Can't stop the mosh
They were lost for a while, but 1980s metal megastars Anthrax are back, with old frontman Joey Belladonna, a new album and a new energy. “We sell more tickets now than in 1986,” guitarist Scott Ian tells RONAN McGREEVY
In 2009, after more than a decade of diminishing returns, they had recorded an album of new material, but had no singer – ironic given that they have had eight since the band’s formation. They had parted ways with Dan Nelson and then his replacement John Bush, who had been in the band previously and was the longest-serving vocalist Anthrax had ever had.
The death rattle of a band in its final throes was audible. What to do?
“That was the most confusing moment in all my years of Anthrax, and we’ve been through a lot of crap, as any band would, in a 30-year span,” recalls guitarist Scott Ian – the only permanent member of Anthrax since the band’s formation in 1981. “To be sitting there with a finished album and no lead singer was certainly a new one for all of us.”
The solution seemed obvious to everybody except the band themselves. “Charlie [drummer Benante] brought up Joey Belladonna in a meeting. He said ‘Why don’t we talk to Joey?’ and we said, ‘yeah, shit, why don’t we talk to Joey’.”
Belladonna was the singer during the 1980s when Anthrax were at their creative and commercial zenith. Vocalists have come and gone but he has always been the one most associated in the public mind with the band. Between 1985 and 1992, with Belladonna on vocals, Anthrax released four albums, Spreading the Disease, Among the Living, State of Euphoria and Persistence of Time.
That phase spawned the songs for which they are best known, from Madhouse to their inspired cover version of Joe Jackson’s song Got the Time.
But in 1992, when grunge threatened to lay waste to the whole metal scene, Belladonna’s old-school vocal delivery came to be regarded as superfluous to requirements and he was fired. He returned to rekindle old glories with a long tour in 2005 and 2006, but when they were offered a further lucrative supporting slot, he baulked.
Ian now admits that he should never have fired Belladona in the first place. “People say ‘why it is so hard to keep a line-up together?’. People don’t get it. It’s worse than family,” he says.
“You spend so much time with people in your life and sometimes it would seem like the easiest thing on your mind to pick up the phone and call somebody.
“We called Joey. We met in New York. It was as simple as 15 minutes over a cup of coffee in New York. ‘Do you want to do it? What do you think?’ He was on the same page. That was three years ago and we haven’t looked back.”
The induction of Metallica, the undisputed kings of thrash, into the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 provided another fillip. Ever scheming and dreaming of ways to keep Metallica in the public eye, drummer Lars Ulrich came up with his most audacious plan to date, a tour involving the “Big Four” of thrash metal, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax.
He made the suggestion to Ian who had been invited to Metallica’s induction. “We were all drunk and Lars said ‘what do you think about doing the Big Four?’ and I said ‘what’s the Big Four?’ I said it was awesome, not taking it seriously at all. It was drunk talk.”
Most fans thought it could not be done because of the ocean of bitterness between Megadeth mainstay Dave Mustaine and his erstwhile bandmates in Metallica, who fired him in 1982. (An encounter between Ulrich and Mustaine on the brilliant Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster is worth checking out on YouTube.)
To compound matters, the combustible Mustaine also had an ongoing feud with Kerry King from Slayer.
Ian says Anthrax never fought with anybody. “So much of that crap is ancient history. As much as I’d like to think none of us have grown up, a lot of us have grown up in a lot of ways.
“We have got on with those other three bands always. Whatever issues Dave and Metallica had in the past, it certainly wasn’t rearing up whenever we were playing shows together.”
In true redemptive fashion, Mustaine kicked his addictions and became a born-again Christian. He made his peace with the rest, and the Big Four tour has been an unqualified success, playing to massive outdoor crowds in Europe in 2010 and 2011. For Anthrax, New York boys to the core (the others are from the West Coast), playing Yankee Stadium in September 2011 was one of the great moments of their career.
“I can’t really say enough about those shows. Metallica have many reasons for their success over the years, and timing certainly is one of them. Success in the entertainment business is luck and timing. It really gave us the kick in the arse to keep moving forward.
“Those shows were very much the impetus to get Joey back in the band. We felt that Joey should be the guy representing us on those shows because he was the guy who helped break Anthrax in the 1980s.
“It gave us the impetus to re-expose ourselves to an audience that has not seen us in a long time and it exposed us to a new audience that had heard of Anthrax and never seen us.”
No group has benefited more from the exposure generated by the Big Four than Anthrax. They did finish that album with Belladonna as vocalist and what a record it turned out to be.
Worship Music is as good as anything they have ever done. As metal tends to ever more extreme forms of expression, the album is a reminder of why thrash remains timeless, demonstrating again that aggression and melody are not mutually exclusive.
Of all the thrash bands, Anthrax had the lightest of touches. They were the closest to mainstream metal bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, mostly because they had a vocalist who could hit the higher registers.
They had a sense of humour with a penchant in particular for songs based on comic books. They also had a sense of style that influenced future generations of metal bands, wearing skateboard shoes, back-turned baseball hats and shorts.
Their successful collaboration with Public Enemy in 1991 paved the way for the metal/rap hybrid and the nu-metal of the following century, but all their innovation could not save them from the protracted slump exacerbated by multiple line-up changes.
That was then, but this is now. Since the sad death of Ronnie James Dio two years ago, Belladonna now has probably the purest voice in metal.
Ian has previously said that once they heard Belladonna’s first take on the new songs, they knew they were going to produce something special. “One after another, the songs kept getting better and better. We’re pretty thrilled.”
The reaction from fans has been equally positive. The album charted at No 12 in the US Billboard 200, their second-highest placing, and it has gone on to sell three times as many as its predecessor. Their shows in Belfast and Dublin on the present tour are sold out.
Ian, whose bald pate and extended goatee makes him the most recognisable member of the band, started Anthrax when he was 17. He didn’t think he would still be in a band at 18 let alone 48, which he is now.
“All we ever wanted to do was to make records and go out on tour. That ought to be an easy thing once you are an established band to continue doing, but it really isn’t.
“It is said there are peaks and valleys and we have definitely come out of the valley. We weren’t playing stadiums in 1986. We sell more tickets now than we did then.
“When you have come this far, it is just an amazing idea that there are so many people on this planet who love this music.”
Worship Music is out now. Anthrax play the Limelight Belfast tomorrow night, and the Academy, Dublin, Friday, November 16th
November - a month for metal
If heavy metal had a month it would have to be November. A metal audience will always resemble a Halloween fancy dress party and the preoccupation with death and darkness, which are part of the ancient feast of Samhain, are two of metal’s perennial themes.
In keeping with the time of year, it has been something of a vintage month for metal gigs and the live scene here is thriving. Already Ugly Kid Joe supported by Guns N’ Roses bass player Duff McKagan’s band Loaded have been here as have Swedish power metallers Sabaton.
Though Anthrax is the big one, on Wednesday, November 14th, the incomparable Opeth will play Vicar Street. They have been touring their brilliant new album Heritage. Fronted by multi-instrumentalist Mikael Akerfeldt, there is no musical avenue that this band hasn’t been down in their 22 years from the darkest of death metal to freeform jazz.
German thrash titans Sodom will play the Button Factory on November 17th to celebrate their 30th anniversary together.
Further afield there was more good news for metal fans. Black Sabbath’s first album with Ozzy Osbourne (with Tony Iommi, left) for 33 years will be released next April. They’ve also announced a tour of Australia and Japan with the expectation that a tour of Europe will follow.