Do I really need to say that Fistful of Metal has one of metal's all-time classic album covers? For a long time (longer than I should admit) I wondered if that was a decapitated head on the receiving end, but no, clearly can't be--the face is quite vexed, with brow furrowed fiercely, the forehead lines deep as ditches. The recipient of this fearsome blow is among the living, and pissed. I'd be pissed as well, somebody just strolled on up and punched the chocolate milk outta my mouth. Times is hard.
"Deathrider"--The first song of Anthrax's first album is utterly dated, but how surprising is that? And how does that make it empirically bad? An introductory song should function above all as an introduction. It should give a fair and powerful impression of an artist's modus operandi. By that criteria, "Deathrider" is a success. Guitarist Scott Ian and drummer Charlie Benante are already several steps ahead of the average at their respective instruments, Benante especially with dry-skinned tom rolls and double-bass kicks.
Then there is the matter of Neil Turbin.
There is a shortlist for the honor of greatest frontman in the history of metal music--vocal ability and charisma ne plus ultra. Ozzy, Dio, Bruce Dickinson, and my personal favorite, Rob Halford. Their insane ranges and imperious bearings inspired countless schlubs and apt pupils. But for every Phil Anselmo, there are fifteen Neil Turbins. Well-meaning frontmen who couldn't mature from mimicry. The few times on Fistful that Turbin does pull of a serviceable Halford--on "Deathrider," for example--it seems accidental.
"Metal Thrashing Mad"--By the second song I realized that if I am to enjoy this album, it will be down to how well I can tolerate the vocalist. Lucky everybody, "Metal Thrashing Mad" is the best track here (by a decent pace), an anthem for boys and the cars they transfer their throbbing urges to. This song kicks so much bubblegum that I can overlook Turbin making "steel" a two-syllable word.
"I'm Eighteen"--Alice Cooper's classic for boys and the adulthood they awkwardly transition into. Anthrax don't make it their own, not because it ain't but because they can't.
"Panic"--Cars…sex…goddamn these are some ugly-ass mechanics. The toolbox is at least proper.
Metal dudes and their hormones manifest in galloping riffs, muted strums, hammer-ons, scale runs, blast beats and octave pops. None of that stuff is sexy.
"Wheels are gonna spin/Asses gonna shake." That is not sexy either. Really, the closest I come to being aroused by anything in "Panic" is when Scott Ian and second guitarist Dan Spitz do their Judas Priest imitation.
"Subjugator"--The Word of the Day calendar bore bountiful fruit on that day! The title is so irrefutably metal, the transition at 1:05 is so irrefutably metal, the lick two and a half minutes in is…molten. Basically, a buncha solos with incidental vocals. This shovel looks fine in my hands.
"Soldiers of Metal"--Second song to have "metal" in the title, but it's arguable the least metal track here. Not that it's an acoustic ballad or anything--it follows the road more traveled by. Everything on display is generic. If this album were the cereal aisle at a grocery store, "Metal Thrashing Mad" is the Rice Krispies and "Soldiers of Metal" is the Riced Crispies.
"Death From Above"--Immediately put me in mind of the Screaming For Vengeance cover. (I'm sorry, but this album is like an altar boy's body: the Priest is all over it.)
"Die by the sword"? Oh crap, now I'm distracted by Slayer thoughts! The dastardly Slayer thoughts!
Once I get past the past, "Death From Above" appears a fully-formed scorcher. Charlie Benante swoops down onto the throne like a caped steel eagle with laser-shooting eyes and diamond-encrusted talons. Ian and Spitz have already landed, and the lambs are currently cooking. Neil Turbin's scary ass is stuck in poorly-drawn comic book land. Bassist Danny Lilker takes comfort in the fact that he got two classic songs out of his time.
"Anthrax"--If you're going to christen a song after yourself, it should hit at least 8 of the 10 bullet points to identify a future serial killer. Sure enough, the bookend riffage is kicking dogs and setting their houses aflame. In between, however, is some merely misdemeanor behavior.
"Across the River"--These ain't madmen, they're just pissed the cops won't let 'em skateboard in the park after 6 PM. Truly not your grandma's music, this instrumental is enjoyable and offers tantalizing hints as to the band's future capabilities. 1:04 to 1:18 must be singled out for praise, as it is one of my favorite solos by any of the Big 4. (Turn fourteen seconds in fifty-six, it's worth your time.)
"Howling Furies"--A steaming swamp surrounded by piles of dirt and wooden posts with initialed hearts. The foreboding infused not by the singer's high-school talent show aura, but rather the squealing solos of Spitz.
Of the Big 4 debuts, Fistful of Metal has aged the poorest, and it's really not an argument worth having. The standard subject matter--death, war, evil--is not the issue, because if you eliminated those topics as fodder for songs, the entire thrash metal genre would not exist. Ultimately, it's the marginal, amateurish vocals that keeps this from consideration as a truly great album. Neil Turbin evoked Rob Halford, he evoked Bruce Dickinson, and I'm sure he evoked Ronnie James Dio in the studio laying these tracks down, but never ever once does he evoke Neil Turbin. In aping the guerillas without deigning to add a splash of his own style, he did a great disservice to himself and his bandmates. If Anthrax had recorded another album with Turbin at the helm, it likely would have been their last one.
Time for some action.