Ball of Confusion: A Long, Complicated Thing About My Long, Complicated Relationship With Anthrax

As a young fella growing up in the middle of nowhere, the first metal band I can remember hearing from my brother’s room across the hall was Iron Maiden – “Wasted Years” and “Heaven Can Wait” stuck with me, specifically (“Wasted Years” is still my favorite Maiden song, and is often my favorite ever song). I loved it instantly, because even at the age of nine-and-a-half, I wasn’t stupid. I heard Metallica right around that same time, and they blew my mind as well. Soon I began to hang out in my brother’s room when he wasn’t there, looking through the various cassette tapes his friends had lent him or given him, occasionally popping one in and giving it a listen, and eventually borrowing some of them myself. (I still own a couple of those tapes, namely Sacred Reich’s Ignorance, and a dubbed copy of Pleasures of the Flesh by Exodus.)

One fateful night in mid-1987, I came upon a tape labeled “Slayer” on one side, and “Anthrax” on the other. I’d been reading some metal and hard rock magazines (mostly Hit Parader and Circus), so I’d heard of both bands, but was otherwise unfamiliar with either. I put in the Slayer side first, which turned out to be the superlative Reign in Blood, and it was cued up to what I later learned was “Altar of Sacrifice”.

While I did not grow up in a religious household, the long shadow of fundamental religion was cast over me for most of my childhood, as most of my mom’s side of the family were (and a few still are) members of what is best described as a cult, but that’s another story for another time. The bottom line is that “Altar of Sacrifice” scared the everlovin shit out of me, and I was terrified of Slayer for a couple of years afterward. It all seems so quaint now to this grown-ass fan of all things bloodsoaked and blasphemous.

I turned the tape over to “Anthrax”, rewound it, pressed play, and the slow, doom-laden opening guitars of “Among the Living” began to ring out. This was the album Among the Living, and it would go on to change my life in the same way that Metallica’s Master of Puppets and Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time had less than one year before. Something about these guys seemed different to me, and I started to seek out more information about them (life before the internet was so much harder than some people could ever believe). I liked the fact that they didn’t seem to take themselves as seriously as some of the other thrash bands, and they were clearly fans of comics books and cartoons, not unlike me. The songs were tight as hell, too.

For Christmas that following year, I received the band’s 4th full-length album, State of Euphoria (which is still maybe my favorite Anthrax album – for sure my favorite Joey-era album), and for the first time in my short life, I had my own favorite band.  State of Euphoria is probably best known for being the album that contained “Antisocial”, a cover of a song by a French band called Trust. It’s a great cover, and is still a staple in their live sets, although the band performs it pretty much exactly like the original, which seems to just be the way they do covers.

Beach Day, 1989

Beach Day, 1989

They landed the direct support slot for Ozzy Osbourne on his “No Rest for the Wicked” US tour in the winter of 1988-89, and a headlining slot on the MTV Headbanger’s Ball Tour in 1989, with Exodus and Helloween supporting. The band filmed a video for “Antisocial” which featured the band playing live cut together with footage of their mascot, the “Not Man”, running around and causing mayhem. At the end of the video, we learn that it was the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne, running around wearing the giant head.  The video was in a moderately heavy rotation on MTV that summer; I remember seeing it during the day a few times, even.

I went on to receive the band’s first home video, Oidivnikufesin N.F.V. for my birthday a few months later, and my cousin Jason and I proceeded to watch that thing until our eyes figuratively started to bleed, alternating it with viewings of Metallica’s Cliff ‘Em All home video (Jason was more of a Metallica guy, so we traded off) and Blazing Saddles (still the funniest movie of all time), and eventually adding my recording of an episode of Headbanger’s Ball into the mix.

In the summer of 1990, the band released what was their darkest, arguably heaviest album yet (and by most of my observations, still one of their most popular), Persistence of Time. I don’t know how I managed to not wear my copy out, but I actually still own my original cassette, and it still plays flawlessly. Probably the best known song from this album is the pretty much spot-on cover of Joe Jackson’s Got the Time, which is also still played live at (I’m pretty sure) every single Anthrax show. The band also landed an appearance on a classic episode of Married…With Children called “My Dinner With Anthrax”.

Sometime around this period, I joined the fan club, which got me a badass fan club exclusive t-shirt, a laminated “backstage pass” style membership card, a poster for the Headbanger’s Ball tour mentioned above, and a subscription to the official newsletter. I would like to point out that I inexplicably own none of these items today. What the fuck is wrong with me? I seriously wonder that sometimes. The world may never know.

My shirt was just like this one, only the print on the back was blue.

My shirt was just like this one, only the print on the back was blue. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. Click image to embiggen.

Anyway, I also got around to ordering the band’s second album (and first with Joey Belladonna on vocals), 1985’s Spreading the Disease, from the BMG tape club around this time as well, and my cousin Nathan made me a copy of the band’s first album, 1983’s Fistful of Metal, which is the only Anthrax album to feature original bassist Dan Lilker, as well as Neil Turbin on vocals. I continued to love Anthrax like a family member, eventually wearing out my copy of State of Euphoria (I got a new one through BMG) and my Not Man t-shirt (I was unable to replace this). I scored a copy of 1991’s Attack of the Killer B’s shortly after it was released; this fantastic collection of B-sides and outtakes featured several covers, all of which were performed pretty much to the letter, but is certainly best known for featuring “Bring the Noise”, their mega-hit collaboration with Public Enemy. My love continued to grow.

Then, one otherwise uneventful day in 1992, I received a most unwelcome announcement in the mail, via the fan club: Anthrax had fired longtime singer Joey Belladonna. They assured me that the audition process had been trucking along, and that I would be the first to know when a replacement was named. I was devastated – how could the band I’d grown to love and, in fact, count on to get me through my days possibly continue without that powerful voice? I received an answer approximately one year later, when Sound of White Noise, the first album of the controversial John Bush-era was released.

I initially liked SoWN, but I didn’t love it. Bush’s voice was obviously different than Joey’s, but the music was different, too. It was tuned lower, it was generally slower, and it had more of a groove than before. At the time, it seemed like an unnecessary change in direction. Upon further listening, however, I came to recognize it as more of a natural extension of the darker, slower sound the band introduced on Persistence of Time. The fact that Bush’s voice resided in a lower register really enhanced the darkness, giving it more of an edge than any other Anthrax album at the time.

The album debuted at #7 on the Billboard 200 chart and had 4 hit songs – “Only” (called a “perfect song” by James Hetfield), “Room For One More”, “Hy Pro Glo”, and the haunting, dreamy, Twin Peaks-inspired “Black Lodge”, co-written by Twin Peaks music maestro Angelo Badalementi (and featuring a real weird video starring Jenna Elfman).

The bulk of the criticism lobbed at the band in the wake of Sound of White Noise was in regard to the lack of thrashing in favor of vocal melodies and grooves, and this criticism always has and always will rub me the wrong way. Yes, public interest in thrash metal was waning, and all of the major thrash bands were slowing down and growing up, but it’s not like thrash metal was ever anywhere close to taking over the world; Metallica didn’t become a household name until the release of “the black album” in 1991, and by then, all evidence of their thrash beginnings was long gone.

And I’ll admit there is some likelihood that Anthrax saw the overwhelming success of Metallica’s dumbing down (as well as Megadeth’s successful big slowdown with Countdown to Extinction  a year after Metallica) and decided to hitch their cart to that wagon, but let’s be real for a minute here: after 12-13 years of flying under the radar, you can’t really blame a band for wanting to make some money at their job, nor can you blame a group of individuals for wanting to try something new, and besides all that, the songs on Sound of White Noise are really, really good.

And besides, if some longtime fans were disappointed in the changes wrought by SoWN, they were about to be severely let down by the followup, 1995’s Stomp 442.  This marked an even more noticeable change in the overall sound of the band, bringing in more vocal melodies and mid-tempo songs, and it even closed with a sparse, emotional, mostly acoustic gem called “Bare”.

This marked the beginning of Anthrax’s “no official lead guitarist” period, which lasted for quite a bit longer than probably anyone imagined it would. Longtime lead man Danny Spitz left the band after the SoWN tour for a variety of reasons (the various stories of former Anthrax members are murky at best), and eventually moved to Switzerland to attend school for watch making and repair. Rather than find a permanent, full-time replacement, the band soldiered on with drummer Charlie Benante playing most of the leads on the albums, while Spitz’s guitar tech Paul Crook handled those duties in a live setting (he also produced Stomp 442 and the followup).

Stomp 442 was the second of a two-album deal with Elektra records, but according to Scott Ian, everyone at the label who was involved in the signing of Anthrax (including the label president) was fired while the band was touring for Sound of White Noise, and the new regime had no interest in Anthrax, so the album received next to no promotion, and the band was dropped from the label a short time later. I bought the album the day it was released, and to my mid-90’s ears, already primed by the newer sound (of white noise), it was fantastic. I loved it, front to back, and played it pretty much all the time. My older, wiser, more refined ears are able to find faults with the album, but it still has some great tunes (“Nothing” is among my favorite Anthrax songs, and the video is awesome), and it still gets several spins a year in my car.

I saw Anthrax live for the first time in Indianapolis in the summer of 1996, when they were touring with the newly resurrected Michale Graves-fronted Misfits, Life of Agony, and Cannibal Corpse (although sadly, Life of Agony couldn’t make it to our stop, as they had troubles with their tour bus). On the drive up, Scott and (I think) John were being interviewed on an Indianapolis radio station, and the DJ asked them a question regarding the fact that they were opening for the Misfits, and Scott quickly corrected him – they were, according to Mr. Rosenfeld, “co-headlining” with the Misfits. Funny, I remember thinking, that their name did not appear on my ticket, nor did they ever play after the Misfits on that tour. But I guess we’ve all lied to ourselves to save face at some point.

At any rate, the vast majority of the crowd was obviously there to see the Misfits, and more than once during Anthrax’s set, I heard someone yell from the crowd that they “fuckin suck(ed)”. Since it happened over 20 years ago, my memories of the evening are spotty at best, but here’s what I remember most: my friend Travis ended up with someone else’s blood on his new white Anthrax shirt, and I legitimately thought I might die in the mosh pit (it was my first pit, but not my last, nor was it the last time I thought I might die in a mosh pit). Also, the band sounded great, and they had a ton of energy. In retrospect, I’d liken it to the way a minor league baseball player often plays with more passion than a major leaguer because they have more to prove. Anthrax were definitely out to prove that asshole in the crowd wrong, although I’m sure he didn’t notice.

A couple of years later, the band had scored a new record deal, this time with an upstart label called Ignition, a subsidiary of 90’s hip-hop giant Tommy Boy, and in 1998 they released an album called Volume 8: The Threat is Real! that is woefully underrated and unappreciated. The album continues in the direction taken by SoWN, with simpler riffs, big fat grooves, and more personal, introspective lyrics, but it stands out in the Anthrax catalog for a couple of reasons: the country-flavored “Toast to the Extras” and the haunting hidden acoustic track “Pieces”, written and sang by bassist Frank Bello, in honor of his brother Anthony, who had been shot and killed in New York City.

I loved Volume 8 since the first time I pressed play, and I still love Volume 8 to this day. It is one of my favorite Anthrax albums, and in fact I’ve been planning to write a defense of the album for this blog since I started this blog, but honestly, I don’t have any sort of concrete evidence for why it rules. If the riffs and vocals and lyrics don’t do it for you, no amount of me talking it up is going to change your mind. My love for it is too personal to really talk about it with any objectivity, but I will say that the album has seemingly reminded me of its presence at several important points in my life. I wrote about one of those points here, and I will add that in late 2006 and early 2007, nearly 10 years after I first fell in love with Volume 8, it played a significant role in keeping me sane and alive. “Harms Way” in particular has always felt like it was written specifically for me. The lyrics are included after the video…

Here comes the biggest asshole that the whole world’s ever seen
Watch as things turn to something I never, I never meant to be
Call it a side effect of my arrested development
Here with you I’m trapped, I’m trapped, out of my element

I tear through all this wreckage
Wreckage you left when you dropped the bomb
Is there something worth saving
Or do I act, I act like nothing’s wrong
The lesser of two evils gives me, gives me nothing at all

Lust and madness, murder and mayhem
My whole life’s been about playing
It’s all so surreal
Maybe that’s why I touch but can’t feel

Sittin’ pretty, as I sit up straight
Trying to find means to an end I move into harms way
I move into harms way

I see my face in the mirror
I feel my feet but I can’t seem to walk in my shoes
When it hurts I feel closer to you
Closer than you ever knew
And the bottom line is knowing
I will die and the worms will eat me
The bottom line is knowing
Ain’t no one else I can be

Lust and madness, murder and mayhem
My whole life’s been about playing
It’s all so surreal
Maybe that’s why I touch but can’t feel

Sittin’ pretty, as I sit up straight
Trying to find means to an end I move into harms way
Running steady, smile on my face
Trying to find means to an end I move into harms way
I move into harms way

Sittin’ pretty as I, running steady as I, sittin’ pretty as I sit up straight
Running steady, smile on my face
Trying to find means to an end I move into harms way
I move into harms way

Sometime after the release of Volume 8, the record label folded, and the band was left without a home once again. In 1999, they signed with Beyond Records and released Return of the Killer A’s, a “greatest hits”/best of collection that highlighted both the Joey-era and the John-era. It’s a cool album that features remixes of a couple of the songs, and it also included one new song, a cover of the Temptation’s “Ball of Confusion”, featuring both John Bush and Joey Belladonna on vocals. Plans were made for the band to tour together with both vocalists, the very thought of which made me weak in the knees, but ultimately those plans were scrapped, as Joey didn’t want to commit to a tour. Ball of confusion, indeed. They let me down, and this was the beginning of the complications in my years-long relationship with my favorite band.

The members continued to work on various things, and had plans for a new studio album and a live album in late 2001/early 2002, and of course nothing that was planned for late 2001 ended up happening properly, so the followup album, We’ve Come For You All, didn’t see release until 2003.  The band did finally manage to pull in a permanent lead guitarist by the name of Rob Caggiano (who also produced the album, and who now plays with Volbeat for some reason). I’m not sure what it is about WCFYA, but it doesn’t grab me like the other John Bush-era albums. The riffs are heavy as shit, and it has some songs that I thoroughly and sincerely enjoy (“What Doesn’t Die”, “Safe Home”, “Black Dahlia”), but I find it mostly forgettable.

2004 saw the release of the unnecessary-but-awesome The Greater of Two Evils, a collection of classic Joey-era songs re-recorded by the then-current lineup, all beefed up and burly. I don’t give any kind of a shit what anyone says about this album: it’s a goddamned treasure, and Bush’s voice is so voluminous and full you could take a nap inside it. The songs on the album were decided by allowing fans to vote on the band’s website (their biggest hits are nowhere to be found, as they are both cover songs), and we picked some bona fide classics, if I do say so myself. My love was reaffirmed, and all was well, until word broke that Anthrax and Frank Bello had parted ways. I was every bit as devastated as when they told me Joey was booted all those years ago, although some good did come of it, as Frank went on to join Helmet on their tour for Size Matters, and I got to see them on that tour, and that was fucking awesome.

Then in 2005, like an abusive partner, Anthrax simultaneously crapped on my heart and made me giddy with excitement. They announced a reunion of the “classic lineup”, for touring purposes only, to perform only classic lineup material, i.e., the songs they’d just re-recorded with John Bush. Frank Bello was back from his stint with Helmet, and Joey Belladonna and Danny Spitz were back, Belladonna looking like he hadn’t aged a day since he was booted, and Spitz looking like he could be a member of any generic band that would offer to sell you tickets to the Shinedown show they were opening. John Bush was understandably less-than-thrilled with the situation, and he busied himself doing television voice work (including some Burger King commercials) and occasionally recording and playing shows with his original band, Armored Saint, both of which he continues to do to this day.

After the tour, Scott and Charlie fired Joey again, and Danny rode his ego bubble off into the sunset, and the band went on a bit of a hiatus, and I went on a bit of a hiatus from the band. They later hired some guy named Dan Nelson to be their vocalist and recorded an entire album with him on vocals, only to either fire him or have him quit, depending on which side you want to believe. They reached out to John Bush to see if he would be interested in re-recording the vocals for that album, but Bush declined, as he had no interest in being a hired gun in his former band. It appeared that Anthrax had, in the words of my buddy Joe, “fucked themselves into a corner”.

Re-enter Joey Belladonna, maybe the only person who has allowed Anthrax to hurt him and has then subsequently forgiven them more than I have. Joey re-recorded the vocals to the Dan Nelson album, a.k.a. Worship Music, and the band released it in 2011 to huge acclaim. I’d been hurt enough that I wasn’t ready to buy into the hype. I’d heard one song, “Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t”, and it sounded good, but I also noticed that the riff in the opening and chorus sounded a lot like the main riff in one of their older songs, “Gridlock”, from Persistence of Time. I’ve inexplicably found very few examples on the internet of other people noticing this, but I am absolutely not wrong about it. Listen for yourself.

I mean, at least they’re stealing from themselves, I guess, right?

Anyway, I held off buying Worship Music for a few months, until I started hearing/reading things about it being the band’s best album since Persistence of Time. How could I in good conscience continue to sleep on this? I bought it, popped it in, and it fuckin jammed, y’all! Then I listened to it again, and again, and again, etcetera, and Joey’s voice sounded great, but the more I listened, the more glaringly obvious it became that it was written for someone else’s voice. And here’s the thing: I’ve only heard a few shittily recorded clips of Dan Nelson singing live for Anthrax, but from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t even sound to me like it was written for him. No, friends, Worship Music sounds very much to this opinionated asshole like it was written for John Bush.

Listen to “Crawl”, and imagine it with Bush’s voice.

The first half of the album, up to and including “In the End” still kicks tons of ass, and if it was an EP, I’d probably rank it among my favorite Anthrax releases, but every song on the back half of Worship Music would clearly be better if John Bush sang on it. And don’t get me started on that ridiculous hidden cover of Refused’s utterly fucking awesome “New Noise” – they should’ve scrapped that idea entirely when they brought Joey back on board.

Regardless of my feelings, re: Worship Music, I was fucking stoked to get the chance to see the band on this tour, especially since Testament and Death Angel were opening. Scott and Charlie were both absent from the show, Scott on doctor-ordered bed rest for an illness, and Charlie to be with his ailing mother, so Gene Motherfucking Hoglan played drums for Anthrax immediately following his set with Testament, and Rob Cavestany and Ted Aguilar from Death Angel teamed up to tackle some of the rhythm guitars. The show was amazing, and I got to hear “Metal Thrashing Mad” live, which was dope, but the absence of Scott’s backing vocals on all the songs made me very aware of how prominent Scott’s backing vocals are on all the songs.

Fast forward to present day. Anthrax have another new album out, For All Kings, and it’s getting even better reviews than Worship Music, and I still just don’t get it. I picked it up a couple weeks after the release, and I’ve listened to it several times since, and I’m just not feeling it. It’s got some great riffs (the opening riff in “Suzerain” is almost bowel-emptyingly heavy), and Joey’s voice still sounds great, but I’m not getting stoked on it like I used to get stoked on Anthrax albums. I’m listening to it as I type these words, in fact, and all I can think about is how much I’d rather be listening to State of Euphoria, and I just listened to it earlier today.

At any rate, Cousin Jason and I will be in attendance tomorrow night when Anthrax plays Indianapolis with Death Angel again, this time both opening for $layer. And as jaded and cynical as I’ve become, I’m sure I’ll still have an awesome time, and even though I’d rather hear just about any other Anthrax song live than “Antisocial”, I’ll still get caught up in the excitement and sing along with every word. I’ve come to terms with the fact that they’ll hurt me again someday, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll take them back, because no matter what, you can never leave your first favorite band. I sure wish they’d get their shit together and keep it together, though.

And even though I’d rather whip Kerry King with his stupid fucking log chains than look at him, I know I’ll get absolutely fucking stoked when Slayer hits the stage. I also know that I’ll have plenty of time to visit the merch tables while Slayer plays, because they’ll be playing a handful of songs from their new album, and I don’t care about that shit, because they peaked in 1988, but there’s still a decent-to-good chance I’ll buy a Slayer t-shirt.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you and I apologize. Check back soon(ish) for a review of the show, if you want. And stay heavy, too, why not?

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Ball of Confusion: A Long, Complicated Thing About My Long, Complicated Relationship With Anthrax

  1. I remember that show and the random spots of blood. I also remember from that show that some dude eventually offered us some LSD, which he called “trip” I do believe, just for being cool to him in the pit. Nothing brings men together quite like blood, sweat, and slam dancing. That has to be the most metal moment of my life!

  2. I’m with you 100% man, except SOWN, ATL & POT are their best albums. Anthrax has hurt me as well in the past. The new album BLOWS…..Thank you for pointing out the opening riff to Fight Til You Can’t I noticed that right away. I wanted to to like it, but it’s not good. I wasn’t crazy about about Worship Music either, I was like the only one who didn’t like it it seems.

    My love for Anthrax kind of died when I saw them at the Vogue on the WCFYA tour, they played for 1 hour to the T (I timed it). Then I went outside to finally meet my heroes, I met everyone, but SCOTT & CHARLIE. Scott was in the bus and too preoccupied to bother with his fans, and Charlie was still inside the Vogue backstage and wouldn’t come out until the crowd dispersed,…..this is what we were told by security however John, Rod & Frank all hung out, took pics and and signed shit.

    Then as you already covered about the singers and the waiting, and waiting, and waiting of the new album….and this is what we get? NO THANKS……I’m kinda over them.

    Have you read Scott’s book “I’m The Man…That Guy From Anthrax?” It’s a really good read.

    Keep the blog going bro, can’t wait to read your review on the show, would love to go just to see Death Angel again, but I didn’t win tix, so not going heh.

    • Thanks for reading! I actually think PoT is their best album, it’s just not my favorite, if that makes sense. It’s good to know that someone else feels the same way about that new stuff.

      I’ve heard from a lot of people that Scott and Charlie are pretty much always dicks to the fans. It’s a shame, really, as they would obviously be nowhere without people like us, who refuse to give up on things. I haven’t read Scott’s book, but I do intend to, and I will eventually.

      Thanks again!

Tell Me What You Think:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s