Reconsidering Anthrax’s Place As The Black Sheep In The ‘Big Four’ Of Thrash Metal

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One of the most important aspects of heavy-metal lore is the Big Four; the four American thrash-metal bands who have more or less come to define their genre. Those bands would be Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax. Now, right away you can think of what each of those bands’ calling cards would be. Metallica were both the most commercially successfully band out of the group, as well as the band who pioneered the whole thing when they released Kill ‘Em All. Slayer, on the other hand, are probably known as the most intense, dark band of the group, dabbling in the more macabre with tracks like “Angel of Death,” and “Raining Blood” still sending chills down listeners’ spines today. Then, Megadeth would likely be best known for Dave Mustaine’s legendary snarl, his controversial politics, and of course, the band’s immortal two-guitar attack. Finally, that leaves us with Anthrax, an undeniably important metal band that nonetheless lacks an immediate calling card. This might beg the question: Have Anthrax become the most underrated band of the Big Four?

Anthrax first began truly making their mark on the metal world with their second album, 1985’s Spreading The Disease, which gave us the all-time classic “Madhouse,” perhaps best known for Joey Belladonna’s epic wail of “I’M INSAAAAAAAAAAAANE!” But while that album certainly got people talking about Anthrax, what cemented their reputation as one of the greatest metal acts ever was 1987’s Among The Living. On this album, the band expanded their sound, making some of the more complex music of their career, while also taking on some subversive themes in their lyrics. Most notable of Among’s standouts were “I Am The Law,” an ode to Judge Dredd and subtle acknowledgment of Draconian police forces and “Indians,” a tribute to the plight of Native Americans — lead vocalist Joey Belladonna has Iriqouis heritage in his family. Between that, 1988’s State Of Euphoria and 1990’s Persistence Of Time, Anthrax’s importance the contemporary metal scene was undeniable.

Then, in 1991, the band would release perhaps their best-known song, their cover of Public Enemy’s “Bring The Noise.” In addition to being the closest thing the band ever had to a true hit, this song was particularly influential for basically pioneering the rap-metal genre, following in the footsteps of early one-off tracks like Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” and even their own B-side “I’m The Man.” Now, this admittedly might seem like a bit of a mixed blessing, but for every one of Limp Bizkit’s more embarrassing moments, there is also a Rage Against The Machine right around the corner. The track essentially set the stage for an entire sub-genre of music, and that is certainly nothing to scoff at. At this point, Anthrax’s legacy was firmly secured.

Unfortunately, the next stage in the band’s history was shaped by turmoil. Frontman Joey Belladonna left the band, and was replaced by Armored Saint vocalist John Bush. Their first album with Bush, 1993’s Sound Of White Noise, was generally well-received by critics, and gave them a modest radio hit with “Only.” Unfortunately, this was also around the time when the band’s music became slower, and less complex. Admittedly, this was true of just about every Big Four act, Metallica in particular, but it was hard not to feel as though the band had entered into a decline of sorts.

It’s fair to say that for a while, the band’s biggest publicity came after the anthrax scare in the wake of 9/11, when the band entered a press conference in hazmat suits that together spelled out the phrase “we’re not changing our name.” While albums like 1995’s Stomp 442, and 2003’s We’ve Come For You All came and went without much fanfare, the band really got their mojo back with 2011’s Worship Music. This was the first studio album the band recorded with Belladonna since Persistence Of Time, and it was widely hailed as a stunning effort, bringing the band back to the thrashy vibe of their ’80s classics.

This past Friday, the band released the long-awaited follow-up, For All Kings. While there is the notable personnel change of Jon Donais replacing Rob Caggiano on lead guitar, the vibe from Worship Music appears to have remained intact. Anthrax have gotten their groove back, and they are once again one of the best metal bands in the world.

At first glance, Anthrax might seem like the black sheep of the Big Four, but their place in metal history is undeniable. Among The Living and Persistence Of Time were among the finest records of their era, while their take on “Bring The Noise” delivered the blueprint for an entire musical movement. Anyone who doubts the importance of Anthrax would be wise to give their history a closer look.