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Op-Ed: Anthrax Have Quietly Become the Coolest Band of the Big Four

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There’s always been an unspoken (and sometimes not-so-unspoken) rivalry between Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax.

Based purely on tangible success (album sales, ticket sales, merch sales, licensing, etc.), the boasting rights of the Big Four thrash bands are clear: Metallica are the unchallenged kings, selling out stadiums the world over, shifting more than 100 million albums, and the only ones of the group to experience sustained crossover success. Slayer and Megadeth constantly jockey for the #2 position — technically, Megadeth have outsold Slayer, but when the four bands played together in 2010 and 2011, Slayer were second-billed (still, in Dave Mustaine’s head, he’s probably in the running for #1). Meanwhile, Anthrax consistently hold down the #4 spot.

But in the cultural zeitgeist of cool, it’s much more complicated. Each band has had their ups and downs over the years, resulting in a fluid hierarchy that changes with the times.

The current era is a strange one for the Big Four, so let’s start with the obvious: Slayer and Megadeth are both in serious ruts right now, both creatively and for reasons that have nothing to do with the music they’re writing. A lot of fans have had a hard time accepting Slayer without Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo, and while Gary Holt and Paul Bostaph have done an admirable job filling in, the band’s recorded output feels out of gas. Megadeth are doing slightly better, thanks to the fans’ mostly-warm reception of Dystopia (which also won a Grammy, for what little that’s worth). But the double-whammy of years of freely spouting dubious political opinions and actual racism coupled with the abomination that was Super Collider still follows the band like the smell that trails a kid who farted and tried to flee the scene too late.

Metallica went through quite a rut of their own, and theirs lasted more than a decade, starting with the release of Load and Re-Load and continuing with the inadvertent-comedy double feature of St. Anger and Some Kind of Monster. Now the kings of thrash (all of metal, really) have mostly recovered. Death Magnetic was not without controversy, but most fans seemed to accept it as a forward progression. Hardwired… To Self-Destruct continued that trajectory. The band’s live shows are the stuff of legends, absolute spectacles that are second to none in metal (even if Lars isn’t exactly a human metronome). Still… I don’t know anyone who claims Hardwired is among the band’s best work, or even still listens to it just a year after release. We root for Metallica today because they continue to be a massive success — metal’s ambassadors to the non-metal world, and arguably their generation’s Rolling Stones — and their modern-day incarnation is just good enough to remind us of their glory years. Metallica, in other words, are metal’s hometown boys who made good.

That leaves Anthrax, who went through one of the worst stretches of publicity and drama any Big Four band has endured (the Napster/Lars feud not withstanding) for much of the ’90s and ’00s.

In 1992, the band fired frontman Joey Belladonna and replaced him with Armored Saint’s John Bush; their first offering with Bush, 1993’s The Sound of White Noise, was a commercial and critical success that seemed to suggest the beginning of a bold new era for the band…

…except, to hear them tell it at least, their label, Elektra, totally dropped the ball on their next record, Stomp 442 (1995). The band then made the not-very-well-received Volume 8: The Threat is Real (1998); six years later, they switched labels again, to Nuclear Blast, for We’ve Come for You All, an awesome record that rightly received rave reviews… but shat the bed commercially.

And somehow, this was not the end of Anthrax’s troubles.

During the brutal eight-year period that followed the release of We’ve Come For You All, the band re-hired, then re-fired, Joey Belladonna; tried, and failed, to lure back Bush; and finally resorted to enlisting a relative unknown in Dan Nelson, with whom they recorded Worship Music. But they parted ways with Nelson under hostile circumstances before that record’s release; then they finally got Bush back, but asked him to re-record Nelson’s Worship Music vocal parts and lyrics with no creative input of his own; and then, finally, Belladonna tucked his tail between his legs and agreed to come back for good. It was ugly… very ugly.

But then they actually did release Worship Music (with Nelson’s parts re-recorded by Belladonna, who never wrote his own lyrics or vocal lines anyway). And Worship Music was not only good, it was fan-fucking-tastic, every bit worth the wait. Of all the albums ANY Big Four band has put out after their heyday, it’s the only one metalheads point to definitively sand say, “THAT is a great fucking album, among the band’s best.” Anthrax did what no other Big Four band has been able to do: release truly relevant music during the back half of their career. Sure, For All Kings was essentially Worship Music Part II, but no one complained because, again, Worship Music is fucking great.

“Earth on Hell” is a rousing opener, as fierce and fast as anything in the band’s catalogue. “The Devil You Know” combines the drop-D riffy punch of Bush-era Anthrax with Belladonna’s anthemic chorus (even if it wasn’t drawn up that way; see above), while “Fight ‘Em Til You Can’t” offers classic Anthrax tongue-in-cheek silliness with more of Scott Ian’s right hand wizardry, making for a one-two punch of instant ‘Thrax classics. Deeper into the album, “In the End” is a bonafide fist-in-the-air anthem, with “Judas Priest” an equally epic, groove-laden companion. The album rocks through and through. There are no duds.

Off the stage, Anthrax have only helped their cause by continuing to be the generally affable, positive fellas they always were. Ever since their vocalist woes, they’ve completely avoided controversy; no heinous political opinions, no attempts to defend an ill-advised and much-maligned creative detour… nothing, nada; just business and kicking ass. Scott Ian took a commendable stance against Phil Anselmo’s racist outburst — the only Big Four musician to do so — and has moved well past the days in which he was best known as “the guy with the red goatee on VH1’s I Love the ’80s.” Frank Bello continues to have a sense of humor about, well, pretty much everything, and he’s made a nice side career for himself in all-star groups and through bass clinic work. There is no person that Bello encounters even casually who isn’t left thinking, “Wow, that is the raddest fucking dude in the world!” What’s more, Anthrax have resisted the temptation to talk trash about former band members; not much was said about Dan Nelson after that experiment didn’t work out, and they haven’t thrown Rob Caggiano under the bus the way, for example, Dave Mustaine did to Chris Broderick. They have acted, in a word, like professionals… in a business with very few of them. The band’s live shows continue to be high-energy and full of life, and they’re willing to explore outside-the-box partnerships with newer acts like Killswitch Engage, with whom they just announced a second tour.

So here’s to you, Anthrax: you’ve done it! You’re currently the coolest Big Four band going. Let’s celebrate with the video for “Madhouse,” currently my two-year-old’s favorite thing in the world to watch (“Watch Anthrax with dada?”). Cheers to many more years of zany good times.

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