Anthrax: Whoops Apocalypse

ANTHRAX ARE ANTI-VIOLENCE, ANTI-NUKE, ANTI-DESTRUCTION. BUT THEIR MUSIC IS VIOLENT, LOUD, AGGRESSIVE AND BRUTAL. SIMON REYNOLDS ATTEMPTS TO RESOLVE THESE CONTRADITIONS.

THE PARADOX: Anthrax are a group of pacifists who have chosen to name themselves after one of the most ghastly instruments of biological mass destruction in existence. ‘One World’ is an anti-nuke song, ‘Indians’ is about the extermination and enslavement of Native Americans: but Anthrax’ music sounds genocidal, holocaustic.

Anthrax are operating on dodgy, but fascinating terrain. Their content (apocalyptic protest) is totally undercut by their form. Speedmetal appeals to and pleasures exactly the same kind of twisted psychology that underlines male fascination with warfare, weaponry, machines, risk-taking. Their sound, in its speed, discipline and precision, is like a perfect analogue for modern bureaucratic warfare.

The origins and workings of this male psychology are hard to probe. Groups like Anthrax get turned on, in much the same way as groups like Big Black, by the total language of destruction and apocalypse, by the imagery of atrocity and disaster. (Like Big Black, Anthrax’ music isn’t about release, letting loose, losing inhibitions: the regimented squad and manacled mechanical rhythms are a simulation of an oppressive environment.) Any man, if he’s honest, will admit to a secret fascination with violence. Why that’s the case is difficult to account for, except in terms of straightforward sickness. There’s just more evidence. The Futurists and their belief in war as hygiene. The Crass-era anarcho-punk groups and their fetishisation of oppression and apocalypse: the mushroom cloud as a kind of inverted orgasm, a spasm of horror. Eleven-year-old boys daydreaming of explosions. Kids hooked on electric games, junkies for impact. SF buffs lost in ever more grandiose fantasies of intergalactic warfare, whole planets pulverised and vaporised. The kids who let off homemade bombs in their backgardens. The 25-year-old bloke who likes to drop TV sets from three storeys up in order to see the cathode ray vacuum tube explode into a million fragments. Inside every man, there persists a residual trace of the little boy to whom all this appeals.

Maybe it’s based in a universal human desire for orgiastic destruction of resources, urges that socialisation tries to suppress because they elevate “the divine intoxication of the moment” over forward planning and calculated survival. Maybe apocalypse is a cipher for pure expenditure without return (to spend — Victorian slang for “to come”: spent — exhausted, used up, ruined). Maybe it’s all based on some kind of sadomasochistic deformation of eroticism.

Hoping Anthrax will be able to assist in unravelling the contradictions of their stance is a bit foolish. After all, they’re only a rock band. Groups very rarely have any awareness or understanding of the extent of their achievement. I meet Anthrax in a rehearsal studio in North London, a few days before Donington. Watching them practise is illuminating. They must have played these songs hundreds of time, on stage, in rehearsal, but the sense of exhilaration at their own prowess is a tangible presence in the air. Rhythm guitarist Scott Ian wears a great goofy grin. Bassist Frank Bello plays absurdly accelerated, almost jazzy basslines with his fingers, like Jaco Pastorius on PCP. Speedmetal is truly metallic; the last traces of R&B organicism have been brutally expunged from heavy metal; the pelvic jerk and grind has been accelerated into a staccato machine-gun stutter-beat; the lyrical concerns are chaste, fleshless, clinical.

They mess about brilliantly for a while (covers of ‘God Save The Queen’, ‘Holidays In The Sun’, a vivisected ‘La Bamba’, an awesome ‘Pride (In The Name Of Love)’). Then they come to talk.

Have the lyrical concerns always been so bleak?

Charlie Benante (drums): “Bleak? They’re blunt, I don’t know about bleak.”

Scott: “I don’t think they’re depressing. We’re just stating facts. It’s not our view of the world, it’s what going on. Y’know, read the papers, it’s all there. But we’re not always serious. ‘I Am The Law’ is about Judge Dredd, and that’s just fun.”

Don’t you think there’s a contradiction in espousing peace via music of intoxicating violence?

Charlie: “The only reason you say our music sounds ‘violent’ is because other bands that sound like us write about death and Satan and stuff. I mean, do you think polka music is to do with violence. It’s fast. Our stuff is just heavy. We don’t want to promote violence in any way.”

Joey Belladonna (vocals): “We’re into fun, not violence.”

Charlie: “We’re not interested in dwelling on death. You can write a three second song about death — ‘You’re Dead’. End of story. We’re not fascinated by death, we’re into living.”

Well, do you think your kind of music allows people to enjoy the adrenalin charge that people get in situations of violence of danger (like driving a car dangerously fast) but in a completely safe context?

Frank: “We don’t go out for that, but some of the people out there might be into it for that.”

Do you get a real cross-section of fans now?

Scott: “Yeah, that’s right. We get metal fans, hardcore punks. There really isn’t a punk scene in America as such anymore. Everything’s metal now, hardcore metal. It’s all lumped together.”

Tell me about the skateboarding thing.

“Good — now we can clear this whole thing about The Stupids up. There’s this band called The Stupids over here that I ain’t ever even heard of before who’ve been slagging us off in various magazines. They’ve been saying that we POSE with skateboards and we’re only into them as a gimmick and that us and Suicidal Tendencies have jumped on the skate bandwagon cos we reckon it’s gonna sell us records. Now you tell me — how is a skateboard going to sell me records? It’s the other way round: bands like Anthrax are making skating hip. The Stupids have said that Anthrax and Suicidal Tendencies don’t actually skate but that they think James from Metallica does. Where do they get information like that from? I was skating in skateparks in California in 1976 when The Stupids were just f**king little kids.”

Frank: “We’re not competition skaters. We skate for casual. I don’t wanna break my neck, going down a half-pipe, I’ve got to play guitar.”

Scott: “Why do those guys have to say all that? The don’t know us. What’s the deal? What The Stupids should realise, if they’re so into skating, is that the bottom line is to have fun.”

Funnily enough, that’s exactly what The Stupids said to me, talking about how competitive and posey the scene had got following the media hype.

Talking about fashions in the world of speedmetal/speedcore, are you guys into “straightedge”?

Scott: “We don’t preach it or anything — but we don’t have any kind of drugs at all, and none of us really drink. We’ll have the occasional beer. At the end of a tour we’ll party down a bit.”

Are you really into being fit?

Joey: “Only so’s to function better. There’s no point in getting sick on the road.”

Dan Spitz (lead guitar): “None of us can understand how other bands do that — drink and get terrible hangovers and then play well the next day.”

Charlie: “It’s like all those bands who’re into heroin. I can’t even cope with going for a blood test.”

Joey: “How do they remember what to play when they’re so wasted.”

Scott: “If I get drunk, it’s maybe two or three times a year it happens, and I feel so sick I couldn’t even imagine having to play a set or listen to anything loud. Like, a couple of years back we did this press thing in Britain. And afterwards we went to The Marquee and just kept drinking and the next thing we knew Joey was throwing up all over this kid in front of him. And then he recovered and we carried on drinking with Lemmy at some other club. And the next morning we had to catch a plane to Holland at 6.00am and our manager had to carry me out of the hotel.”

Dan: “And people drink like that every night and play!

Charlie: “Bands think that to be cool you’ve got to drink the most drink, screw the most girls, be the sickest you could ever be. Yeah, right — smart one, guys.”

To me, the straightedge philosophy is another facet to the male psychology of speedmetal: the idea of maximum physical efficiency as an edge over other people is not far from survivalism, with its belief in self-sufficiency and constant readiness for trouble. Apocalyptic paranoia and narcissistic armouring of the body are two sides of the same syndrome. Skateboarding resonates in this scheme as a cipher for autonomy and untrammeled mobility. Speedmetal, like hardcore and hip hop (which it closely resembles in these respects), is a very modern response to troubled times. As people, Anthrax are cheery, charming guys. But for me, their music is like De Niro’s vigilante in Taxi Driver as he prepares to be the righteous scourge of Evil; stripped down, primed, a perfect killing machine.

The little boy (in your soul) understands.

© Simon ReynoldsMelody Maker, 5 September 1987

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