Being different is not something that should be done for its own sake, but when it comes to the conventional wisdom regarding the Belladonna years of ANTHRAX, it is something that more people ought to start doing. The fact that people who laude the decent though fairly standard “Among The Living” to no end can call this bland or merely going through the motions is really perplexing, almost as perplexing as any self-respecting fan of this band’s pre-90s material liking “Stomp 442”. It might be understandable to want more development out of this album, as it does listen a little similar to the previous one, but given all the improvements and expansion of sound going on here, calling it a weak version of its predecessor just doesn’t fit what I hear.
Although we start off with a cello playing the intro riff to this album’s opening song, rather than a reverb steeped group of electric guitar tracks, “Be All, End All” proves to be a much more epic and interesting answer to the “Among The Living” question. The main riff is more memorable, Belladonna’s vocals don’t sound quite as forced, and things just seem to move along a lot quicker despite the longer time duration. In fact, throughout the whole album Belladonna and Spitz seem to have upped the ante in terms of quality, while Scott Ian’s riff ideas just come off as much more polished and powerful.
The album’s biggest strength is that despite the fact that it resembles the last one a little in throwing out some similar ideas in differing songs, the ideas are better and the mix of instruments just meld together perfectly. Benante’s kit is still fairly heavy on the high end, but there is just enough more punch to the bass and snare drum on here to properly unite with the bass and give this album the bottom end that many otherwise great Thrash albums seem to come up short on. It’s particularly noticeable on straight up, Thrashing riff monsters like “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mine”, “Schism” and “Misery Loves Company”. It should probably also be mentioned that this album, unlike the last one, doesn’t force you to listen to a mediocre obligatory ballad and sticks to what the band does best, blazing forward at full speed.
The album does start to lag a little during the 2nd half, as the songs start to lose their epic feel and sound a bit similar to each other, but nothing on here really qualifies as filler. Sure, “Now It’s Dark” and “Who Cares Wins” have some noticeable similarities in structure and feel, particularly during the verses and intros, but the band does a better job of throwing in some contrasting sections and doesn’t limit their options. The only song on here that really seems to truly fall a little short of the mark is the last one “Finale”, which reverts back to the throw in 2 or 3 good ideas and run with them for 5 or 6 minutes trap that the last album fell into. The intro riff kicks some major league ass in a way that force-feeding Big Macs to a vegan would, but it gets itself into a really formulaic groove for most of its duration and doesn’t really cook as well as the others.
But even if all of this isn’t enough to convince you that this isn’t the weakest Belladonna album, I’ll simply refer you to “Make Me Laugh”, one of the top 5 songs put out by this band and better than anything on “Among The Living”. Although perhaps not as witty a polemic against the abomination of televangelism as SABBATH’S “T.V. Crimes”, the lyrics are still really hilarious. The song actually shapes itself like a conversation between one of these bible thumping profiteers and someone who’s privy to their joke of a profession, switching from a happy to quasi-comical verse that parodies a church hymn to a jeering shout of the chorus over a pair of pummeling guitars. There’s also that signature rapid stop start riff that Metallica basically milked for 1/3 of their hit single from “And Justice For All” otherwise known as “One”, but put forth in a more tasteful manner that knows the value of brevity.
While this isn’t quite the melodic fit of sheer Speed Metal genius that “Spreading The Disease” was, or the classic angry epic that “Persistence Of Time”, this is definitely essential listening for any fan of Thrash Metal. The only thing that is radio-oriented about this album is the “Trust” cover and the fact that Belladonna’s voice isn’t as menacing as what you’d hear on a MORBID SAINT or POSSESSED album, but the latter applies to any album this band has ever put out. Many minds may push this to the bottom of the band’s 80s albums, but such minds are best when changed.
(Online December 3, 2008)