ANTHRAX: SPREADING THE DISEASE (1985)
Big changes all around. New bass player Frank Bello may or may not be as good at his weapon as Dan Lilker, but he is certainly more disciplined. More importantly, new vocalist Joey Belladonna (real name of Bellardini) provides the band with an entirely new image. Unlike Neil Turbin, Joey is not a screamer (he can scream, as is clearly demonstrated on 'Medusa' and a few other songs, but clearly does not want to capitalize on that); most of the time he sounds like a normal, sweaty, friendly working class guy that, for some totally unclear reason, ended up in a thrash metal band without belonging either to the banshee or the Cookie Monster variety.
The contrast works, if only due to the surprise factor. So when you listen to the big hit 'Madhouse', it is fun to interpret lines like 'Trapped in this nightmare, I wish I'd wake' and 'It's a madhouse, or so they claim, it's a madhouse, am I insane?' as sincere psychosis on the part of the singer who, in a perfect world, would rather find his place in REO Speedwagon than a thrash band. But then these are hard times, calling for heavy answers, and even normal guys like Joey Belladonna have to join Anthrax instead of Grand Funk. What is thrash metal, after all, if not a suitable reflection of all the evils and wrongdoings of society? And why does it have to be dominated by grotesque singing personalities, if it's all about the common guy anyway?
But if the image has changed, the music has not. They slowed down a bit; fewer songs are taken at ultra-speed than before, and the excessive Judas Priest influence, of which they had been accused the previous year, is nowhere any more obvious than on 'Madhouse' itself. The riffs are just as moderately memorable, to be admired for their precision and power rather than specific emotions stirred up differently on different songs. The choruses are not too catchy. In short, I fail to see how the band's songwriting — always their weakest side — has managed to improve with the departure of Lilker and Turbin.
The important thing is, they are trying to get rid of the cartoonish factor, or, rather, the stupid cartoonish factor. The songs still deal with all the traditional themes of thrash metal, but with the earthlier singing and slightly less clichéd lyrics, the intelligence bar rises, and with it — the level of critical respect. With Spreading The Disease, Anthrax managed to find themselves new, more demanding fans, without losing the old ones. The difference is clearly seen if you compare the bulk of the album with the last song, 'Gung-Ho', a leftover from the Neil Turbin days. Belladonna still tries to save it with his humanly presence, but, overall, the insane tempo multiplied by idiot lyrics about the evils of army service condemns the song to the realm of silly excesses.
My favourite numbers are the simply titled 'Madhouse' and 'Medusa'; the former — because it is the perfect summary of everything that Anthrax are about at this time, thrash riffage and grit and a bit of anti-social punch, and the latter — because it is a cool epic metal song about a mythological monster... 'nuff said. But, of course, I wouldn't know how or what to write about them individually. The important question is: does this stuff kick plenty of ass without making one feel like a third-grader? The answer, I think, is yes, but then I have missed the third grade for so long that I cannot feel too sure already.
Definitely a thumbs up: emotions-wise, the senses perk up each time Belladonna clashes his jaws behind a mighty Ian Scott riff, and brain-wise, I understand how this is heads and tails above the «average» thrash product (or maybe I don't — truth is, real thrash metal requires so much effort on the part of the player that the brain is almost bound to be impressed). But hardly all the way up — I don't remember much except the two 'M'-songs once the experience is over, and if I were to train my brain to melt in the face of each well-trained, well-armed band, there'd be very little of it left in no time.