Scottish fans of Big Four thrashers Anthrax were absolutely spoiled last year. Glasgow played host to two of the New York giants’ gigs within twenty-four hours: the first in support of the almighty Slayer at the Academy, and the second their only club show in thirty years, at the legendary Cathouse.
At both shows the band aired the first single from the upcoming record, ‘Evil Twin’. It didn’t exactly incite the rush to the bar/ smoking/ loos that Jerry Only announcing “Now we’re gonna play a new one…” might, but few would have considered it a highlight of either evening. It is, however, by far the strongest track on Anthrax’s eleventh album, For All Kings. While it was absolutely dwarfed by the might of the band’s eighties anthems live, it is probably the closest thing to fan service on this record. The signature stomp, big chorus, and relevant, anthemic lyrics are all present and correct, but that’s something that the band doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with.
For All Kings is an album with one foot in the past, but it never really leans into being a retro, nostalgic celebration of the Anthrax’s triumphant history. The groove of ‘Defend Avenge’ is a definite highlight, not least because it brings to mind the riff-fuelled petulance of 1987’s Among The Living. The solos too are gloriously eighties, although those on opening tracks ‘You Gotta Believe’ and ‘Monster At The End’ are so Alex Skolnick it wouldn’t be surprising if it turned out that new guitarist Jon Donais thought he’d signed up for Testament. Despite this, the only output from their back catalogue that the band appear willing to consciously reference is Worship Music. The orchestral intro to the album recalls the questionable string interludes of the 2011 record. In fact, the whole feel of For All Kings is so similar to Worship Music it makes you wonder, despite band leader Scott Ian’s insistence to the contrary, how much of this music was picked up off the cutting room floor five years ago.
It’s not like the last half-decade has been quiet for Anthrax either: they’ve put out a covers EP, toured relentlessly, and, most importantly, lost long-serving guitarist and producer Rob Caggiano to rockabilly-metal heroes Volbeat. His replacement, ex-Shadows Fall axeman Donais, brings a lot more to Anthrax’s recorded sound than he does to their live shows. It’s actually where his influence is most prominent that For All Kings enjoys some of its best moments. ‘Suzerain’, for example, kicks off with a thunderous riff that skilfully blends classic thrash and modern metalcore influences.
Yet these moments are, unfortunately, few and far between. Not that this record doesn’t see Anthrax attempting to develop and grow their sound. Some of the bigger tracks, like ‘Breathing Lighting’ and ‘Blood Eagle Wings’, see the band push into almost progressive territory (undoubtedly the work of bassist Frank Bello: a notorious Rush fan, who takes full advantage of these tracks’ quieter moments to indulge us in some of the best fretwork on this album). It’s just that it never feels like they’re pushing themselves quite enough. Anthrax used to wear their disdain for boundaries and desire to innovate on their sleeves (or on their legs, in the case of those shorts). That fire, that need to spearhead something new, is all but absent from this record.
It’s probably best summed up by the final track, ‘Zero Tolerance’. It’s blistering, modern, but unapologetically thrashy. It’s political too: the kind of thing written for chanting along in sweaty pits. But the track is less the sum of its parts. “Zero tolerance for extremism in the name of religion/ zero tolerance for racial hate/ zero tolerance for politicians on the left or right/ zero tolerance for killing children”. Not that these aren’t things worth shouting about, it’s just that the writing’s as subtle as a brick. If your pal’s snotty hardcore band wrote these lyrics they’d be great, but this is Anthrax! They were never the most intellectual band (and were arguably more fun when they were just being ridiculous), but classics like ‘One World’ and the essential ‘Indians’ showed that they at least knew how to write a protest anthem that could drive its message home, while being an awesome song in and of itself.
For All Kings is the work of a band that feels lost: haunted by former glory, but unwilling to commit to pushing forward. Slayer are happy to celebrate the past and leave their classic formula all but unchanged, while Megadeth have gone to great lengths to keep their sound fresh and relevant. Anthrax need to pick a side if they want to keep counting themselves among the genre’s kings.
For All Kings is out on February 26 2016