I can’t remember an album recently that I met with equal parts excitement and fear like I did Anthrax’s 10th album “Worship Music.” To put it mildly, getting to this point was something of a circus, and at times over the past few years, it seemed as if the record was going to be an embarrassment or never would surface at all. There were many times I wished for the latter.
In high school, Anthrax was one of my favorite bands. I was supposed to see them open for Iron Maiden in early 1991 at the horrible A.J. Palumbo Center, and I had second-row seats for the show. I broke my ankle a week before the show, therefore could not attend because I couldn’t walk. That sucked. I had a number of Anthrax shirts, had all of their albums, and when I came down with a vicious case of strep throat in the summer of 1990, I pretty much listened to “Persistence of Time” on a constant loop while I recovered (it came out that same week). “Among the Living” was one of the soundtracks to my summer vacations when I was in middle school. Even today, when my wife and I have had a few beverages and we’re playing “Rock Band,” I’ll try to sing “Indians” and still cannot keep up with the bridge.
I kind of fell away from the band after 1993’s “Sound of White Noise,” an album that saw John Bush (Armored Saint) replace longtime frontman Joey Belladonna, and their sound started to change. They went through the same creative lull that plagued many of the other thrash bands of their era, most notably the three with whom they share the Big 4 festival stage – Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica (who never fully recovered). Then came the era that followed 2003’s “We’ve Come for You All,” the band’s last studio record. There was a reunion with Belladonna (and guitarist Dan Spitz) for two years of touring. Then Belladonna was gone. Then they hired some guy Dan Nelson, who was to handle vocals on in-the-works “Worship Music,” but live, he sounded wildly generic. Bush came back for a spell, then he was out. So it finally came back to Belladonna to take the mic, and one easily could understand if he was a little apprehensive to rejoin a machine – that also includes iconic guitarist Scott Ian, guitarist Rob Caggiano, bassist Frank Bello (one of the nicest people I ever interviewed, by the way) and drummer Charlie Benante — that didn’t seem remotely stable. I remember wondering if Belladonna would even make it to the studio or if another change would prevent that.
Luckily, it seems all the turmoil was worth it. Yes, people poked fun, and yeah, I imagine a lot of those folks won’t give “Worship Music” a chance or will dismiss it outright without hearing it. Their loss, because this album rips. It’s definitely their best record since “White Noise,” and if we pass over the Bush era, I might even go a step further and say it’s the best since “Among the Living.” These guys sound like they’re having fun again. While a good album, and one with nostalgic quality for me, “Persistence” was really dark and bleak, and while massively heavy, didn’t feel right for some reason (cover of Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” aside). “Worship Music” takes me back to the feel of their earlier stuff with Belladonna (beginning with “Spreading the Disease”) and the material feels open and alive and, I’ll say it again, fun. I had fun listening to it, and the songs are catchy and should go down great live.
The music isn’t quite as thrashy and heavy as their earlier stuff, and there’s more of a classic metal vibe to a lot of the album, but it fits. Belladonna just takes control of these songs. His voice is a bit huskier than it was in his younger years, but it’s just as powerful and melodic as ever before, and I can’t imagine any other singer handling these songs. It’s almost like he never left. After a brief intro cut, “Earth on Hell” mangles the senses, with Benante’s drumming sounding vicious and earthquaking, with Belladonna taking full command of a band that always should be his to lead. Same goes for “The Devil You Know,” a song that might as well be about the band itself, as well as anthemic first single “Fight ’Em Til You Can’t,” a song with a fist-pumping chorus that promises revenge against an army of zombie. These three cuts are surprisingly strong and get the record off to a fantastic start.
“I’m Alive” is more of just a regular metal song, not particularly heavy or mashing, but Belladonna takes what otherwise would be a decent piece and breathes life into the thing. Ronnie James Dio/Dimebag Darrell tribute “In the End” and “Judas Priest” (guess who that’s about) are in the same vein, and live they should help give the audience a breather physically but still command undivided attention. “The Giant” has a verse structure that reminds me of early Anthrax, but the chorus loses a little bit of steam. “Crawl” is more of a mid-tempo rocker, with Belladonna dialing down the pitch of his voice, and it’s only OK, and same goes for “The Constant,” that doesn’t get interesting until the chorus hits. Not bad songs, just not the best cuts on here. Luckily sludgy thrasher “Revolution Screams” ends the set on a pulverizing note, proving they still have the venom and power to ramp up the tempo, though the chorus is still taking some getting used to before I fully embrace it.
So for all the barbs they endured and all of the pitfalls, some self-made, “Worship Music” finally is unleashed, and it’s a beast. Not a perfect album by any means, but it’s a hell of a lot better than I thought it might be. Belladonna sounds incredible, and the rest of the guys still have the chops. They may have matured, and in some areas slowed down, but when Anthrax needs to hammer you, then do. Anthrax has made the best later-career album of any of thrash’s primary ’80s titans, and they should be proud of this record. I hope this form of Anthrax is what remains, because it has drummed up a ton of goodwill with this great new record and sound like they have many good years ahead of them. Let’s hope “Worship Music” is merely step one.
For more on the band, go here: http://anthrax.com/NFWS/
To buy “Worship Music,” go here: http://www.megaforcerecords.com/store/product.php?productid=16516&cat=253&page=1
For more Anthrax merch, go here: http://shop.anthrax.com/shop.cfm/pk/category/ac/list/cid/400025
For more on the label, go here: http://megaforcerecords.com/