Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Release date: September 13, 2011 (Megaforce Records)
If anyone had any questions about the pecking order among the Big Four thrash metal bands, the lineup at the Big 4 Festival this past April in Indio, Calif. should've cleared up any doubts. Anthrax was relegated to a 4 p.m. time slot, hitting the stage in the late afternoon sun as fans were still filing into the massive Empire Polo Grounds for the historic festival. They also played the shortest set of the day.
Not that there's anything wrong with being the fourth most popular band in the greatest genre of music ever created. I'm sure Testament, Overkill, Death Angel, Flotsam and Jetsam or Nuclear Assault would've killed for that gig. Anthrax have certainly earned their spot in the Big Four, but they've always played the role of comedic foil to their much more serious brethren in Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica. While the latter bands wore denim and spiked leather and wrote songs about war, plagues, death and the occult, Anthrax sported board shorts and Adidas and took their lyrical inspiration from comic books and Stephen King novels. Let's face it, the Not Man wasn't exactly Vic Rattlehead, and you'd never catch Slayer rapping about Pop-Tarts® and stickball.
Thus, it comes as a bit of a surprise that Anthrax's new album, Worship Music, takes a much more serious tone. Granted, they were pretty serious throughout the whole post-grunge John Bush era, but with the return of vocalist Joey Belladonna -- whose last album with the band was 1990's Persistence of Time -- a return to the band's fun-loving heyday of the late '80s seemed like a logical progression. Instead, on Worship Music, Anthrax sound like a pissed off band with something to prove. The result is one of the best metal albums of the year and the best release by any member of the Big Four in more than two decades.
What makes Worship Music so fantastic is that it's nothing like what you'd expect from such a reunion. There's nothing "retro" or "vintage" about it, nothing to indicate a desperate attempt at recapturing 25-year-old mojo. Worship Music stands on its own as a thoroughly modern, forward-thinking metal album, and a pretty kick-ass one at that.
It's not even really a thrash album in the strictest sense of the term. There are thrash-y moments, to be certain, such as the album-opening "Earth on Hell" and the zombie-inspired "Fight 'Em 'Til You Can't." But there are also nods to mid-'90s groove metal, classic NWOBHM-era power metal and even prog rock. The album's first single, 'The Devil You Know," has the kind of catchy chorus that sticks in your head long after the album ends. Belladonna's vocals on "I'm Alive" occasionally recall Queensrÿche's Geoff Tate, and the song features an incredible hook that stands out even on an album with virtually no filler. In fact, as great as Scott Ian's riffs and Charlie Benante's drumming are on this album, it's Belladonna's vocals that make the album so memorable. He might not be able to hit the ridiculous high notes that he did in the '80s, but his singing style is much more diverse than it used to be and carries a lot more emotional heft. I'd bet a lot of money that "Crawl" was a song that was originally written for Bush, but Belladonna absolutely makes it his own.
Perhaps the best thing that I can say about this album is that I'm actually looking forward to hearing these songs live. Too often, when a band with a back catalog as good as Anthrax's puts out a new album, you almost dread seeing them live because they're gonna play way too much new shit and not enough of "the classics" (see Pumpkins, Smashing). But virtually every song on Worship Music is good enough to stand alongside "Madhouse," "Caught in a Mosh" or "Keep It in the Family." Hell, I'd be stoked if they played this album in its entirety on their upcoming tour with Testament and Death Angel (please guys, for the love of all that's unholy, add a Phoenix date to that tour).
On Worship Music, Anthrax didn't recapture any old magic, nor did they attempt to. They simply put out an amazingly modern and ridiculously catchy metal album that stands up to repeated listens and firmly establishes them as more than just a leader among the "old guard" of metal, but a viable player in the modern metal landscape. Here's hoping this infamously combustible lineup stays intact long enough for a follow-up or two.