ANTHRAX: FOR ALL KINGS (2016)
1) Impaled; 2) You Gotta Believe; 3) Monster At The End; 4) For All Kings; 5) Breathing Lightning; 6) Breathing Out; 7) Suzerain; 8) Evil Twin; 9) Blood Eagle Wings; 10) Defend/Avenge; 11) All Of Them Thieves; 12) This Battle Chose Us; 13) Zero Tolerance.
As the legendary thrash heroes grow older and older, each new album becomes a test of willpower and endurance: can they still make it? won't it feel too embarrassing? is tinnitus finally setting in? It's not as if a band like Anthrax really has a choice of switching to acoustic folk or didgeridoo music, even if an ethnic reworking of ʽCaught In A Moshʼ, if done authentically enough, might be curious.
Anyway, the good news: Anthrax are still together, featuring more or less the classic lineup — only lead guitarist Rob Caggiano has been replaced by Jon Donais, but he was never part of the classic lineup anyway, so good luck to him in Volbeat or whatever other Scandinavian metal band he'd wish to join. Technically, the rhythm section remains tight, and Joey is still Joey, keeping a youthful spirit at the age of 55 (which we now know is not that hard to do — hey, my own memories of a 55-year old Mick Jagger make him seem like a youngster at the time). Even better, though even more subjective, news: it seems to me that this new bunch of songs is somewhat better written than the disappointing Worship Music. Better riffs, catchier choruses, it all kind of makes a bit more musical sense.
But everything comes at a price, and one other definite feel I get (among with quite a few other critics and fans, it seems) is that For All Kings is somewhat lacking in energy. Where Worship Music tried too hard to sound like classic Anthrax, this one does not try enough (yes, I know we amateur writers are hard to please, but what can you do? Writing about Anthrax albums is almost impossible without comparing them to each other and to that one classic-ideal-immaculate Anthrax LP that they never really recorded). For starters, most of the songs are too slow: there is not a single proper brutal lightning-speed thrasher to remind you of this band's ultimate powers. Far be it from me to demand that all their songs be like that — but a couple would still have been nice. Instead, we get way too many tunes that sound like «regular» metal, or hard rock, or even pop-a-roll: not really bad or anything, but not exactly something that we need an Anthrax for.
Second, the older they get, the more they tend to sermonize: most of the songs here carry social or generally moralistic messages, ranging from the individuality-acclaiming title track to ʽEvil Twinʼ which condemns the Charlie Hebdo killers (because, as we all know, Anthrax are especially popular among Islamist terrorists and ISIL leaders, and whatever Scott Ian tells them to do, they will execute instantly to wild cries of «Anthrax akbar!»). Again, even if there's nothing particularly new that they might tell us, it wouldn't be such a problem if one didn't get the feeling that the message is occasionally more important than the execution, and also because Joey Belladonna simply might not be the best voice to deliver these serious messages — even after all these years, I still keep seeing him in a sarcastic haze, playing the fool a little. To be Moses or Jonah, he'd probably need extra vocal powers sent from above, and if they didn't arrive thirty years earlier, it's useless to wait for them now.
That said, I honestly enjoy bits and pieces here — even stuff like ʽThis Battle Chose Usʼ, with its singalong pop chorus that arrogantly bridges the gap between Anthrax and Bon Jovi, is endowed with gutsy riffage, and I'm all in favour of the sacrilegious transition between the more thrash-like verses and the clearly pop metal chorus and backwards. The title track starts out almost accappella style, as if Joey, inspired by the title, were going to deliver us an epic Anglo-Saxon ballad from ye olde times — fortunately, it picks up steam very soon, but then nothing about the song really is as interesting as this contrast between the introduction and the main riff. And the riff itself is nowhere near as tough as the one on ʽBreathing Lightningʼ — now here, after a boring epic intro, we get a monstrous variation on the ʽCaught In A Moshʼ riff that almost sounds like classic Anthrax. And then it, too, gets betrayed with an epic «melodic» chorus that turns this band into something it ought not to be. Belladonna singing in an operatic tone? He's neither Rob Halford nor Bruce Dickinson, why should he bother? (Oh and, by the way, note them cop the riff of ʽThe Song Remains The Sameʼ for a bit in the mid-section).
In short, this is Anthrax all right, but an aging Anthrax, with slightly (or maybe seriously) diminished powers of conviction, but an ever-increasing level of social consciousness that drives them to taking themselves more seriously than ever before. But time is a bitch — as is evident, for instance, from the way less than stellar live rendition of ʽCaught In A Moshʼ that is included as a bonus track on the expanded edition of the album, with Ian messing up the classic bassline and the entire band messing up the playful call-and-response harmonies on the chorus. This performance might serve as an allegory for the entire new album — if you think I'm dreaming things up and this current live incarnation goes every bit as strong as it used to, you'll probably also love For All Kings, but... well, I am not suggesting that the band retire or anything, but yes, they are getting old, there's no getting around it, and I feel as if they have not chosen the ideal way to adapt to it. Although, frankly speaking, I have no idea what that ideal way would be, so it's damned if you do, damned if you don't all the way. At least the old pals are still together, and there's always something to be said about long-lasting musical friendship.