ANTHRAX FIGHTS A NEW DISEASE
Trends always have risen and/or vanished quickly in the pop-music universe, but seldom as viciously as right now. Metal is a case in point. Since exploding in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the style has been as impossible to destroy as cockroaches. Disco, new wave, punk and countless other genres have temporarily knocked it out of the public's consciousness, but metal has been able to lift itself from the canvas and take another punch. But now, a new contender has stepped into the ring, and is beating metal to within an inch of its life. And Scott Ian, guitarist for the defiant metal force called Anthrax, doesn't like it one bit.
"From the release of our last album to the release of this one [the new Stomp 442], we went from 75 or 80 stations playing our first single to 25 to 30 stations," he grumbles. "And that's because those other fifty stations all changed their formats. They went alternative, or modern rock, or whatever the hell that format's called. It seems like every station in America is basically playing the same type of music, and I find it to be the most annoying thing in the world. You turn on the radio, you turn on MTV and everybody's doing it. Nobody is leading at all; they're just waiting to see what the other guys are doing. None of these radio programmers at these stations has the balls to step out and say, `Well, this is what we're going to do, and we don't care what everybody else is doing.' They won't do it, because everybody is afraid for their jobs. They're so afraid that nobody will do anything original, nobody seems to have any ideas, and everybody is just waiting to be told what to do. And that's frustrating for us, because nobody tells us what to do."
As this diatribe makes clear, Ian isn't shy about expressing his opinion--a quality that made him a natural for a recent guest spot on the Comedy Central program Politically Incorrect. ("I was on there with Michael McKean--he was in Spinal Tap--and the lawyer who represented Shannon Faulkner, that girl who tried to get into the Citadel," Ian notes.) But his truth-telling also carries a price. Music directors at stations like Denver's KBPI-FM--one of the hard-rock outlets that has jumped on the alternative bandwagon--are unlikely to take a risk on Anthrax when Ian's publicly questioning everything from their intestinal fortitude to their masculinity. And questioning he is.
"It's getting to the point where, when you listen to the radio, you only have three choices: this alternative, modern-rock type of thing, classic rock, and the news," he claims. "And I would think listeners--the average music consumer who buys one or two records a week and listens to the radio and watches MTV--would find that to be really boring. I mean, when the stations were playing different stuff and a band would have a big hit, people would get sick of that song after a while. But nowadays things take two days to get burned out. It's weird. And it's stupid."
More than that, it's a major blow to Anthrax (Ian, vocalist John Bush, bassist Frankie Bello and drummer Charlie Benante). "For us, this is 1985 all over again, when nobody gave a shit about this music," he says. "Back then, nobody wanted to deal with it. They were like, `Fuck, leave me alone. I don't want to hear it. It's just noise.' And that's how it is again."
In 1981, when Anthrax formed in the New York area, the situation was even worse. Led Zeppelin was gone, and although a few practitioners of old-school metal made an impact (AC/DC's For Those About to Rock We Salute You was among the year's big sellers), the metal category was diluted by the likes of REO Speedwagon, Styx and Journey. In many ways, Anthrax was a reaction against this brand of gutless corporate pabulum; from the beginning, its songs were intensely loud, blindingly fast and as rude as the hardcore punk from which it drew notable inspiration. Moreover, the lyrics eschewed the brain-dead phallicism that was so common at the time in favor of a downbeat worldview that didn't shy away from addressing actual issues.
Not that anyone outside the underground metal firmament actually noticed: Anthrax's debut EP, 1984's Armed and Dangerous, and its first full-length, the 1985 blast Spreading the Disease, were seen by most mainstream critics as easily dismissed tales from the fringe. But 1987's Among the Living, which attained gold sales status, forced a few more observers to pay attention, and another EP, I'm the Man, caught reviewers' attention thanks to its title track, which combined metal and rap influences in a manner that suggested Ian and company had taken notice of the Beastie Boys. This willingness to embrace the influence of contemporaries who many of their peers despised marked Anthrax as that rarest of metal acts: the open-minded kind.
Over the next several years, Metallica--another act that got its start in the speed-metal underground--received most of the headlines. But Anthrax continued to build an impressive following with discs such as 1988's State of Euphoria, 1990's Persistence of Time and Attack of the Killer B's, which featured an inspired cover version of the Public Enemy scorcher "Bring the Noise." Anthrax and Public Enemy subsequently toured together, and the pairing was surprisingly compatible. The result symbolically smashed the wall know-nothings had built to separate these two musical camps even as it laid the groundwork for 1993's Sound of White Noise, the first Anthrax CD to receive as much critical acclaim as sales success.
When it came time to record a followup to White Noise, however, Ian admits that Anthrax had to face some unpleasant facts about longtime guitarist Danny Spitz. "Danny wasn't involved at all creatively," he says, "and he was almost invisible when we played, which I think is why he became an anchor around our necks on stage. We talked with him about it, and he disagreed, but the four of us truly believe that he had just lost his interest in the group. Other people noticed it, too. They were, like, `What's up with Dan? Is he pissed off or something?' So we had to make a change, for the record's sake."
With Spitz gone, Anthrax imported Pantera's Dimebag Darrell and longtime pal Paul Crook (currently touring with the band) to handle the guitar leads, and the production team known as the Butcher Brothers to get Stomp down on tape. The result is as strong a metal disc as has been released this year--a combination of the early Anthrax's pure adrenaline and the latter-day group's more varied tastes. As for its lyrical content, it's as craggy and singular as usual. Take the lead cut, "Random Acts of Senseless Violence," which offers an unexpected take on its subject matter.
"The bottom-line message behind the song is, if you're going to get into a fight, don't use a knife or a gun. Use your fists," Ian says. "It's kind of like missing the good old days, when people could actually get into a fistfight and not have to worry about getting shot afterwards.
"To me, the biggest coward in the world is someone who would pull a weapon on somebody else in any situation, whether it be a fight or a car accident or someone who's out to murder or rape somebody. That's the weakest and most cowardly act you could commit against another human being, but that's how it is with people these days. They have no self-respect or responsibility about anything. When I was growing up, you could get into fights and walk away from it without having to worry about three days later somebody coming to your house and trying to fucking shoot you through your window. Fuck, you can't even beep at somebody on the road without them wanting to take a shot at you. I have to live in the world with these people, and I find it to be completely unfair that my life or the lives of my friends and family are threatened by assholes."
The rest of Stomp is just as forthright. "There's a theme that pops up in three or four songs, like `Fueled' and `Perpetual Motion,'" Ian says. "It's a real Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta vibe. We've been through a lot of shit in fourteen years, but we're still doing what we do, and still loving it."
That's fortunate, because the present pox on the metal industry has turned out to be Anthrax's sternest test yet. "Obviously, if we come out and nobody is playing our type of music, it makes it tougher for us," Ian admits. "Album sales are different, ticket sales are different. It totally affects us. It's hard when you put a record out and there's no way for anybody to even know it."
Indeed, Stomp went into freefall shortly after entering the Billboard sales charts, plummeting from the list in only four weeks. Furthermore, the support Anthrax has grown accustomed to receiving on tours is nowhere to be found. According to Ian, "In some of the markets where we play, we can't even find a radio station that will advertise our shows. They say, `We don't play them on our station, so why would we advertise their tickets?' And yet they'll play bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, which makes no sense to me. To me, those bands are just as metal as we are, but Alice in Chains is all over the radio and all over MTV. But even though MTV added our video, we get played at 3:30 in the morning."
In an effort to overcome these obstacles, Ian says, "we've been doing as much press as we can, and we've been finding that the shows are doing okay, because we end up doing these pretty big walk-ups the nights of the show. We just played one in Long Island, and a week before it, they'd sold about thirty tickets. But we ended up doing like a thousand people and filling up the club. Which was a really good feeling, because I would have been kind of bummed to play before thirty people."
Plenty of metal acts face this prospect, and as a result, they may go the way of the dodo; Ian acknowledges that the anti-metal mood will weed out a lot of his competitors. He's more confident that his bandmates in Anthrax will pull through, mainly because he feels they're too stubborn to throw in the towel.
"You have two choices. You can stand up and use it as something to fight against--to fuel yourself creatively--or you can give up. And we're certainly not going to give up," he declares. "We're not going to turn around and say, `Radio doesn't play us anymore, MTV doesn't like us anymore, nobody likes this music anymore, so we're going to quit.' Hell, there's never been a time when it was easy for us--a time that the media was saying, `This is the greatest band in the world, playing the greatest type of music.' Maybe someday we'll get that for about six months. Who knows? But there's one thing for sure. If we go, we're not going to go quietly."
Anthrax, with the Deftones and Life of Agony. 8 p.m. Tuesday, December 12, Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax, $15, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.