the States. This became an all-time charting low for the band. There's not a whole lot on this disc, but there are highlights, including "What Doesn't Die," as well as guest appearances by Dimebag of Pantera and the Who's Roger Daltrey, of all people. The album returns the band to their classic thrash sound, a sound they would stick with on subsequent albums. Despite their age of experimentation coming to an end, this was a mediocre return to form.
Luckily, touring was picking up, the band were doing well, and the shows were very well received. The band decided to release their first authorized live record, Music of Mass Destruction, in the spring of 2004, which was warmly received, and the band kept touring. Then that summer, bassist Frank Bello announced his exit from the band, to the shock of fans around the world. Much was made of this and the reasons were discussed across the web. The band decided to keep touring and brought in Bush's Armored Saint bandmate Joey Vera to fill in for remaining dates. Armored Saint by this point had reunited a few years prior and were touring and recording when Anthrax wasn't busy.
Bello went on to play with Page Hamilton's reunited Helmet that fall, and Anthrax released The Greater of Two Evils, a compilation of some of their best Belladonna-era tracks, re-recorded with Bush on vocals. It was overall a disappointing package--Bush can't nail Belladonna's parts and vice versa. Then, as the band was starting to settle into a formula, they shook things up in a way fans were not expecting.
It was around this time that I really discovered Anthrax. I watched a lot of Fuse TV, which still played music videos constantly at the time, and between their metal shows and VH1 Classic, I learned about "Indians," "Antisocial," and "Got the Time." I ended up getting a 2001 greatest hits album of the Island years for a high school graduation gift and I absolutely loved it. This disc was what prompted me to start digging for more and helped me to become the fan I still am today.
In the spring of 2005, it was announced the band was reuniting with Belladonna, Bello, and Spitz. Bush and Caggiano were pushed to the sidelines, and the reunited band seemingly roared back to life on the road as evidenced by video from the tour. There were reported attempts to make a new album, but nothing worked, and eventually Spitz split again, for the last time. By the end of around 2006, Belladonna split again as well. Caggiano came back and the band improbably hired a fourth lead singer, the unknown Dan Nelson, who was going to write and record a new album as soon as was possible. Now, to take this into consideration, bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and a few others had made the lead singer change a few times, but these bands topped out at three, and those third singers didn't last long before the classic second singers came back. For Anthrax to have been on a fourth singer was pretty damn ridiculous and made one wonder what was really going on behind the scenes. The band put on a brave face and continued working until 2009 when Nelson was ejected, and Bush was brought back for a series of festival dates.
Obviously, this ongoing game of musical chairs couldn't keep going, and after the festival shows, Bush left for good and began a period of being out of contact with the rest of the band. He went back to Armored Saint while Anthrax finally went back and settled on Belladonna for good. At this point, the band had at least 75% of an album finished with Dan Nelson but decided to go ahead and scrap his vocals and have Joey re-record them and write some new lyrics.
Finally, in September of 2011, after eight long years, Worship Music was released. The album debuted in the top 20 and was critically hailed. It seemed as though the band had finally come out the other side. The next couple of years saw the band tour successfully again, including shows with The Big 4 (which also includes Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer). In the ever-shifting line-up, Caggiano quit to join Volbeat and was replaced by Jon Donais of Shadows Fall, while Dan Nelson sued the band for songwriting royalties (which was settled out of court). The band also came back quicker with releases, including an EP of classic rock covers called Anthems and a 2016 album For All Kings, which debuted in the top 10 but wasn't as loved as its predecessor. There were even a few Grammy nominations.
It's 2021, and it's been almost five years since For All Kings was released. It takes the band longer and longer to get new material out, but at least they're still around. They've been through more hell than most bands of their ilk and had more than a fair share of industry bullshit and politics. But they're still kicking and honestly, they sound just as good as they did back in 1991, and in my opinion, there really aren't a whole lot of other thrash bands that can say that. Ultimately, isn't the world a bit better because they're still here?
Also see our article on Anthrax in the '80's
Also see Peter Crigler's blog
|MAIN PAGE||ARTICLES||STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC||LINKS|