If memory serves, the first tape I ever purchased was Anthrax’s “Fistful of Metal.” I believe I was between third and fourth grade, and the family was on vacation, likely at Myrtle Beach or Daytona. Our parents gave my brother and I a small amount of money to spend on souvenirs, and with shark-tooth necklace secured, we both had enough left over for a tape apiece. Budding heshers, we watched Headbanger’s Ball religiously, but we were just getting to the age of buying our own music. I bought “Fistful of Metal,” which I immediately regretted. My brother, however, had picked “Among the Living,” a masterpiece of an album that has had such lasting influence that I still listen to it regularly twenty years later. (What follows is a bare bones sketch of an idea that’s been rolling around in my head over the last week. When this session at school ends, I hope to find the time to fully research and develop this idea.)
|[clearspring_widget title=”Widget” wid=”499b6a92ccff3dc1″ pid=”499b6b202fdcafb8″ width=”250″ height=”254″ domain=”widgets.clearspring.com”]||As the 1970s came to a close, so too did the era of social experimentation the hippies started in the late 60s. Americans turned instead to traditional values, the social and economic conservatism of the Reagan era, throwbacks to an idealized 1950s that never truly existed outside of sitcoms. The new focus on so-called family values was coupled with a renewed dedication to capitalism and consumerism. Money, and more importantly the things one could buy to show how much money they had, was the new-old standard by which everyone would be judged. Young urban profession-|
als, hot cars, hot clothes, hot women, Wall Street, nuclear family, nuclear supremacy, America (fuck yeah), the soldier-hero, and everyone clawing their way to the top in some sort of Randian wet-dream of capitalist competition. America fully embraced a culture of style over substance, but this golden age of hyperpatriotic capitalism was a thin veneer laid over a society facing times of raw desperation.
Reagan’s fiscal policy was a boon to the already wealthy, but everyone else was left to fight over the scraps. The middle class withered. Friction between the haves and the have-nots escalated. Poverty was rampant, and crime was an epidemic in the cities. Continually stoked fears of Soviet invasion or nuclear annihilation left little future to hope for. Class-based Romeo and Juliet tales and dystopian visions of the future filled books, movies, and comics as art shifted to reflect the mood of the times. And while East Coast punks were letting their frustration boil over into hardcore music, West Coast longhairs were creating thrash. Combining hardcore’s tempo and aggressiveness with the more advanced musicality and darker tone of the NWOBHM, bands like Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer were pushing the boundaries of extreme rock music. Reacting to glam/hair metal, thrash was tougher, meaner and generally heavier and harder. The riffs were faster, deeper and more aggressive, solos shorter and more chaotic. Glam’s lyrical themes of sex and love were discarded in favor of social commentary or explorations of humanity’s underbelly. Alongside hardcore, this was the music of a society in disrepair.
Though the thrash movement started in California, Anthrax came to life in the New York. Theirs was a unique take on the style, their songs featuring the shout-along choruses and mosh parts characteristic of the New York Hardcore bands that influenced them and singer Joey Belladonna’s distinctive vocals. Where Metallica’s Hetfield and Slayer’s Araya growled and howled their way through songs, Belladonna carried Bruce Dickinson’s torch with melodic, soaring vocals that shared the spotlight with Dan Spitz and Scott Ian’s guitar blistering guitars. That voice, combined with the band’s gruff shouts and combat-boot stomping rhythms, created an altogether unique sound that appealed to metalheads old and new as well as skins and hardcore punks.
By their third album, “Among the Living,” the band had started to set themselves apart from most thrash bands not just in sound, but also in character, in their lyrics and personality. Where others were grim and serious, Anthrax kept a sense of humor and playfulness, at times being unabashedly cartoonish. Like the Ramones before them, they had an obsession with pop culture that came through in the lyrics, which dealt with many of the same morbid topics as other thrash bands but with an escapist twist. Slayer sang about real-life Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, and Anthrax sang about Kurt Dussander. Metallica gave us death in the electric chair, and Anthrax gave us the ballad of Judge Dredd. Still, they managed to balance those songs with some serious ones, finding a sweet spot between not being too earnest and not just being a bunch of goof-offs. Even the more cringe-worthy moments of paltry politics (“Cry for the Indians! Die for the Indians!”) are tempered with tongue-in-cheek mirth (the cry of “War dance!” leading into the mosh part of “Indians,” for example).
The mildly air-headed, goony character of the band actually allows them to be something most thrash bands generally couldn’t: positive. Insomuch as any band that sings about drug abuse, mass murder, and the plight of the American Indian can, Anthrax manages to have a positive outlook through much of “Among the Living,” or at least if not distinctly positive, not as apocalyptically gloomy as the bands of the day. Later albums would find the band maturing and writing more serious songs, but “Among the Living” was a goofy and hopeful statement of defiance in an otherwise depressing time. It remains to this day their finest hour.