Thursday, December 17, 2009

Anthrax: Among The Living 2009

Anthrax - 1987
Joe Belladonna – Vocals
Charlie Benante – Drums
Scott Ian – Rhythm Guitars
Frank Bello – Bass
Dan Spitz – Lead Guitars

Depending on my mood I look back at the third Anthrax album, ‘Among The Living’ in a number of different ways. Most days I simply see it as the essential Anthrax release, an all killer-no filler aural assault where everything clicked, I mean everything. From the iconic cover to the vibe that permeates throughout the entire disc to the lyrics and especially the music, ‘ATL’ and the success that followed remains one of those once-in-a-lifetime albums. It was the album where the band’s traditional Heavy Metal (Judas Priest/Iron Maiden) roots blended perfectly with their then modern day geographical influences (Agnostic Front/Murphy’s Law/Cro-Mags) and topped off with the pioneering bands of the day, the results speak for themselves.

When we look back at certain classic albums with some 20 years behind them, the point of view between the fans and the band members is always an interesting topic. Where the fans gush, drool and pontificate on what those innocent vinyl grooves did to not only them, but to their inner core, band members often reflect in a much different way. I’m sure to the members of Anthrax; ‘Among The Living’ was just the next collection of song they had ready to commit to wax. However when I look back on the band’s career, ‘Among The Living’ was the album the band HAD to make.

Their 1985 major label debut, ‘Spreading the Disease’ (Island) and the touring done in support of the record had laid the groundwork. The band’s vision of a heavier/more aggressive American version of a N.W.O.B.H.M. band had truly come to fruition with the addition of Vocalist Joe Belladonna. Their 11th hour choice of singers is what set them apart and ‘Spreading The Disease’ surely was proof. However, as good as ‘Spreading…’ was, it’s success and failure in relation to the material on the record is why it wasn’t the Worldwide cosmic connection its 1987 follow-up would reveal itself to be.

When it was released on March 22, 1987 ‘Among The Living’ stood alone. Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth had issued arguably their finest works a year earlier and to me, the absolute solidification of the term, ‘The Big 4’ was cemented the minute ‘ATL’ hit the store shelves. This is rather ironic because I feel the dissolution of the term was also linked to Anthrax with the September 1988 release of the terrible ‘State of Euphoria.’ But I digress, all the miscues and [IMO] filler material on ‘Spreading..’ had vanished and in its place was some of the leanest, meanest and most focused American Thrash Metal music this 16 year old kid had ever laid ears on.

Another huge reason Anthrax and ‘ATL’ were standing alone yet mightily tall in ‘87 was the band’s image. It took the “regular guys” Thrash Metal aesthetic to a more listener friendly level not typically seen in Heavy Metal. Their cartoonish image later took on a life of its own, but in 87 it was still viewed as another upward progression of success the band found themselves surrounded by, not yet the hindrance it would become a short year later.

Where Metallica and Megadeth lyrics were based in a more realistic violent nature and Slayer being both violent and satanic the New York quintet known as Anthrax came from a different place altogether. Lyrical topics about comic books, Native Americans, Stephen King novels and deceased Saturday Night Live alumni were not only an alternative to some of the more redundant Heavy Metal themes of the day, but they were very much hit or miss. At the time of their release (and to this very day) songs like “I Am The Law”, “Indians”, “A Skeleton In The Closet” and “N.F.L.” were very much hits.

And this is the exact reason we’re here today. ‘Among The Living’ was recently digitally re-mastered and re-issued in a deluxe format [CD/DVD] that truly celebrates what a phenomenal album this continues to be 22 years after it’s release. The re-mastering of seminal albums is either a horrible mistake [Megadeth’s 2004 campaign] or in ‘Among The Living’s’ case a much welcomed, much needed and much deserved listening smorgasbord. ‘ATL’ has always been a brutally heavy album, but a lot of the unique stuff the individual players pulled off was lost in the molasses of the mix. The low end frequency that ate up some of the Bass lines/fills as well as muddied and dulled the drum sound has been cleaned up significantly and it’s fucking fantastic.

This deluxe version is like the difference between cutting through flesh and bone with dull rusty saw and using a high powered and far more efficient laser. Both get the job done, but one’s just uh, better. So because of that I’ve decided to dissect one of my favorite recordings of all-time for your reading, listening and viewing pleasure.

Original Album:
Among The Living” – The perfect opener, 1:41 of intro with one of their heaviest yet catchiest riffs before Belladonna opens the album with a nod to the past before going for the throat in the present. The re-mastering impact is felt all over this track as the aforementioned main riff just jumps out of the speakers. A very memorable lead here as well as some sick double bass all over this song as Charlie Benante marks his territory early on. Simple message here, “Among the Living, follow me or die!”

Caught In A Mosh” – A set-list mainstay to this day, “Caught” is an up-tempo and effective Thrash number with some impressive bass lines and runs (and intro) by Frank Bello. Great riffs here, Scott Ian may have not written them, but they’re played tight as hell by one of the best riffers in Metal. Song gets some what anthem-like musically at 2:24 and makes great use of the open space from 3:11-3:50 before going back into the main riff. Lyrics are a bit on the goofy side now and the delivery of Belladonna isn’t exactly as smooth as I’m sure it was intended to be, but still a signature track nonetheless.

I Am The Law” – The first single from the album, the Judge Dredd inspired “I Am The Law” is a fucking Groove Metal masterpiece! The main riff still holds up today and the speed part from 3:31-4:42 is why so many people identified with this song as their first taste of ‘Among The Living’. Another set-list mainstay all these years later and another track improved by the re-mastering process. The drumming at the front of the song is just so driving and well, groovy and another highly memorable lead break from Dan Spitz. Back to the drumming, listen to the amazing cymbal work throughout the song, Benante just owns here. Danny Lilker gets credit for this song too.

Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.)” – The John Belushi inspired song warns about too much too soon and it’s a weird song where half of it has aged well and the other hasn’t. Mainly due to the choppiness of the chorus and the forced “efilnikufesin” business it still remains a bit so-so to me after all this time. When Joe Belladonna was not comfortable with something (like headbanging) be it a phrasing or entire verses there was no hiding it and in a weird way the cleaning up of this track makes that shine even more. The band sure got their monies worth with the whole “nikufesin” thing, but in 1987 it was another portal to their image and it worked. Still, looking back, as a Chicago kid and a fan of the Blues Brothers this was lyrically right up my alley and the music at 2:58-3:45? Fuhgetaboutit.

A Skeleton In The Closet” – One of the finest ‘Thrax songs, ever! Reminding me of the godly “Gung-Ho” off of ‘Spreading The Disease’, “…Skeleton” thrashes and bashes with the very best of ‘em and is a timeless example of musical and lyrical perfection. All the performances on this track are just incredible. However in my world it starts and stops with the drums and this track is a perfect example why Charlie Benante is up there with the greats of Rock/Metal drumming. So yeah, it’s all systems go on this barn burner based on the Stephen King story ‘Apt Pupil’ and how do you describe Thrash perfection? Just listen! ps: I bought the King book “Different Seasons” because of the band and of course this song.

Indians” – The first video from the album and no doubt a lot of people’s first exposure to Anthrax proper, “Indians” remains a love/hate track for me after all these years. I think I suffered from over exposure to the song, but like any over played/popular single track, when I listen to it in its natural habitat it doesn’t bother me all that much. Meaning if an entire album is played, the offending track can go on about its business without me having to silence it. “Indians” is one of those songs. Still, it’s an important part of the record and the sound here is much, much improved giving the song a bit of a jolt where needed. At 3:32 the “War Dance” part that segues into the lead break and then continues to the end of the song is easily the best two minutes of the song. The video, which showed the band in a live setting, was also very memorable and was a HUGE component in the success of ‘Among The Living.’

One World” – A “forgotten” gem on side 2 of the original album, “One World” is a multi-layered semi thrashterpiece! Super tight drumming and riffing with some eclectic bursts of speed carry this song through the at-times weird vocal patterns of Belladonna. Not so much that the actual patterns are weird, but the lyrics and what’s being crammed together keeps this song from joining “Skeleton” as one of the timeless/elite. However that being said, this is a far superior song than say “After-Shock” or “Lone Justice” off of ‘Spreading…’ Russians? I haven’t thought about them since Reagan.

A.D.I./Horror Of It All” – Of course reminiscent of the “S.S.C.” intro from ‘Spreading…’ the now even more elegant and lush twelve string “Arabian Douche Intro” gives way to a monstrous build up which carries the band well into over half the song. This track has everything but the riffs are just again, heavy and catchy and the updated sound just make them even more crushing. Lead break from 6:26-7:05 is probably one of my favorite solos on the entire disc, chaotic yet classic. The groove factor is also off the charts on this song, melodies and vocals are right on and this is another cut that helped solidify Anthrax in the annals of 80’s Thrash Metal.

Imitation of Life” – Starting with an unused S.O.D. riff [the original “Aren’t You Hungry?”, later to surface on M.O.D.’s ‘U.S.A. For M.O.D.’ LP] this song starts so damn promising as that intro riff is god. However once the song builds a bit it kinda flat lines for me when Belladonna bites off way more than he can chew with the fast parts. Where he’s supposed to sound sarcastic, he just sounds like a really uncomfortable guy with a microphone. At 2:40 the song goes for an uphill climb and it lasts for a while, the solo is good enough, then you get back to the weird jumbled vocals and ‘Among The Living’ closes on a high note (thankfully) with the intro riff now serving as an outro. Still it doesn’t shut down as strong as it could have, nitpicky yeah I agree, whatever.

Bonus Tracks: Nine times out of ten, the stuff they tack on to packages like these are usually pointless or nothing rare or special at all. With ‘Among The Living’ the vaults have been opened and while nothing here is of an urgent “must hear” nature, it’s not as bad as Geraldo’s Al Capone vault fiasco either. If you know ‘ATL’ like the back of your hand, these are admittedly cool enough.

Indians (alternate lead)” – Totally different lead which really changes the feel to the whole middle section of the song. It’s really kinda cool to hear anything different with a song that’s over 20 years old, especially one as “A” list as “Indians.”

One World (alternate take)” – Again, different, a few parts are extended some of the vocal patterns are different, same sentiment as above, interesting to hear for sure.

Imitation Of Live (alternate take)” – Weird intro, not sure if that was ever intended for release or if it was done more than one time? Same feelings on this alternate as the finished version, Belladonna when bad was really bad.

Bud E. Luv Bomb And Satan's Lounge Band” – “…Satan’s Lounge Band” was one of the B-sides to the “I Am The Law” 12” single. This is of minor interest to this guy here as I’ve heard it so many years earlier, but it’s at least chronologically correct and the geek in me likes that. The other track on the B-side? That was an obscure song no one’s ever heard before called “I’m The Man.”

I Am The Law (live in Dallas)” - If I’m not mistaken this was from a full concert Z-Rock broadcast on the air in late 1987, it also might be the same version as what’s on the ‘I’m The Man’ EP? Not sure. Yo, where’s the whole show?

I'm The Man (instrumental)” – For Karaoke I guess. The coolest thing? Without the vocals, the chorus of the song itself is fucking HEAVY! We’re talking ‘Speak English or Die’ heavy. I never really noticed with all the vocals on top of it but listen for yourself, wow.

DVD: The 1989 release [filmed in 1987] Home Video N.F.V. – Well, nothing’s ever perfect now is it? To a lot of people, myself included ‘Among The Living’ is the essential ‘Thrax album and ‘N.F.V.’ is the ultimate documentation of the band at their peak. Filmed over two sold nights at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, ‘N.F.V.’ is like watching a musical inferno and I had waited a long time for this to come out on DVD. Yes, I’d seen it on eBay and at a store or two, but I figured it was a bootleg (similar to my Iron Maiden ‘Live After Death’ with the Spanish subtitles!) however I really wonder now. You see, to be point blank, this DVD looks like shit! Grainy as fuck and the better your TV is, the shittier it looks and that’s a fucking shame. This is a major flaw but that’s because it’s a major “selling point” to this package and one that should’ve gotten a digital makeover, like the album itself, it’s deserving.

[The Big 4 'Among The Living']