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Anthrax vs. Axl vs. Anso: The Worship Music Double Review

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worship music

Few records could be as intrinsically polarizing as Anthrax’s Worship Music, the thirteen-song set whose release tomorrow ends a maddening period of band tumult while launching a new era with singer Joey Belladonna. It’s an album with history, having been completed with a new vocalist, imperiled by the new vocalist, shelved, shuffled, completed again by Belladonna and producer Jay Ruston, and now, at least, unveiled for the world to hear. In other words, Worship Music has arrived with baggage; how much of it will fit in your trunk?

Representing at least two attitudes toward Anthrax 2011, our MetalSucks official roundtable review of Worship Music is co-authored by a John Bush era devotee (MS Co-Editor-In-Chief Axl Rosenberg) and a long-suffering Belladonna booster (MS Senior Editor Anso DF). On the fence about Worship Music? Sick of one-sided, insight-free criticism? Bemused by the way MetalSucks disagrees with itself? Then join Axl and Anso as they grapple with the meaning of this year’s most dangerous album.

Axl Rosenberg: Worship Music is basically what I expected: good album marred by bad vocals. Scott Ian and Charlie Benante know how to write a metal song. This has never been in dispute. But Joey Belladonna was no one’s first choice — I know it, you know it, and Scott Ian knows it — and without a doubt Belladonna is the weakest link on Worship Music.

Anso DF: Whoa hold your ballz: What I know is that Joey is the first choice for many Anthrax fans; that fact may not impress Bush-lovers, but it signifies something to career-minded guys like Ian and Benante. But I think I see your point: A guy in Joey’s situation might have lotsa opportunities/excuses to suck. After a mess like Anthrax’s, this hypothetical guy could chose to feel slighted or naturally lack total motivation, but maybe a juicy paycheck would restore confidence. Or the guy might just choke or diva out on such a high-pressure project, but a super producer could guard against that. Or he might just suck cuz he sucks now, and cuz creativity can stall under duress. But here in reality, Belladonna knuckled down with Jay Ruston on Worship Music and helped Anthrax make a great record.

AR: Ruston and Anthrax guitarist Rob Caggiano are talented producers, but Belladonna’s vocals sound overly processed. I don’t know why they were overly processed — some evidence suggests his voice is not great shape, or maybe that’s just the way that vocals are recorded these days — but it’s hard not to notice.

ADF: Lolz yes, Joey’s voice has found a lifelong friend in modern recording tools. But youngs assign too much importance to a singer’s voice quality/condition. At a show, does any non-beta care if a singer rasps and cheats? Not much. (Even fun-haters must care only a little cuz Mastodon and Queensryche each tour always.) And to Worship Music listeners, pitch correction won’t long be a big sticking point, just an easily surmountable inconvenience. I agree it sucks, but only a little more than the old way of comping a decent vocal track. Ignore.

AR: Yeah, okay, I’ll try to stop judging singers based on the quality of their voice. That makes sense! (By the way, I love it when you call me “young.”) Bottom line is, there isn’t a single song on Worship Music on which John Bush would sound out of place, and the album would be 100% better if he were on it.

ADF: I agree that Bush wouldn’t sound out of place on Worship Music, but I barf on the idea that he’d improve it :) Your contention is that John Bush is the better fit for Anthrax, but as your brah I hope I’m allowed to respectfully — nay, lovingly suggest to you that it’s a myth *sparkly fingers*. Off the lot, Bush is awesome, true. And he’s less embarrassing than Belladonna, natch. Plus, he’s bro and macho like the youngs prefer, all worried about their wangs as they are.

But to me, Bush vibes stiffness. It’s so hard to relate to him, all clenched up in Genuine Intensity Mode (GIM) all the time. And to me, that default setting of his did more to limit Anthrax music than Joey’s pre-Anselmo vibe ever could. And bam! now we have evidence: Belladonna flourishes both on Worship Music‘s Bush-era chest rock and on the furious thrash stuff, like he’s swooping low over rough terrain in places and soaring amid a gale at others. I guess one could contend that Anthrax needs a majestic eagle, not an earthbound lion.

AR: The key phrase in your criticism of Bush was “genuine intensity.” I can’t believe anyone would say that as a insult. I’m also not sure how the fact that Belladonna doesn’t sound completely embarrassing singing songs that sound like they were written for Bush means that Bush somehow limited Anthrax. We’ve all heard Bush sing Belladonna-era ‘Thrax, and guess what? Not only did he ably handle those tunes, but he lent them … What’s the phrase I’m searching for … Oh, yeah: GENUINE INTENSITY.

ADF: Ha, nice one! You should write for Leno. Look, genuine intensity is good; GIM is when genuine intensity seems phony.

AR: I don’t think this word “genuine” means what you think it means.

ADF: Well here the term signifies a contrivance, so its use is non-sincere. Like the title Scary Movie. And don’t act like you’ve not whiffed the stench of GIM. It’s the overwrought bro-ism in metal following the rise of Anselmo. It’s used as a substitute for real energy and organic fan response. It’s a lot of wimp-inspiring blather, orders to form a circle pit, and other empty bro-brah shit. In this regard, Bush as Anthrax singer was hardly a major offender, and probably was just answering to the Anthrax braintrust’s needs. No biggie. Freedom of choice.

Oh I’ll also counter you here by stating that the intensity that Bush contributes to Joey-era jamz is redundant; songs as grave and mad as Anthrax’s — here I point to the NY pettiness of “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind” or Bush beta anthem “Inside Out” — must be put across with good humor and an occasional grin. Doing that protects the vibe from lulzy earnestness. That’s the Anthrax way.

AR: What is “NY pettiness?” That sounds like Armond White terminology.

ADF: Yo that song is way mad! For L.A. pettiness, see Fear Factory’s “Cyberwaste.” There’s a difference.

AR: Anyway, the words “grave” and “mad” have never entered my mind while listening to Belladonna-era Anthrax, but maybe that’s just because I was born after the invention of talkies. I would argue that Belladonna never had any intensity on the old recordings — his voice neither soars nor empowers so much as it suggets an impersonation of better singers who could do one or both.

Can we at least agree that Belladonna’s delivery of the lyric “Spread your legs like some dirty whore” in “I’m Alive” is the silliest thing this side of Axl Rose’s “But I don’t want to do it” on “Sorry” from Chinese Democracy?

ADF: You bet we can, dude. Bush would’ve aced that textbook bro rage.

AR: That’s because he writes his own lyrics, and, thus, his intensity is genuine. Look, I think we need to stop discussing Belladonna now. If I wanted to fixate on someone with a spray tan and a bad perm, I’d call my Aunt Lee in Miami.

ADF: Wow, Aunt Lee sounds great. I’m picturing Lin Shaye in There’s Something About Mary.

AR: You should just picture Joey Belladonna. But let’s move on to the music part of Worship Music: On the whole, it’s pretty good! It’s probably not on the same level as recent work from Anthrax peers — Slayer, Megadeth, Testament, Exodus, and Overkill have all released albums in the past few years that rank with their best work — but it certainly blows Death Craptastic right the fuck out of the water. And as someone who loved We’ve Come For You All, I think that Anthrax had less to prove than those other bands anyway.

ADF: Wow 100% yes to like 80% of that: The last few records by Testament and Overkill stomp; I say it’s among those that Worship Music belongs. And hell yeah, Exodus is heating up too. But Slayer’s last album was recorded between two buttcheeks (good songs tho), and hooky, post-Rust Megadeth songs continue to dangle limp (good prod tho). But again, dude, your big point is the most important: Worship Music — like all of the above — is better than Death Vagnetic. It’s srs doctrine these days: Don’t suck as hard as Metallica and your O.G. thrash band will do fine.

So, how do the other four dudes of Anthrax fare on Worship Music? Good riffs? Any iffy tempos? To what extent do you connect with the lyrics?

AR: For the record, I object to your insulting Slayer, but I don’t wanna get distracted so I’ll let it slide for now.

ADF: Lolz you sound like a commenter. I dub thee Zaxl.

AR: Don’t be NY petty, it doesn’t suit you. I don’t really “connect with the lyrics” on Worship, although I don’t know if I ever connected with the lyrics on a Bellanthrax album. (“Invisible” from Sound Of White Noise definitely kept me out prison during my adolescence.) The exception is “In the End,” which is easily the best song on Worship Music and has the benefit of not being about zombies or whatever. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a metal song about zombies — but it’s not like we all feel Cannibal Corpse lyrics on some deep personal level, y’know?) I found it pretty moving when I had no idea what it was about; now that Ian has revealed that the song is a tribute to Dio and Dime, it makes me twice as teary.

Of course, everything about that song works because it’s so fucking epic, and it’s so epic precisely because it’s so well written. The first time I ever heard Scott Ian play the riff, I was excited to hear the rest of the song, and it’s not at all disappointing.

ADF: Dude, Scott Ian is playing you like a fiddle. Before you get offended by that remark, I hereby dedicate it to Dio and Dime.

AR: Okay, I’ll scratch that from the record. I was trying not to suggest that Ian’s grief may be insincere and that his announcement re: the song’s meaning seemed awfully well-timed. I don’t really wanna speculate on that; it’s a touchy subject, and while seemingly hundreds of metal musicians who didn’t know or barely knew Dime continue to exploit his memory, Anthrax differs in having known and worked with the guy, so they’re entitled to their mourning.

ADF: Yeah, good point: Worship Music is the first Anthrax album with no Dimebag guest guitars since 1993. They must be bummed.

AR: Regardless,”In the End” still has the best lyrics on the album, if for no other reason than because it takes a stab at conveying real emotions, and it’s not bogged down by endless geek culture references: “Earth On Hell” quotes from The Dark Knight, “The Devil You Know” cites Let the Right One In by name, “Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t” is about zombies — and that’s just the first three songs on the record. We get it, Scott. You’re a dork. It’s cool. We’re all dorks, too! You don’t have to announce it; everyone knows. ANYWAY, moving on from the lyrics…

The other riffs on Worship Music are good, too; like I said, Belladonna aside, I think it’s a pretty good record. What I do feel like most of these songs are missing is replay value… I’m not sure I’ve gotten anything out of any of the songs that aren’t “End” after a fifth listen that I didn’t get out of the first.

ADF: That makes sense. If I don’t dig its vocals, an album prob won’t connect with me in a lasting way (See: Sound Of White Noise). But sometimes good things happen when I just push through and listen repeatedly until I get inured to its weak points (See: Volume 8 The Threat Is Real). It’d be easy to work Worship Music that way cuz the songs are awesome. But I don’t agree about its riffs: so unambitious. They avoided “busy” (thanks!) and veered into “overly basic” (curses!). One is borrowed from a Persistence Of Time song, another mimics the best intro on WCFYA, and yet another is a thoughtless, tuneless noodle that annoys like that chorus lick in Creed’s “Higher.”

AR: Holy shit, how am I the one defending Anthrax? If you hate all these riffs and you think that the quality of Belladonna’s voice is irrelevant, what do you like about this album — just that it exists?

ADF: LOLZ I call again for restraint of your ballz. I don’t hate any of Worship Music; I just freely list its faults. That’s fair who cares? The reality of me and Worship Music is that I laugh at one of its lyrics, get annoyed by one of its riffs, and bang to the rest. Those faults add up to little.

And you only used half of my quote about Belladonna’s voice quality, you cheating bastard. I wrote up there that it’s only momentarily important to most fans that a dude’s voice is ragged; here I’ll add that an unsexy riff or lyric isn’t a deal-breaker either. If the song is good, then it’s all good :)

AR: I agree that the riffs are basic, and I think that basic-ness is their strength and weakness. The album doesn’t lack replay value for me because of Belladonna’s vocals — well, not just because of Belladonna’s vocals — but because there are not a lot of new discoveries to be made with each repeat listen. The music is precisely what it appears to be.

But Anthrax riffs were never ambitious. They were never “that band,” so to speak. And their simplicity is probably part of what makes them so catchy — you can hear “N.F.L.” or “Room for One More” once and remember the hook forever.

ADF: Awesome point. Maybe my problem isn’t the riffs, but the number of riffs and variations? Shrug. Speaking of guitar shit, I now ask you about Worship Music‘s solos. Pretty metal, right?

AR: You wanna hear something weird? I have listened to this album I don’t even know how many times now and I can’t for the life of me remember how a single guitar solo goes … but I always enjoy them while listening to the album. I guess that seats them in the “good but not great” section. Really, none of them are at all bad, but none of them are as killer as the ones on “Caught in a Mosh” or “Only.” And I say that as someone who generally thinks Dan Spitz should stick to making watches and creeping out people over the height of 3’8”.

ADF: Cheap shot alert! For me, old Anthrax solos are tough to remember thanks to their uniqueness. Spitz is kinda unheralded for his originality. Granted, I don’t get his style — I’ve always wanted for a cool guitar dude to break Spitz down in terms of influences and technique — but it’s yet another thing that distinguished Anthrax (see: “Time,” “Belly Of The Beast”). Rob’s solos, on the other hand, sound like everybody.

AR: I’m just being a dick, I don’t have anything against either guitarist. Well, I mean, Spitz needs a stylist and Caggiano should run around on stage more, but that’s not pertinent to our conversation.

ADF: Got it. So, we discussed “In The End” and its connection to beloved metal studz. Next, let’s examine the stand-out jam “Judas Priest.” What’s your read on that title? Is it about the band Judas Priest? Does the song present a metaphor for being 100% metal and 20% gay? Is its music Priest-esque? Is this just Anthrax getting in Priest’s shot?

AR: Yeah I have no idea. Maybe they thought that Halford would be dead by now, too? I think of that song as the one I have to skip to get from “The Giant” to “Crawl.”

ADF: We should’ve asked Charlie Benante about that. Next time. In conclusion, let’s put ourselves on the spot by making predictions for Worship Music! You first: What kind of life will this album have? Hit? Miss? Neither?

AR: I’m not sure if everyone will love this album — both you and Vince like it more than I do — but I can’t imagine why anyone would hate it, unless they just don’t dig Anthrax or they loathe Belladonna’s vocals even more than I do. In any case, I look forward to Joey’s inevitable re-re-firing in a few years; I am dying to know how “In the End” sounds when sung by someone with some cojones.

ADF: Cojones pssht. Just admit it: You question Joey’s maleness. You have been conditioned by modern metal’s hulking bro brigade with their angry beards and flexing and deep voices and rage ink. Newsflash: All that stuff signifies misplaced boner panic and pre-rejection despair. 100% showing out, 0% self-expression. On the other hand, confident dudes (like Joey) can just be themselves — no showy armor necessary. Worship Music is for them.

AR: Saying I question Joey’s maleness is a ridiculous accusation. There are PLENTY of great metal vocalists who do (what I assume) Joey is trying to do, they just don’t suck at it. The only things about Joey that I question are his alleged talent, and the authenticity of his hair.

Final score: I’m deducting a horn for Belladonna and a horn for lack of replay value. You?

ADF: Final score: Love Worship Music and in awe of its post-catastrophe swag. For the next album, Anthrax could hand all reins to Ruston; he’d stamp out the remnants of bubbly ’90s post-metal sonics and wouldn’t allow the odd tempo lag or iffy blast beat. Also, Worship Music‘s follow-up needs more solo guitars as found in “Judas Priest”: fills, mini-solos, themes, dive bombs, whatever. Otherwise, Worship Music is air-tight and multi-leveled, eminently likable and super fun, its only improvements cosmetic. And gosh if anything, the shit should get a bonus horn for its title’s fearless phonetic proximity to Horseshit Music.

Axl:

(3 out of 5 horns)

Anso:

(4½ out of 5 horns)

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