Out of Quarantine

With a new CD and tour, Anthrax is back spreading the disease

Not long after a photo editor for The Sun opened a tainted envelope and America descended briefly into post-9/11 bioterrorism hysteria, a small newsbite appeared in supermarket-checkout glossies, Extra-style "TV magazines," and the A&E sections of newspapers.It invariably went something like this:

"New York heavy metal band Anthrax has announced that it will not be changing its name in the wake of the recent acts of terrorism involving the virus. The group is best known for bringing the extreme offshoot of hard rock called 'thrash metal' to a wider audience, along with bands like Metallica and Megadeth, during the mid '80s. Their latest album is Stomp 442."

The media outlets then moved on to something about J-Lo's love life, but at that moment, thousands of American men in their 30s took a little time to reflect on how rad the '87 album Among The Living was, and wonder where those guys went.

Well, the Long Island-bred outfit went through a few lineup changes. They went through a gradual stylistic shift. And they went through a buttload of label-related headaches. But they never really went anywhere; it was the band's original American fan base that left — to marriage, to careers, to music that more accurately reflected their comparatively mild adult stability. The quintet remains huge in Europe, and has discovered a new generation of young fans stateside.

"Europe rules, it's like night and day compared to here as far as where metal's at commercially," says Anthrax cofounder and guitarist Scott Ian. "The music people grew up with over there, they don't get out of it like they do here. They're even more into it now. Here, our audience is a completely new one. I'd say 90-percent of our [American] audience is under 25. Maybe the first time they saw us was back in '98."

"Back in '98," Anthrax was already 15 years into a career, and on the far side of two distinct phases of high-profile success. The first came with the punk/thrash/metal crossover scene's breakthrough to the mainstream during the mid '80s. Like many insurgent music trends, it was incubated in the metropolitan areas of both coasts. Anthrax quickly became the East Coast's answer to San Francisco's hotbed on the strength of not only brutal, well-honed chops but also a humorous and human persona that rejected heavy metal clichés in favor of jeans, smiles and songs about both social issues and personal obsessions, from drug use and Native Americans to Stephen King stories and comic books.

"We never felt like we had to fit into what a heavy metal band was supposed to look or act like," says Ian. "There's four really big concrete walls that get put around that genre, and people always have an expectation of what metal should be. That's something that, right from the start, we always railed against. Don't get me wrong; I love Judas Priest, but I didn't want to look like Judas Priest. I wanted to look like The Ramones."

It was also during this era that the group presaged the shape of metal to come by recording a tongue-in-cheek rap song called "I'm The Man" in '87, and uniting with iconic hip-hop force Public Enemy in '91 for both a reworking of the P.E. classic "Bring the Noize" and an extensive tour. To this day, longtime Anthrax fans carp on Internet message boards about the group not getting its due for "inventing" rap-rock, but Ian gives the credit to someone he counts as an influence.

"For me, it all comes from [former Def Jam principal/Beastie Boys producer] Rick Rubin," he says. "That's where I got it. And that's what inspired me."

As grunge began to sink its filthy nails into the American record-buying public, the thrash scene cracked in two: there were the bands that were going to burn out or sink back into club-tour obscurity, and the bands that were going to evolve. Anthrax began stripping away the superfluous instrumental passages and ADD time signature and riff changes that once typified the genre. The streamlining began to produce much more straightforward, melodic metal. Soon after, histrionic longtime frontman Joey Belladonna was replaced by throaty former Armored Saint singer John Bush. (Lead guitarist Dan Spitz was another eventual casualty of metamorphosis, leaving the core of Ian, Bush, drummer Charlie Benante and bassist Frank Bello.)

For Ian, the changes were not so much a conscious attempt at survival as the natural development of his songwriting.

"Anyone who is a songwriter … would basically be striving creatively to do whatever's best for a song," he says. "Sometimes you don't necessarily need some crazy, intricate thing just because it's really cool. Who cares? The idea is to write a song that's complete. But that's just the way I look at it. You could talk to 100 people and get 100 different answers."

The revamped outfit enjoyed more success with its pared-down, muscular sound during the early '90s, particularly with The Sound of White Noise, the first album to feature Bush. But after just one more major-label effort they found themselves faced with the changing priorities of the industry at large. No longer were veteran acts with enviable histories allowed the luxury of a slip in sales; the majors had fallen into the habit of dumping their promotional budgets into a handful of trendy, youth-conscious marketables while signing countless rookie acts and leaving them to rise or fall on their own. Anthrax spent the rest of the decade hopping from small label to small label, reissuing their early catalog and watching new efforts like '98s Volume 8: The Threat is Real go out of print for lack of funding.

The new millennium, however, found the band with new support, a new album (this year's We've Come for You All) whose first single, "Safe Home," is garnering impressive domestic airplay, and prominent billing on most of Europe's legendary annual metal festivals. The band is also on its most extensive U.S. tour in almost 10 years, ample evidence that the group has no need to succumb to the sort of nostalgia trips that now pay the bills for so many of their once-mighty '80s metal-scene contemporaries.

"I'm never worried about that perception because of the records we make," says Ian. "If we stopped making records, it would probably be the smart thing to do, name it that, bill it that way — we'd probably get all of the old fans to come. But we've always moved forward."

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.