The uncivil wars of Anthrax

Motivational speakers are fond of pointing out that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is made up of two characters, one representing ‘danger’, the other ‘opportunity’. Viewed through this filter, the toughest of times can be seen as presenting an occasion for regeneration, renewal and rebirth. If one were to seek out a case study in our world to back up this philosophy, one might do worse than consider the recent history of thrash metal stalwarts Anthrax.

There must have been times in the past decade where guitarist Scott Ian felt like giving up on the band he founded in Queens, New York, in the summer of 1981. His band have been dogged by legal hassles, record label disputes, internecine rows and lineup upheavals, yet have endured whatever the fates have thrown in their path. But sitting in a central London photo studio on a crisp winter afternoon, today the guitarist exudes positivity and enthusiasm as he looks ahead to what promises to be one of the busiest years in his band’s storied career.

On February 26, Anthrax will release their 11th studio album, For All Kings. It is, quite simply, a revelation – not only one of the finest albums conceived by any of the Big Four in recent memory, but also one of the most feral, unrelenting and hard-hitting collections of songs the New York quintet have ever committed to tape. Scott Ian calls it “the most metal record we’ve ever made”, and “above anything we’ve ever done songwriting-wise”.

“I honestly think this record is on a par with the classic metal records that I grew up with,” he says. “And other than [1987 classic] Among The Living, it’s kinda hard for me to say that about any other Anthrax album.”

For the guitarist, now 52 years old, the strength of For All Kings is rooted in one simple truth: that Anthrax embarked upon the writing and recording of their new album as a band. The gestation of its predecessor, 2011’s justly acclaimed Worship Music, was a famously fraught affair, with first Dan Nelson, then John Bush, laying down vocal tracks for the album, before frontman Joey Belladonna’s return to the fold. At the time, Joey’s own future in the band was a matter of some debate – when this writer last spoke to the singer at the opening date of the historic Big Four tour in 2010, Joey was under no illusion whatsoever that his latest invite to rejoin the band was anything but a marriage of convenience – but four years of touring have strengthened relations between the singer and the men who fired him from the group in 1992. Today, sitting beside Scott, the 55-year-old singer might still wear the sorrowful, hangdog expression of a toddler who’s dropped his ice cream on the pavement, and he largely defers to the guitarist when questions are posed, but his pride in being part of Anthrax’s rebirth is tangible.

Becoming a father definitely weighed heavily on the lyrics

“There are so many parallels between this record and Worship Music, and Among the Living and [1985’s] Spreading The Disease,” considers Scott Ian. “If you look at our history, Spreading The Disease was written and recorded, except for vocals, and then we found Joey. And then that enabled us to become Anthrax, and over the next year and a half we only worried about being the best band we could be, and we wrote _Among The _Living in that atmosphere of ‘We’re a band’. Then you jump forward all those years to Worship Music and we have a record written but we don’t know who our singer is going to be, and then Joey comes back to the band, and then we’ve gone out and toured it for four years. The parallels between the two points in our history are pretty crazy. And right now, it feels like we’re entering a really exciting new phase for the band.”

“More than ever, we appreciate the opportunity to make music together,” adds Joey. “Now we just want the world to hear it.”

In typical Anthrax fashion, For All Kings actually has its origins in a period of turmoil and uncertainty. In the summer of 2012, drummer Charlie Benante was forced to sit out the band’s stint on the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival due to the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, a medical condition where sufferers feel numbness and pain in their hands as a result of nerve compression. But rather than sit around moping, the drummer threw himself into stockpiling guitar riffs for the next Anthrax release. Though the departure of guitarist Rob Caggiano in January 2013 represented both a surprise and a setback for the band, the split was amicable – indeed, Rob himself put forward Shadows Fall guitarist Jon Donais, a longtime friend of the group, to fill the vacancy – and initial jam sessions on Charlie’s ideas at Scott Ian’s LA home filled the group with optimism. Ultimately, 16 songs were fleshed out before the band began tracking the album with producer Jay Rushton at Serenity West Studios in Los Angeles in December 2014.

The emergence of the savage Soror Irrumator, originally earmarked for inclusion on For All Kings, on the _Games Of _Thrones-themed Catch The Throne: The Mixtape, Volume 2 compilation in March last year, was the first indication that the new-look Anthrax had retained its fire, but no one could have predicted the ferocity and focus with which the band would make their return. Eschewing the fantasy themes of Soror Irrumator, For All Kings concerns itself with the brutal realities of 21st century life, from the caustic Evil Twin, written by Scott in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, through to the self-explanatory anti-discrimination screed Zero Tolerance (‘Zero tolerance for extremism, in the name of religion, zero tolerance for racial hate… zero tolerance for killing children…’). Suggest to Scott Ian that it’s the darkest album Anthrax have ever released, and the guitarist lets out a mirth-free laugh, before replying, “The world is a dark place.”

Babies aren’t born with hate in their hearts

“Think about it, what’s gotten better on this planet over the past few years?” he asks. “Nothing. My wi-fi at home is faster than it was a couple of years ago, so I can read bad news faster, but really, outside of your own personal bubble with family and friends, what’s got better? It’s 2015 and we live in a world that should be disease- free, should have us all living in peace with one another and we should all have fucking flying skateboards. But none of that has come true. The sad fact is that 99.9% of humanity fucking sucks, and that’s the planet we live on. This is the first record that I’ve written lyrics to since I’ve had a child, which definitely weighs heavily on the lyrics. If I already had a dark view of mankind going into this record, it only got darker after bringing a child into the world! You wake up every day wondering what bad shit has gone down somewhere on the planet. It’s insane.

“Songs like Evil Twin, Zero Tolerance and You Gotta Believe are all very much me venting: it’s catharsis, because every day I read about these horrible fucking things going on in the world generally caused by somebody’s religious extremism, and I have to find a way to get that anger out of me. There’s a line in You Gotta Believe which says, ‘You’re just a bag of blood and I’m holding the nail’, which is my way of reminding myself and everyone else that we’re very fragile as human beings; we’re just a pin prick away from being a pool of liquid on the street.”

Anthrax (left to right): Scott Ian, Jon Donais, Frank Bello, Joey Belladonna

Anthrax (left to right): Scott Ian, Jon Donais, Frank Bello, Joey Belladonna (Image credit: Will Ireland)

“But if the record has a silver lining, it’s in the title track,” he says, offering a hint of optimism amid the gloom. “For All Kings is saying that everybody could be a king. Babies aren’t born with hate in their hearts and everyone has the opportunity to grow up and be a responsible human being and move ahead in a positive way on this planet. It just fucking sucks that more people aren’t exercising that option.”

If all this sounds terribly pessimistic, it should be noted that Scott Ian delivers his state-of-the-world address with hope in his heart and a smile on his face. At times in the past, as peripheral bullshit has threatened to engulf his band, the guitarist has seemed somewhat weary with the responsibility of pushing Anthrax ever onwards, but today the affable Scott seems at peace with himself, his band and their place in the metal community. With high-profile tours with Lamb Of God and Iron Maiden already booked, and offers on the table to keep the band touring through to summer 2017, these are encouraging times for Anthrax. And as Jon Donais and bassist Frank Bello join their vocalist and guitarist for today’s photo session (ongoing health concerns mean Charlie Benante is absent today), there’s a genuine air of fraternity and mutual respect in their in-jokes and piss-taking, which bodes well for Scott’s fate-tempting declaration that he “can’t imagine there being any more changes in Anthrax until there is no Anthrax”. Death and taxes may remain the only constant in life, but in 2016, the newly emboldened New Yorkers seem ready for whatever fate may hurl their way.

“I was talking to one of the guys in Kvelertak recently, and he said to me, ‘You guys have been doing this for so long, and no matter where we are you’re just so into it!’” Scott Ian reflects. “I said, ‘Well, that’s because we love what we do.’ It’s still Christmas morning every time I walk onstage. And I still want everyone to walk away from our gigs thinking, ‘That’s the best fucking thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ It’s such a privilege to do this, and it’s something I’ll never, ever take for granted. This band has so much more to give.”

Scott Ian: We strongly recommend you purchase the new Anthrax album rather than streaming it

Scott Ian: We strongly recommend you purchase the new Anthrax album rather than streaming it (Image credit: Will Ireland)

I Am The Law

Last year, a Facebook request for Anthrax to put 1984’s Fistful Of Metal on Spotify was met with the response, ‘Buy the CD, you cock.’ It quickly went viral. We grilled Scott Ian about it…

Did you write that response, Scott?
“I didn’t! Our social media guy Rowan did, but I sent him a message saying, ‘Dude, that’s the best thing ever’, because I loved that he wrote that, and it might as well have been me saying it. I realise that streaming is a reality, and of course we want people to hear our music any way they can, but music has been devalued to the point where people think it’s OK to have it for free, and that’s fucking bullshit.”

What about people who like streaming music?
“It’s amazing to me that people think that $10 for an album by a band that you love is too expensive. If you’re a fan of streaming, that’s great, good for you. But as a band who aren’t getting paid our fair share from streaming sites, it’s fucking lame. As a fan of music, I still buy albums by the bands I love.”

Are your fans still buying physical products?
“We’re lucky to be in a band in a genre with a super loyal following, and every day we meet 20-year-old kids who come to us with a stack of CDs or vinyl to be signed, and we’re thankful. But fuck you if you think that music isn’t worth what you spend in one trip to Starbucks.”

Anthrax play Bloodstock on August 14

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.