Released in September 2011 (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
Thrash metal veterans Anthrax have a more dysfunctional history with lead singers than Van Halen, which is saying something. Follow closely now: original vocalist Neil Turbin lasted one album before being replaced in 1984 by Joey Belladonna, who sang on four albums until being fired in 1992 and being replaced by John Bush, who also did four albums with them before quitting in 2005, partly because he wasn't into the rest of the band's idea of an Anthrax tour featuring himself and a returning Belladonna splitting vocal duties. So, Belladonna stays until quitting in 2007, with unknown Dan Nelson then stepping into the frontman position for a couple of years until either quitting or being fired (it's now the subject of litigation between the two sides). In a bind due to concert contractual obligations, Anthrax approach Bush (who is not on great terms with the band) to help them out, which he does for shows in 2009 and 2010. Bush is unwilling to recommit to the band on a longer basis, so Anthrax, who have a fully recorded album in the can with Nelson's vocals that they obviously can't release, go back to Belladonna out of sheer desperation and he reluctantly signs on again, recutting the vocals for what is finally the band's tenth studio album, Worship Music.
The road to Anthrax's first album of original material in eight years may have been messy, but Worship Music shows little signs of the distracting drama that's played out, displaying a consistent potency throughout its one hour running time. Even when the album hits a relative sag about three quarters of the way through, the material is still solid, from the early Anthrax years-sounding "The Giant", to the jam-packed "Judas Priest" (yes, it's inspired by the metal legends), to the slower paced "Crawl". Six of the album's eleven full-fledged songs (three more tracks act as instrumental song intros) are first-rate, including "The Devil You Know", "Revolution Screams", and a cover of "New Noise" from hardcore punk band Refused (in the odd form of that annoying and obsolete 90s fad, the end-of-album hidden track). This stellar group of six also includes the groove-heavy "The Constant", "I'm Alive", and "In The End", which lyrically plays homage to a couple of late metal heavyweights in singer Ronnie James Dio and Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell. The slow build of "I'm Alive" involves a beefy stationary guitar riff and hymnal vocals that flow into a simplistic song structure. It's one of only two songs on the album that sticks to a set tempo, making for somewhat of a nice contrast to the rest of the album, which is mostly filled with tracks that adhere to the thrash metal staple of complex arrangements and varying time signatures. One example of that would be the magnificent "In The End" - it's another slow builder that rides a simplistic guitar riff, only this one fiercely shifts gears to double speed mid-song before returning to its original tempo. The instrumental cello lead-in of "Hymn 1" also effectively enhances the nearly seven minute song's epic quality. Falling somewhere between the album's best material and the relatively weaker songs are the excellent "Earth On Hell" and the zombie-themed "Fight 'Em 'Til You Can't".
An unfortunate by-product of the near-extinction of physical music releases is the reduced emphasis on album artwork, so when an album comes along that bucks this unfortunate trend I think it bears mentioning. Worship Music's CD packaging contains some of the most appealing visuals I've seen on an album in ages, using a vibrant orange and black colour scheme that makes the great photography from Ross Halfin and artwork from Alex Ross absolutely pop. Ross' work, in particular, really impresses with striking front and back album covers (the latter incorporates the album's religious-themed imagery into it). Even the illustration on an inner cover of the gatefold packaging showing each band member fighting with a zombiefied version of themselves is badass, and I'm someone who was always turned off by the band's overly cartoonish persona back in the 80s. And for the religious folk, settle down and don't read too much into that band logo on the cover with the reconfigured pentagram featuring an "A" - it's more for visual effect than anything to do with the band actually being involved in devil worship, playing more on the symbol's visual role in metal history...and it's also an effective tool when it comes to pissing off the religious right.
As I tend to mention in most of my album reviews from metal bands, the musicianship here from guitarists Scott Ian and Rob Caggiano, bassist Frank Bello, and drummer Charlie Benante is outstanding (Benante's creative and gut-rattling drumming throughout Anthrax's career establish him as one of the best in the genre). That I liked Belladonna's singing so much came as a very pleasant surprise - I actually preferred the John Bush-era of the band more, but Belladonna singing this material is simply a perfect fit. There seems to be more of a melodic flair on this album than the band has demonstrated in the past, notably through Belladonna's vocals and the increased usage of background vocal harmonies. It's not a radical change from what the band's fans are used to, mind you...more likely, it's just a subtle effort to broaden their mainstream appeal. That shouldn't be confused with the group selling out, though - Worship Music is as aggressively heavy as any of their previous work, if not heavier. The album's first week sales in the U.S. totalled 28,000 - not earth-shattering, but significantly better than the mere 10,000 that their last studio release (2003's We've Come For You All) sold in its debut week. An additional boost no doubt came from Anthrax's participation in the high profile "Big 4" live shows with Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer.
Not unlike the current David Lee Roth/Van Halen relationship, I wouldn't place a wager on Belladonna's latest Anthrax tenure having an extended future - history strongly suggests their acrimonious and complicated relationship won't allow it. In this interview, Belladonna states "I wasn't their first choice to come back into this thing", which aren't exactly inspiring words. Hopefully I'm proven wrong, because it's a pretty sweet thing when a band uncorks their best album a full three decades into their career, as Anthrax have done here.