SPREADING THE DISEASE
"Early on, I told Johnny Z that what I didn't like about Anthrax was Neil Turbin's vocals." That's not me talking--that's radio and TV personality Eddie Trunk, whose influence over baby Anthrax was a factor in convincing the band that acquiring a new frontman would be good for its health. Another factor was the growing enmity between Turbin and Scott Ian, with the former accusing the latter of wanting to be seen as the centerpiece of Anthrax despite being "merely" the rhythm guitarist.
Enter Joey Belladonna, a pop-loving young man with superlative vocal chops. Able to scale soaring harmonic heights without coming off as second-hand, his presence provided Anthrax with much-needed personality without diluting the bands overall sonic power. (That statement is of course subjective. Some metal fans never cottoned to Joey's high-range histrionics.)
Enter, as well, Charlie Benante's nephew Frank Bello on bass in place of a struggling Danny Lilker.
The new Anthrax debuted with the Armed and Dangerous EP to ratchet up the fervor for their sophomore full-length effort. Or was this really their first go?
"A.I.R."--So begins the Joey-era, with an anthem for all the newly-independent souls struggling with the overwhelming fear that adulthood, with all its goddamn responsibilities and expectations, will result in a spiritual death far before the physical one. Well, Anthrax will have none of this fear business.
In addition to its status as a pummeling pep talk, "A.I.R." features the punk-inspired response vocals of Scott Ian that would become a 'Thrax trademark. Joey is a bit high in the mix, but the music still crunches and rings, and already Fistful of Metal is a relic.
"Lone Justice"--Comic books are one of those "guy" things that not even my notoriously tomboy self has ever gotten into. Dunno why--love to read, love good art. Maybe I cottoned to standard books instead because I crave endless text that forces me to draw my own panels and fill in my own colors.
So the saga of Judge Dredd--the hero at the center of "Lone Justice"--never moved me. The song, however, does. Chug-chug, brief escalating solo, then some wordy words. If I picture Steve Perry at a ComiCon bringing his panel to a climax with an impromptu performance of "Only the Young," with each and every costumed soul crammed into the conference room on their weary feet singing their throats into temporary oblivion, more than a few fists pumping in defiant celebration of nerd-life--well, goddamn! Kinda one of the best songs ever, then.
"Madhouse"--Of all the people who've ever claimed insanity, only Kenneth Bianchi was less convincing than Joey Belladonna. Also, I think the "madhouse" in question is a metaphor for the planet Earth. Whoa.
"SSC/Stand or Fall"--Technical bravado gives way to charmingly macho determination. A shorter "A.I.R.," making it a tighter fighter. In between strikes, "SSC" shows a cultivated defense as well: self-reliance, belief, resistance to atrophy.
"The Enemy"--You know Ostrowski, Parsley, Amalek, Halabja. Black War, Rwanda, Noakhali, and Bubi. But do you recall the most famous genocide of all?
"The Enemy" is about the Holocaust. And that's just kind of it. A bland exposition of an infamous event. "The final solution was mass genocide." Fucking spoilers, though!
"Aftershock"--The only jolt to be had over the duration is that Joey can sing clearly with his nuts in a vise. Clunky drums, hammer-bag guitars, this is how you treat a natural disaster?
"Armed and Dangerous"--The title track of the appetizer EP has aged wonderfully. In fact, I like it even more now.
The disarmingly delicate plucks of the introduction is a perfect bed for Belladonna to lay back upon, hands closed behind the head in that classic pose indicating a troubled young man living in tumultuous times, just waiting for the explosion that will finally bring about change.
While "Armed and Dangerous" could be interpreted as an isolated lament, I've always imagined it as more than that. I hear the story of a bloodthirsty criminal's realization, release and revenge. Tonight there's gonna be a jailbreak tonight! I think. Not sure where. I know approximately none of us want to be around with this creep and his cronies exact stabby get-back on society.
"A blade in my left
Ooh a gun in my right
To beat you within an inch of your life"
Shooting is not an option. Couldn't afford the bullets. Intimidation is key. Neil Turbin is given a co-writing credit, and I bet taxpayers' dollars to patrol cops' donuts he penned those lyrics.
"Medusa"--Anthrax also received some outside help for this track from the one and only Johnny Z (on the initial release of Spreading the Disease, Zazula was given sole credit; future pressings give credit to him and Anthrax. Hmm?)
"Medusa" makes me think of my lifelong insecurities with my own appearance. Fuck this song. The lyrics are an exercise in dumbing down an encyclopedia entry. No embellishments for the mythical malevolent icon, just more studying for the captain's exam.
"Evil stare will turn your flesh into stone…ooh, she'll suck you in."
Who listening to this song was unfamiliar with the legend of Medusa? Shame, but only a little bit. The guitars are suitably stony, the beats are crisp, but then here comes Joey eunuch-ing everything up.
Goddamn, that chorus makes me want to eat a window.
"Gung Ho"--One of Anthrax's very best, "Gung Ho" sounded impossibly fast to me as a young'un. My ears have grown wiser, but some blast-beat jamboroos sacrifice craft for speed. Not this'un. Charlie Benante is driving the tank through town, then back around.
Unlike them other guys, Anthrax's wartime ditties are the kind of complete fucking blast where no one dies or has to leave a hospital missing a limb. Less uniformed shells performing the depressing duties of a well-ordered machine, more rabid maniac humanoids thrashing at peak existence.
The pre-chorus--"FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!"--is as perfect as the chorus is dunderheaded. It's all gravy, though, for the well-whipped spuds.
Spreading the Disease was Anthrax's first album with a great vocalist, and thus also their first with an identity (Fistful of Metal could have been written and recorded by many bands of the time). Still not great, but definitely a step in the right direction. And don't cry for Neil Turbin! After his dismissal, he went on to do...various things. I mean, he's still alive, what more could you ask?