Disproving the fantasy that New York bands were too cool to play heavy metal, Anthrax abandoned the hardcore scene early enough to get in on the ground floor of the underground movement that eventually spawned Megadeth and Metallica. One of the most fertile products of the cross between metal and punk, the quintet helped establish the genre of speed metal in the mid-’80s, fused its hard-guitar attack with rap rhythms in 1987 and attained widespread popularity with 1990’s Persistence of Time, a survey of urban decay and psychological tumult that jumbled together all sorts of information-horror classics and hate crimes, apocalyptic visions and meditations on gridlock. Down-to-earth and streetwise, neatly straddling the worlds of cool and killer, Anthrax carved itself a unique role as full-blown rockers not entirely lost to the mentality of the mosh pit.
The quintet’s debut, Fistful of Metal is fast and furious, but not overbearingly so, holding to a near-rock sound punctuated by dizzying guitar solos. Singer Neil Turbin has a good strong voice but lets fly with stereotypical falsetto howls far too often for adult audio comfort.
Turbin and bassist Dan Lilker were subsequently replaced; the latter went on to form Nuclear Assault. The Armed and Dangerous mini-LP unveiled the new lineup on a pair of studio previews for Spreading the Disease, two live renditions of songs from the previous LP and a reverent, hard-hitting version of “God Save the Queen.” The album that followed is, all things considered, much better, a scalding assault that reasserts the band’s punk bearings with chunky chords, varying tempos and searing vocals.
The back cover of Among the Living, co-produced by rock veteran Eddie Kramer, shows Anthrax looking relaxed in a subway station, wearing sneakers, jeans and leather jackets. The album focuses the band’s sound and attitude to arena-scale, replacing old-fashioned metal clichés with a demi-hardcore approach — shifting tempos, gang vocals — that translated well to larger venues. Besides “Caught in a Mosh,” two songs based on Stephen King prose and one inspired by a British comic character, Anthrax trots out a bit of common Bronx street slang to humorous effect in “Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.),” while using the word “dissin” in “Indians.” An entirely different sort of post-metal record that is uniquely New York.
Anthrax’s merry cross-cultural adventure stretches even further afield on I’m the Man, a six-cut EP with three versions — “Censored,” “Def Uncensored” and “Extremely Def Ill Uncensored” — of the hysterical Beasties-styled rap-rocking title track. The EP also contains live takes of “Caught in a Mosh” and “I Am the Law,” plus a convincing rendition of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.”
By 1988, however, the Mad magazine-style band portrait on State of Euphoria‘s back cover wasn’t Anthrax’s only cartoonish element. Although the album went gold faster than any of its predecessors and showed a reasonable amount of progression (especially in the lyrics: “Who Cares Wins” is a hard-hitting depiction of the homeless), the riffs bounce around on pogo sticks, leading the band into a stylistic corner.
Anthrax took some time off before returning with the bruising Persistence of Time; a leaner, tougher band attacks the revitalized songs with more energy than any effort since Spreading the Disease. The self-parodic element remains, but Anthrax fights it with a roaring second wind, confronting the real world (family abuse, racism) with music as tough as the subject matter. And if you really want to know what time it is as far as the post-punk world goes, they cover Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” (from his first album) as if it were a hard-rock classic.
Attack of the Killer B’s, a contract-fulfilling odds’n’sods collection, contains reasonably crunchy alternate tracks and signature covers, including a version of “Bring the Noise” that features Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav. Live: The Island Years, recorded mainly in 1991 (four tracks are from a ’92 radio broadcast), offers a more vital look at a band in peak form. Whether shouting down prejudice (“Keep It in the Family”) or remaking Kiss’ “Parasite” to their more exacting specifications, Anthrax is able to bring an awe- inspiring measure of precision to blindingly fast music played at a consistently athletic level of intensity.
Anthrax lost lead singer Joey Belladonna in ’92; he went on to form an eponymous quartet and was replaced by ex-Armored Saint belter John Bush, who made his debut on the bland Sound of White Noise. While the instrumental tracks are no less electric, his vocals sound strained, as if he were trying to copy Belladonna’s phrasing.
Before work began on 1995’s Stomp 442, original guitarist Danny Spitz also departed, leaving a quartet in which guitarist Scott Ian and drummer Charlie Benante are the only remnants of the band that made Fistful of Metal. Co-produced by the Butcher Brothers (Urge Overkill) and named after a particularly powerful automobile engine, Stomp 442 restores some of the band’s former glory. Bush makes himself much more at home, the rhythm section (Benante and bassist Frank Bello) seems hungry again and the songwriting — at least on the funky “American Pompeii,” the throttling “Tester” and the anthemic “Fueled” — revisits the flammable mixture of social responsibility and physical agitation that marked Anthrax in the ’80s. A variety of guest stars — including Dimebag Darrell of Pantera — fill the lead guitar slot but, as was true in its heyday, Anthrax’s no-frills rhythm section remains the real catalyst.