Anthrax has a great time showing their chops as classic rockers and this might be surprising if they hadn't already covered even less likely acts like the Smiths and the Temptations.
If Anthrax has any gimmick whatsoever, it’s that they have always done the unexpected. However, after 32 years (and counting) as a band, the unexpected has become par for the course, yet, founding member and rhythm guitarist Scott Ian never misses an opportunity to point out that they are, once again, doing something he bets we didn’t expect.
Take their latest release, Anthems for example. This EP consists of covers of six classic 1970s rock songs that influenced the current lineup of the band. Considering that Anthrax’s place in music history was cemented when they were listed as one of the "Big Four" of Thrash Metal (along with Megadeth, Metallica and Slayer), many or all of these choices could have been quite surprising indeed -- if Anthrax hadn’t spent a career pulling these kinds of tricks out of their hats.
When every other Thrash band on Earth was known for growling and screamed lead vocals, Anthrax replaced their original singer with Joey Belladonna, the frontman for a Journey cover band. When every other band wore leather and spikes, they wore colorful surfer shorts and muscle shirts. When their album Among The Living became one of the biggest metal albums of the era, Anthrax recorded a Rap single called "I’m The Man", helping (albeit not singlehandedly) pave the way for the Rap/Metal movement of later years. When at their commercial peak, they replaced Belladonna with John Bush, a deep, grunge-infused inversion of their previous singer’s high pitched wail.
Even remaking surprising songs has become a staple of their career. They’ve covered everyone from the Sex Pistols to Black Sabbath, from the Smiths to Kiss, from the Temptations to Trust and from Public Enemy to Iron Maiden. Yet with every cover tune Anthrax greets the audience with a wink a nudge and liner notes that read something like "We suppose you’re wondering why we’re covering THIS band. Can you believe it?" Yes, guys, by now, we can believe it.
Anthems, the band’s second release since Belladonna’s (official) 2010 return to the microphone, features songs originally recorded by Thin Lizzy, Rush, AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Boston and, yes, Journey. And the liner notes continue to play with the irony of this heavy band covering these unlikely artists, saying "Anthrax covering Journey may seem weird" and "Some would think a Cheap Trick song would be the furthest out of our comfort zone." Ironically or appropriately, Anthrax negates these imagined misfits by delivering the most accurate cover songs they possibly can with scarcely any speed-metalizing of these classic tracks. For many listeners this is a good thing. After all, these tunes are classics for a reason.
In fact, Anthrax seems so enamored by these songs that Belladonna becomes something of an impressionist, using his usually dynamic voice to ape the vocalists who influenced him. Belladonna does his best Geddy Lee on Rush's "Anthem", hits Brad Delp's highs on Boston's "Smokin'" and works up his best Bon Scott "Ey!" on AC/DC's "T.N.T.". While the singer is uniquely qualified for his impersonation of Steve Perry on Journey's "Keep on Runnin'", he seems to limit himself to a lower range in his Robin Zander on Cheap Trick's "Big Eyes", just as much as he reigns himself in with his Phil Lynott on Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak". Lynott, Zander and Scott are/ were excellent vocalists in their own right and there is nothing wrong with Belladonna's voice here. The problem is that we're talking about the vocalist who screamed "Metal Thrashing Mad" at the top of his range and blew the band's previous singer away. It's not hard to expect a few more dynamics here, rather than flattering imitation.
Similarly, departed lead guitarist Rob Caggiano’s shredding guitars are eschewed in favor of duplicating the works off Angus Young, Alex Lifeson, and Rick Nielsen while the rhythm section of Frank Bello (bass), Charlie Benante (drums) and Ian himself work in favor of this sameness. The overall affect is pleasing and impressive, in that it’s very clear that Anthrax loves these bands and these songs. As surprising as they think this is, the truly surprising thing is that this precise rendition makes Anthrax look like something they’ve never been: too careful. True, Anthrax is talented enough to sound remarkably like the originals, but in doing just that, they choose to add 100% of nothing new.
On the other hand, this EP is not intended to be more than it is: a novel tribute to their influences, much like Metallica’s "$5.98 EP" Garage Days Re-Revisited from 1987. To judge it against the band’s more serious efforts would be to miss the point egregiously. As seriously as the band takes the songs themselves, their attitude about creating Anthems as a really fun project (much like their own 1987 EP I’m the Man) is hammered home by the six spoof record covers (one for each song) created by artist Steven Thompson. Seeing Rush’s iconic 2112 album cover reworked with Anthrax’s trademarked pentagram, Boston and Journey’s respective flying saucers adorned with that same symbol, Angus Young replaced with Anthrax’s "Not Man" mascot for their version of the "T.N.T" cover, the band members replacing Thin Lizzy for their frantic run on the cover of "Jailbreak" and an anime Anthrax fan standing in front of a Cheap Trick-style graffitied wall is both an appropriate and mood-setting laugh and another commentary on the precision with which they approach their imitative tributes.
Anthems isn't a statement of some grand scheme to introduce their fanbase to six of their big influences (although, if that should happen, so much the better). Anthems is about five guys, most of whom have been playing together for their entire adult lives, having a good time with what they do. While it's hard not to wish for a bit more, it's easy to admire what they give us and why, even if none of the above is as surprising as they think it is.