Anthrax's Scott Ian on Making a Brilliant New Album and Possibly Bringing the Big Four Tour to S.F.
California may have been the epicenter of the emerging thrash-metal scene at the dawn of the 1980s, but the NYC headbangers of Anthrax unquestionably earned their place in the genre's history. As an East Coast counterpart and early ally of Metallica, Anthrax crafted its own unique template by mixing hardcore punk's breakneck tempos and shouted gang vocals with brutal guitar riffs on classic tunes like "Caught in a Mosh" and "A.I.R."
While the band has drifted back and forth between '80s vocalist Joey Belladonna and latter-era singer John Bush for much of the past decade, Anthrax recently released Worship Music, the first album to feature Belladonna since the ambitious 1990 opus Persistence of Time. Featuring some of the most indelible melodies and catchiest choruses on a metal album this side of Iron Maiden's iconic Number of the Beast, the new Anthrax effort marks a brilliant return to form without sacrificing an iota of the band's characteristic aggression. All Shook Down recently spoke with band founder and guitarist Scott Ian about his inspirations for the songs on Worship Music, playing a hometown show with the Big 4 at the House That Ruth Built, and the band's upcoming tour with Bay Area thrash heroes Testament and Death Angel, which comes to the Warfield on Sunday, Oct. 23.
It sounds like the genesis for the songs on the album was you, Frank [Bello], and Charlie [Benante], working out ideas in a rehearsal room. I was wondering -- especially given how hooky the vocal melodies are throughout -- at that early stage, do you mess around with a guide vocal? Or are those melodies left in the singer's hands?
Not really at that early stage, no. It's more just getting the arrangements together. And then once basic arrangements of the music are done, we start focusing on melody lines and I start focusing on lyrics. Sometimes based on words I start coming up with I have melody ideas for how I want the words to go. But just as many times Charlie and Frankie will send me MP3s of them just "la la la-ing" along to the arrangements with melody ides as well. And then I'll just start plugging in the words based on usually what I think is the best melody idea for the part, whether its Charlie's, Frankie's, or mine. A lot of times it ends up being a combination of ideas.
Joey Belladonna sings as well as I've ever heard on Worship Music. How much of the vocal melodies were already established prior to his coming back in the band?
Well, they all were. The songs were written. When Joey came back, we had like 14 songs in some state of being finished. We didn't even know what that earlier version of the album was going to be 100 percent, because not all of it was mixed yet. It was still kind of a work in progress at the point when everything got shut down.
It wasn't until a year later, almost when Joey was back in the band, and we were on tour with Slayer and Megadeth last fall in the States -- that's when we knew everything was moving forward and we were going to finish the record. On that tour, we just sat every day in the dressing room with a bunch of gear set up and listened song by song -- a song a day, kind of -- and really nitpicked even more than we normally would, because now we'd had a year to really live with the stuff. In some crazy way, we had the luxury of hindsight which we'd never had before.
So we would just go through the songs and listen to them and say "Okay, does anyone any issues with this one? Yes? No?" Some songs we felt still held up 100 percent, there was nothing to change, and we loved everything about them. There was nothing we could do to make them better. And then there were songs that we felt "Okay, maybe this chorus could be better. We were never happy with this even a year ago, so let's fix it." And then there were some songs that were complete rewrites. So by the time we finished that run we had narrowed it down from 14 songs down to ten. And out of those ten, three were re-recorded. The bass was re-recorded on everything, but three songs were re-recorded from the ground up, rewritten lyrically and melody-wise. And I'd say there were five or six that stayed exactly the same.
Which were the three songs that underwent the biggest transformation?
"In the End," "Judas Priest," and ... I guess you could say "Fight Until You Can't," because we did re-record that. We had been playing it live for a while, but we also changed the way the whole bridge section was sung. Those three would be the ones that went through the most changes.
Prior to listening to the song with the lyrics in front of me, I was thinking "Devil That You Know" was another horror movie tribute, because of the line "Let the Right One In" in the chorus. After reading the lyrics, I didn't catch any elements to the Swedish vampire movie, but did it provide you with inspiration in some way?
No, not at all. It really has nothing to do with that. If anything, the initial kernel of the idea for that song was the character Marv from Frank Miller's Sin City books. I have a hard time putting this idea into words, but it's about men who don't really exist anymore in this day and age; guys who came back from World War II. It's kind of my ode to a time gone by, and it's also about trust and not judging a book by its cover. There's a whole bunch of different elements. With this record, for a lot of the songs there's not just one subject or theme. Every line could be about something that has nothing to do with the line after it because I had so many ideas running through certain things.
The goal for me was just trying to make it work cohesively somehow. I mean you have songs like "In the End," which is about one thing -- our feelings for [late Pantera and Damageplan guitarist] Dimebag Darrell and Ronnie James Dio -- but there's other songs where there's 50 ideas running through them.
In other interviews I've read, you've talked about how songs were born out of the struggle of the past four years as a band. While lyrically songs don't get into politics too explicitly, "Earth on Hell," "Devil You Know," and "Revolution Screams" all seem to speak to current turmoil in the world. Did you draw on that as well, or does it just happen to mirror what you were going through personally?
Certainly "Revolution Screams" and "Earth on Hell" are definitely about what's going on in the world, but more specifically what's going on here in America and my general dissatisfaction with the way things are run in this country and the way things are probably going to be run in this country for the foreseeable future.
I think the titles are pretty self-explanatory. In "Earth on Hell" the first line of the song is "The kids have gone wild in the streets." I wrote the lyrics to that song years before all this stuff started going down in Egypt. It was weird when that all started kicking off and I was watching it on CNN. I basically wrote two songs about this exact thing: what if the people decide they want to take the power back?
I've thought about this quite a bit throughout my life. I came up through the Reagan era. That's my first real experience with politics. Obviously the Reagan era was good for some people and bad for some people. For me, that whole time in the '80s I considered government bad for me in sense that they were trying to shut me down and the bands that I came up with during the whole PMRC thing. I think back to the '60s where here in America the people did for a moment in time take some amount of power into their hands and were able to force change.
That hasn't happened since in this country, and now you see it happening all over the world. Everywhere it seems except for here. Obviously it's not going to happen in China, not in our lifetime anyway. Basically, I would just love to see what would happen if that did happen here. I guess we saw a small version of it on Wall Street recently*. At least we weren't rolling tanks and shooting people, so there were some positives to be taken out of that. But "Revolution Screams" and "Earth on Hell" are very much about people taking the power back.