Back in November, 2001, Anthrax stood on the stage of New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom in defiance of international terrorism and in defense of artistic integrity. As each of the band’s five members turned their backs to the crowd, the words “We’re Not Changing Our Name” were spelled out on the boiler suits they wore. In the process, they also were clearly telling America and the rest of the world, “We’re not going anywhere.”
Flash forward nearly 15 years, and Anthrax are still enjoying a substantial resurgence. Their 2010 reunion with longtime vocalist and fan-favorite, Joey Belladonna, has paid off in dividends, including the massively successful Big 4 Tour and a monster comeback album, 2011’s Worship Music. That album is nearly universally revered by critics and fans alike, and rightfully so. The record is a dynamic tour-de-force, featuring the classic ‘Thrax speed and aggression to please old-school thrashers, coupled with enough melody and varied moods to attract fans of traditional heavy metal. Not only are the songs fantastic on Worship Music, but Belladonna’s vocals shine with purity and power. It is against this heady backdrop that Anthrax’s new release, For All Kings, is met with great anticipation.
Unfortunately, Anthrax fans who were expecting a return to their past thrash glories, or at least a continuation of the exuberance and balance of Worship Music, may be a bit disappointed by For All Kings. Despite the high fan expectations and Megaforce’s aggressive promotional efforts, this new album is solid, but not spectacular. For All Kings lacks the emotional peaks and valleys of its processor, with the band choosing primarily to lay back and groove rather than assault the listener with speed and power. That’s not a negative choice in and of itself, but the overall lack of urgency displayed here leaves the listener feeling a bit lukewarm. While taking notes on these tracks, too often I found myself thinking of rather mundane descriptors such as, “slow,” “mid-tempo,” and “straight-ahead.” Some fans also may be taken aback by the increased commercial, almost (dare I say) poppy, bent to the vocal melodies.
Let’s start with the positives. For All Kings finds the band riding their high tide of determination, as evidenced in the chorus to “This Battle Chose Us.” “Hell, this ain’t no warning/you give ‘em hell because you must/it’s a long hard road we’re walking/because this battle chose us.” Lyrically, this is one of Anthrax’s most poignant albums to date; Scott Ian and co. skillfully attack corrupt politicians, religious extremism, racism, and inner torment, among other culturally-relevant topics. The struggle to make the correct choice between right and wrong is palpable, particularly on the first single, “Breathing Lightning.” Here Belladonna pleads with us to make the moral choice before it’s too late: “You always have the chance to do the right thing/before the right thing comes undone.” Belladonna’s voice stays comfortably in the middle part of his range, which fits well with some of the more poppy melodies he sings. Musically, the playing and production value on For All Kings is top-notch all-around. If there’s an MVP of this royal thrash-metal court, however, it is lead guitarist Jon Donais. His playing is extremely fluid and tasteful throughout, and his leads always work to serve the song in the name of glorious melody.
The best songs on For All Kings are the faster and more dynamic cuts. Opening track “You Gotta Believe,” for instance, provides the blueprint for a perfect modern Anthrax song. This tune begins in an up-tempo manner with an infectious and accented main riff, before settling into a staccato, start-stop verse riff. The band pulls out all the stops in the interlude, which starts with a Sabbath-esque crusher of a riff, followed by gorgeous guitar melodies over smooth bass arpeggios, and a hyper-melodic solo. Then the band re-launches a speedy version of the opening riff, replete with blazing solos and a fast double-bass beat. “Breathing Lightning,” by contrast, nearly falls into commercial hard-rock territory with its chugging, mid-tempo riff, though Belladonna’s vocal melodies in the chorus are ever-so-sweet. “Evil Twin” is an up-tempo and legitimately thrashy tune; it also, not coincidentally, is one of the album’s best. Other highlights include the straight-ahead melodic metal of “This Battle Chose Us,” which recalls mid-90s Megadeth, and the blistering, withering machine-gun thrash of “Zero Tolerance.”
Songs such as “Monster at the End,” and the title track, while not bad, by any means, exemplify some of the album’s faults. Too many of these songs are burdened by the over-reliance on slow-to-mid tempos, strummed open chords, and deliberate or plodding riffs. That formula may work well for a song or two, but over the course of half an album it becomes tedious. This is the mighty Anthrax, kings of punk-infused, NYC thrash, after all. They are capable of writing much more compelling material than some of the pedestrian riffing and lackluster pacing on songs such as “Suzerain,” “Depend/Avenge,” and “All of Them Thieves.”
That said, Die-hard Anthrax fans will still find plenty to like on For All Kings. Just don’t expect another absolute scorcher this time around.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot