Collectively known as the Big Four, Anthrax, Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth all emerged as forces to be reckoned with in the '80s. Each band played a style of music that would ultimately be called thrash or speed metal and ushered in an entirely new era of hard rock. Oddly enough, all four bands released seminal albums at roughly the same time and the music's popularity soared.
"I think it was a culmination of the records that we put out prior," says Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante when asked about what led to the shift in popularity. "There was still that heavy metal that existed prior to us being there. I think it took people who were fans of heavy metal or hard rock two or three records to go in this direction. And then it spread more. Once Metallica put out [1986's] Master of Puppets, Slayer put out [1986's] Reign in Blood and we put out [1987's] Among the Living, it was like fans were saying, 'Wow. Have you heard this stuff?' Friends told their friends. Older brothers told their younger brothers."
Given that Anthrax was the only band in the Big Four that hailed from the East Coast, there was a noticeable difference in the style of music they played. Weaned on hardcore and punk, the guys in Anthrax weren't as "metal" as their peers.
"Us and Metallica were friends from back then. I started to know the Slayer guys around that time. It was always this cool camaraderie. Those guys were on the West Coast, so I guess that's what separated us from them. Musically speaking, we didn't sound like the other guys. We had the whole hardcore and lower-East-Side type of aesthetic and sound."
A key moment came as the band was wrapping 1985's Spreading the Disease. The record was finished, but Benante says, "Some of us felt it sounded too polished." So he went back home and wrote one more song. He made a demo of it and sent it over the studio and the guys wanted to add it to the album. They recorded it and it became "A.I.R.," the raw bone-crushing first song on the album.
"That was the gateway into Among the Living," Benante says.
For the current jaunt, dubbed the "Metal Alliance Tour," Anthrax is on the road with like-minded thrashers Exodus, Municipal Waste and Holy Grail. And it's revisiting Among the Living.
"There were a few songs on that album that we rarely played live and there was one that we never touched," says Benante when asked about what it's been like going back to an album that came out some 25 years ago. "I had to revisit it and approach it in the way I would now. I was a different person and a different player back then. Now, I'm relearning what I was like back then. It's been fun."
The album is a fan favorite, in part because it came out at a time when the thrash metal scene was thriving.
"I just think that record came out a time when the whole thrash metal scene released what I would call their signature records," he says. "I just think it was a moment in time and that's the record that people started to take notice of all the bands. It has a lot of meaning to it."
The band will also perform tunes from its new covers album, Anthems, a six-song EP that features the band's take on classic tunes such as Boston's "Smokin'," which Benante says the band decided to cover simply because he was wearing a Boston T-shirt when they went into the studio, and Rush's "Anthem," a song he said he used to play along to when he was younger. "It sounds like something from our first record," he says. Other covers include tracks by Cheap Trick and AC/DC. It's a great collection of tunes that shows the range of the band's influences.
"It was a lot of fun," Benante says.
And the album shows just how well the group has gelled since singer Joey Belladonna, who sang with the band from 1984 until 1992 and from 2005–2007, came back into the fold three years ago.
"I just think it was the right time for him to come back," Benante says of the singer's return. " It was done for the right reasons and not the wrong reasons. We took it in baby steps to make him feel comfortable. We took it slow and made him feel comfortable."
Though the band has experimented with other singers, Belladonna is the one who has the most on-stage charisma.
"Seriously, he's just got it," Benante says. "The thing about Joey is when you see him come out on stage he commands your attention and you just can't help but follow him while we are doing our thing. He has the crowd in the palm of his hand. We've played shows in front of crowds of over 100,000 people and there wasn't a hand not raised when he was in front of them. He's just got that thing about him. Rather than these newer bands who have these guys who come out and—I call it the Marvel comics singer—and they put their foot on the monitor and it's like 'fear me.' That's not very rock 'n' roll. You want to connect with the audience and not disconnect with them."
While Anthrax's line-up hasn't been stable for the course of the 30-plus years the band had played together, the group has continued to soldier on and never officially disbanded. Benante says the key is that band members are almost like family at this point.
"The only thing I can say in a way that people would understand is that if you had five brothers living in the same household and the five personalities are completely different," he says when asked about the band's longevity. "Some people lose sight of what you originally set out to do. They lose sight of the love they had for music in the beginning. The business aspect gets in the way and personalities clash and it all comes full circle. Some people can't hang with it and either they lash out or they leave. I hate when people leave, especially with other bands I love. Sometimes it's for the best for the band. I know people hate it but what can you do. If you're together for that long, you're bound to have people who lose interest in it."