ANTHRAX – Worship Music

In the second half of the 00s, things became rather complicated in camp Anthrax.  After a 2005 tour reuniting the band with vocalist Joey Belladonna (who’d previously left the band in 1991), it was reported that Belladonna would be staying on to record new material.  This proved not to be, but understandably Anthrax’s “other” vocalist John Bush was unsettled.  He too, chose not to write new material with the band.  In 2007, Anthrax found a new frontman in Dan Nelson (formerly of Devilsize), with whom they played various live shows.  Work on a new album – provisionally entitled ‘Worship Music’ – began and was all but completed.  It was scheduled for a 2009 release; and then, Dan Nelson left the band and John Bush returned.  It seemed very hard to keep track of who was actually officially part of Anthrax at this point and who was not.

The proposed tour with John Bush was cancelled, bar a few festival shows – including a five date run in Australia.  Following the shows, it was announced that if legalities could be “ironed out”, Bush would re-record some of Nelson’s vocals on the ‘Worship Music’ tracks; after all, the band had a near-complete record ready to go.  This plan, too, fell by the wayside.  And then, at the beginning of 2010, Joey Belladonna returned for more live shows.

Following a string of live dates and festival appearances, Anthrax returned to the studio to finish off the troubled ‘Worship Music’.  Belladonna recorded new vocal tracks for some already complete songs.  Other songs had a degree of re-writing, while others songs were scrapped.  In their place, the band wrote completely fresh material with Belladonna.  It may not be the album as originally planned, but the finished version of ‘Worship Music’ eventually appeared in September 2011 – some two years later than planned.

The lead single ‘Fight ’Em ’Til You Can’t’ would suggest that ‘Worship Music’ picks up almost exactly where Anthrax left off with Belladonna in 1990, complete with a riff which even echoes that of ‘Persistence of Time’.  With chugging down-strokes pitched against Charlie Benante’s double bass drum, its intro is classic, classic Anthrax.  This is a feeling which doesn’t dissipate once Belladonna opens his mouth.  As you may expect, having Joey back out front just sounds right. It’s such a distinctive sound; and let’s face it, with the fans’ favourite frontman back in the fold, their “classic” sound had to be revisited.  The pre-chorus doesn’t quite live up to early promise (although the band sound as tight as possible), but that’s more than made up for with the big hook which follows.  The chorus proper is a little poppy; definitely catchy, lightning up the heavier elements.  Throw in a screaming Scott Ian solo and ‘Fight ’Em…’ recalls every reason you loved Anthrax in the 80s (yes, even those of you who turned your back on the band in the 90s). As a piece of classic metal, this track is just superb.

That’s not to say ‘Worship Music’ is a complete re-tread of Anthrax circa 1989-1990.  There are other songs here which recall other periods from the band’s past, and a few which push the band forward. ‘The Devil You Know’ is another absolute belter of a song, this time a little less thrashy and a little sharper edged.  It’s here Anthrax recall moments of their ‘Sound of White Noise’ incarnation, combining solid riffing with another huge hook.  It sounds like it was tailor made for a John Bush vocal, but even so Belladonna sounds like the consummate professional; his vocal makes its presence really felt throughout.  The songwriting is incredibly good here too, striking the perfect balance between aggression and melody.  It’s interesting to hear Belladonna’s vocal over music which is so rooted in Anthrax’s later direction, and it is perhaps, one of the best tracks recorded by the band since the mid nineties.  ‘In The End’ comes with the kind of riff you’ve come to love from Anthrax, yet it’s balanced by moments which sound rather slick.  While the smoothness of the arrangement won’t suit all tastes, the staccato riffs are upfront enough to carry the piece, while Belladonna’s vocal is one of this album’s most emotional.  Over the years, he’s lost none of his range or presence.  The second half of the track features a shift in key and moves even father towards a multi-layered sound (with some lovely twin lead work).  The extended arrangement clocks in at almost seven minutes, but never feels overlong; everything has its place.  This is followed by something less grandiose, as ‘The Giant’ meshes a great chorus – featuring another top vocal arrangement – with a jagged, riff based verse which harks back to the sounds of ‘Stomp 442’.  The tuneful vocals occasionally feel at odds with the number’s aggressive riffs, but after a few listens, this juxtaposition of styles appears to be a masterstroke.

Opening with a few rather atonal chords, ‘The Crawl’ couldn’t be any further from Anthrax’s classic sound if it tried.  Even once Benante’s drums start to pound slowly and Belladonna’s vocal takes centre stage, this plodding arrangement has more in common with post-grunge alternative rock than any kind of “proper” metal.  By the end of the first verse, things really start to lag, and the track never recovers.  Stretched across five and a half minutes, it could be said its pre-chorus has a half decent riff, though you’ll find plenty of better riffs spread across other infinitely superior tunes elsewhere on ‘Worship Music’.  ‘Earth On Hell’ is almost the complete opposite, with Anthrax tearing through really hard riffs, pushing the album in a direction which brings things much closer to ‘Among The Living’ territory.  The main riffs are of the classic thrash metal variety; these are intercut with a few moments where Anthrax play faster and more aggressively than ever before, with a buzz-saw intensity.  It’s not a complete thrashfest, however, since they’ve found room for a really melodic chorus.  Definitely one of the standout cuts.

‘Judas Priest’ provides metal thrills driven by a chugging riff and some classy metallic guitar squeals courtesy of Scott Ian and Rob Caggioni, while Benante’s drum sounds carry a huge amount of power.  In fact, Belladonna’s vocal is the track’s weakest element.  It’s not a bad vocal by any means – and it’s given a boost by a more rousing backing vocal throughout – it’s just a little underwhelming compared to the music laid down by the rest of the band.  For lead guitar work, this track is a sure fire winner, since the featured solos toward the end are absolutely killer.  The brief twin lead moment is an especially nice touch.  Like ‘The Crawl’, ‘I’m Alive’ finds Anthrax branching out a little, but with greater results.  An intro combines muted riffing in a hardcore style, combined with cleaner guitar work, which is then overlaid by a wordless vocal.  The muted riff stays the course, providing a fantastic groove metal element.  While the music has a degree of much welcome heaviness, Belladonna’s vocal has a commercial feel, which is reinforced further by a singalong chorus.  A hugely accessible piece, it’s one of the most commercial tracks in the Anthrax cannon, with a hook that could be described – at a pinch – as pop-oriented.  More open minded listeners will realise there’s nothing wrong with that of course.  For those who feel Anthrax have moved too far in a “radio-friendly rock” direction here, hopefully they’ll find solace in a guitar solo, which although brief, is the stuff of classic metal.

While you won’t find anything as mature as ‘Black Lodge’ on ‘Worship Music’, most of the material here is first rate, with only ‘The Crawl’ being the obvious clunker.  As a finished work, it’s hard to say how it compares to the intended ‘Worship Music’; but considering it pulls together lots of the best elements of Anthrax’s past, in this guise, it’s easily the best album Anthrax have released since the sorely underrated ‘Stomp 442’.

September 2011