July 21st, 2012 | Published in Featured
Anthrax spent a majority of the 1990s fighting for relevance in a changing sonic landscape. Today, the band has renewed their bid for metal dominance by dispensing ulterior motives and going back to what they do best—thrashing. Ironically, they found relevance by calling off their search for it; their latest CD, Worship Music, captures a band rocking out harder (and faster) than ever because its players are no longer distracted by externalities. They’ve re-embraced a fundamental truth within themselves, and it sounds absolutely killer. After all, Anthrax was the brutal musical brainstorm of a couple hairy ne’er-do-wells dreaming of superstardom—but who spent most of their nascent years in squalor, eating “bologna on hand” while writing guitar riffs.
The guys are dining well these days, thank you—but that spiritual hunger lingers. Anthrax was always the uppity little brother band of the more commercially successful Metallica, a group of keep-it-real buds who weren’t too cool for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle flying-V guitars or surfer shorts, and who experimented with rap-metal (“I’m the Man,” “Bring the Noise”) before the style became cliché. But even when Anthrax was down, Ian and friends never quit their musical vision. Maybe it’s the Bronx blood in them; that kind of integrity never goes out of style.
The band was at (another) crossroads following the release of their acclaimed 2003 album We’ve Come for You All. The New York bashers had already survived lineup changes, with lead guitarist Dan Spitz and longtime singer Joey Belladonna jumping ship just prior the grunge tsunami swept through the metal world, the Biblical tide effectively killing the careers of all but the strongest head-bangers. The stopgap remix album Greater of Two Evils allowed the quintet to reminisce, revisiting classic songs from the Belladonna and (original vocalist) Neil Turbin eras with John Bush (ex-Armored Saint) at the mic for the last time.
Belladonna returned in 2005-07 for a successful tour that celebrated the Anthrax golden years, with cuts from the seminal Among the Living dominating the set. But when the time came to go back in the studio, Belladonna bailed again. Bush had already moved on with his career, so band founders Scott Ian (rhythm guitar) and Charlie Benante (drums) tapped Devilize singer Dan Nelson to be the next voice of Anthrax. But Nelson was also jettisoned by August 2009, his pink slip issued due in part to illness.
Belladonna was lured back for the historic “Big 4” shows in Europe and the United States in 2010-11 and put his pipes on the tracks already recorded for the next Anthrax album. It was providence all over again. Worship Music went from voiceless demo to hotly-anticipated comeback album. Ian thanked fans for their patience by releasing the first single, “Fight ‘em Til You Can’t,” for free on the band’s website. The melodic, hyper-speed tune is ostensibly about outlasting zombies in a post-apocalyptic world—but the band’s own story of survival in an inhospitable musical climate is apparent.
Anthrax swung by Cleveland last Fall with Testament. The Summer finds them hitting outdoor sheds on the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival along with other metal mavens like Slayer and Motorhead. Younger groups like Slipknot, Asking Alexandria, As I Lay Dying, Whitechapel, and The Devil Wears Prada are also on the bill.
Founded by the same people who launched the Vans Warped Tour, the metal-themed Mayhem Fest continues setting attendance records in its fiftth year: Over 42,000 fans were present at the kick-off dates in San Bernardino and San Francisco earlier this month.
Anthrax has a special “guerilla” set list planned for the upcoming tour.
“We decided to pattern the Mayhem set on the kind of shows The Ramones used to do,” says Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante.”
“It will be a high-energy, non-stop barrage. No lulls, no filler, totally in your face. We’re going to be playing a supersonic-paced set loaded with the best of our best.”
“We really like the idea of not ‘playing to seats,’” added guitarist Scott Ian.
“We want our crowd to have the freedom to move around, to go crazy with us. Plus, we’ve been on the road together now for about two years, so we’re tighter as a band than we’ve ever been. Our Mayhem set will be a fun, fast and furious 45-minutes, so they’d better have the EMTs on hand.”
The Cleveland Sound caught up with Benante during a rest stop at home last month. The New York-born basher was enthusiastic about Mayhem—and about the renewed interest in metal music in general.
THE CLEVELAND SOUND: We were lucky enough to catch you guys in town last Fall with Testament and Death Angel. How was that tour for you?
CHARLIE BENANTE: That was good. I guess you could call that a test-run for Mayhem, because it was the same type of vibe, you know? It was awesome. Just a great audience. A great vibe.
TCS: The Mayhem Tour will bring you to Ohioon July 25th with Slayer and a bunch of other bands.
CB: Yeah, Slayer’s on there. Motorhead. It’s a pretty heavy bill this year.
TCS: Oh, before we forget…you Tweeted recently that your flight home after the Testament tour was scrubbed and you had to drive the whole way. What happened?
CB: [Laughs] Yeah, my flight was cancelled, and they told me the reason for the flight being cancelled was because of crew fatigue. Which I’ve never heard of before. But I’ve got a feeling it’s going to become pretty popular now!
TCS: Wouldn’t it be nice if that were a legitimate excuse for everyone? “Good morning, boss! I won’t make it in today. I’m fatigued!”
CB: Yeah! It’s like, “I don’t feel like playing tonight. I have band fatigue!” I mean, look. If it’s the pilot, by all means—go get some rest. But if it’s a stewardess or whatever…come on. It was just a fifty-minute flight [laughs]!
TCS: Getting back to the music…the newest Anthrax album, Worship Music, was a long time coming and has gotten a lot of positive attention from fans and critics alike. It also marks the return of singer Joey Belladonna. Could you talk us through how the record was put together?
CB: Well, it was one of those records where we never thought it would actually come out. We came off the road in 2006 and started compiling some songs for what would be the next Anthrax record, but really didn’t have a singer in mind. We just compiled the songs, then got together with some of the other guys and started arranging until it started to become something. The greatest part was when Joey came back into the band; that’s when the record really, really started to mean something. So that was a great moment, when you heard vocals on top of these songs. It all sounded kind of familiar!
TCS: You and [guitarist} Scott Ian attended a private party in Cleveland at House of Blues in April 2009 on the eve of Metallica’s induction into the Rock Hall. Word has it that the seeds for the Big 4 shows were planted that night as the result of talk between all you guys.
CB: It was that night when [Metallica drummer] Lars said to me and Scott, “Hey, we’re thinking of doing a ‘Big 4’.” And we were like, “Fuck—that’s killer. Let’s do it!” So yeah, that was the reasoning behind getting our shit together, because we knew this was gonna happen, you know?
TCS: It’s got to feel vindicating to know after some rough years, and after a few starts and stops, that the metal community was there waiting for Anthrax to return….
CB: Yeah, it seems like things have gotten a lot better as far as metal in general. People have regained a taste for metal and hard rock. There was a period there was I was saying, “I wish America would take a lesson from Europe” in the way they treat metal—and music in general. Because over here it’s so fickle. You’ve got all these cookie-cutter bands that make these shitty songs that are on the radio, and they’re trying to call it “metal.” But it’s not “metal,” it’s pop. What’s the difference between that and ABBA?
TCS: Worship Music has a lot of killer cuts that pack old-school power with a modern-day feel. “Fight ‘em Till You Can’t,” “Earth on Hell,” and “The Devil You Know” are the standout tracks. But could you talk a little about “In the End?” The song is a tribute to other popular musicians….
CB: It’s basically about [singer Ronnie James] Dio and [Pantera guitarist] Dimebag. “In the End” was one of those songs that I pretty much reworked a lot, and when it came time to write some lyrics for it, I was talking to Scott about it. And he said he didn’t know what to write about. I told him that for some reason the song evoked some sort of melancholy in me, and I was thinking about Dimebag a lot. And I came up with the first two lines in the song, and I told Scott about it. And he liked it and just ran with it. The song ended up being about Dimebag and Dio. It’s one of those songs that, when you play it, there are moments when it brings memories up. And I really like that. Because sometimes when you’re up there playing, you can just zone off somewhere [laughs]. And sometimes if you see me zoning off, it’s probably me thinking about those memories.
TCS: How about “Revolution Screams?” Whereas a song like “Fight ‘Em” is about surviving a zombie holocaust, “Revolution” has roots in the real world. The lyrics talk a little about bucking the system—a concept that isn’t new to punk or metal. But what’s the specific impetus there?
CB: Well, about two weeks ago I tweeted something about the tax revolt. About Americans just pretty much…what would happen if no one filed? And the whole IRS thing had to rethink how we’re all taxed? Especially for me. I pay really high property taxes, and even in a bad economy, like for the past couple years when home sales have gone down considerably, how can they charge the same property tax on a home that’s lost value? It’s a scam. And there needs to be some sort of…someone appointed to investigate all this. City to city, state to state. But it seems like it just goes on, and we’re all stuck paying these taxes. And 75% of these taxes are going to schools, and I question that, too. Because if 75% is going to schools out of my property tax, why are you hitting me up every other week for school stuff?
TCS: I feel your pain. It’s the same here in our part of Ohio.
CB: Yeah! It’s like, what the fuck is going on? I just think we Americans need to act more like Europeans when shit is wrong. They just take to the streets. Start a revolution.
TCS: Anthrax is coming up on its thirtieth anniversary. Do people ask you all the time if you ever thought you’d be at it this long—either as a band or just yourself as a heavy metal drummer?
CB: I think it’s this year. I think….Well, I joined the band in ’83, so…. I don’t think we gave it much thought back then. We definitely had dreams. I don’t think we thought our dreams would take us this far into it. ‘Cause think about it. In 1983 or ’84 when we were doing this, we really didn’t have a lot of heroes who were getting up there in age. I think the oldest band at the time was what, The Rolling Stones? They’re still the oldest, I guess! But yeah, you always get that question. “Did you think you’d be doing this in your 40s and 50s?” Who knows? If you’re still interested in it, and you can get other people interested in it, then by all means. We get up there and just do it.
TCS: The fans have certainly come back with the band, hitting the shows and picking up the new disc.
CB: Yeah, correct. Attendance-wise, the shows are doing really well. As far as people buying our record, that’s a whole other story. Let’s just say if this were 1989, we’d have a platinum record on our hands.
TCS: You mean piracy and illegal downloading?
CB: You gotta look at it that way. I don’t know what the percentage is. It’s gotta be like, 70-75% of people stealing it.
TCS: That’s unfortunate. You’d think positive word-of-mouth would get people to just buy it legitimately. You guys had it set at reasonable prices. Even lower than usual. Hopefully the perpetrators at least fork up to catch the lives shows. We’ll see you in Ohio in a few weeks!
CB: I wish we could do a bunch of those Big 4 dates here. That would be a metal-head’s dream.
Anthrax will headline Mayhem’s Jagermeister stage at BlossomMusicCenteron July 25th at around 5:00pm.
*UPDATE: Charlie Benante has been sidelined due to a wrist injury. Drummer Jason Bittner (of Shadows Fall) will be filling in for Charlie on select Mayhem dates. No word yet on whether Benante will be in karate-choppin’ good health by July 25th. A Tweet posted by the drummer (featuring a photo of him mugging for the camera with Dave Matthews) on July 8, 2012 states that “my wrist is getting better.”
Charlie Benante on Twitter @skisum