Thrash metal’s “Big Four” are still trudging on in 2016. Metallica should’ve played the Super Bowl and have a new album in the works. Slayer released Repentless last year and are content to keep going without Jeff Hanneman. Megadeth just dropped Dystopia. Completing the cycle is Anthrax, the black sheep of the group, whose 12th studio album, For All Kings, holds fast to the band’s signature melodic thrash style. My question: How relevant is any of it? Why should we care about new material from our favorite ’80s metal bands as they retread the same ground, as they repeat themselves years, decades after their prime? For All Kings — like Repentless and Dystopia and Death Magnetic — is a safe and agreeable slice of thrash, but it’s also robotic, formulaic, and dated.
Scott Ian’s guitar tone is dialed in, Joey Belladonna’s voice cuts through the mix — everything is as you remember it, strangely ageless. But the songs on For All Kings feel like they were written in haste, by the old tried and true formula. Opener “You Gotta Believe” may have been notated thusly on a white board in the studio: “Spooky theatrical intro/thrash section/hook/thrash/hook/groove riff/solo/slow Alice in Chains-y part/resolve thrash section.” Anthrax have written this kind of song over and over again. They are repeating themselves. The song’s chanty punk chorus is endearing and an upbeat way to start the album, but you immediately get the feeling of listening to something you’ve already heard before.
Among the Living and Persistence of Time prove that Anthrax can put together strong arrangements. They are unfavorably compared to their Big Four brethren in this department; Anthrax always had a pop vibe and sense of humor that worked against them in the eyes of technical purists. But even by Ian and bassist Frank Bello’s standards, the songcraft here is lax, and the riffs aren’t good enough to save it. “You Gotta Believe” is actually one of the most complex arrangements on the album. By comparison, “Monster at the End”, “Suzerain”, and “Defend/Avenge” are lean and muscular, the playing tight and sensational, but the progression of the songs themselves is a dulling malaise of verse-chorus-verse with a solo thrown in that grows weary, making For All Kings’ 13 tracks feel more like 30.
Belladonna attempts to save it, though, delivering lively vocal performances that defy his age. Araya, Mustaine, Hetfield: It’s ironic that Belladonna’s name is often forgotten among his fellow thrash vocalists, yet he has outlasted them all, in that he sounds exactly like he did 20 years go. His melodic punk shouts are in full effect, as are his Bruce Dickinson-esque falsettos and extended notes (most notably on the title track, which touts a heavy Maiden influence). The best tracks on For All Kings are its most spacious ones, the ones that give Belladonna the most room to throw around his melodies. “Breathing Lightning”, with its soft intro and major chords, is a fine example of the pop metal Anthrax does best, while the sludgy “Blood Eagle Wings” is a rare moment of restraint, its multi-movement pacing unfolding naturally and less arbitrarily than “You Gotta Believe”. Don’t listen to the words, though. Lyrically, For All Kings is standard post-Persistence Anthrax: half-baked social commentary peppered with generic thrash imagery about spooky thoughts and bad governments. Thinking about the words too hard is an exercise in mind-numbing. Frankly, with the world as fucked up as it currently is, it’s unfortunate that a band with the platform and stature of Anthrax — a band that once penned the poignant Native American examination “Indians” — couldn’t have come up with something more provocative than comic book stuff.
For All Kings feels pointless. A victory lap for victory lap’s sake. The definition of a fans-only release. We’re still waiting on new Metallica, but the Big Four is 0 for 3 with their recent albums, and they all suffer from the same problem of feeling like recycled cash grabs — competent albums musically and from a production standpoint, but totally lacking in original ideas and undesirable next to the classic material. These albums are sadly doing the opposite of their intention, cementing the Big Four further in the past rather than bringing them up to speed with modern metal, which is leaving them behind. At least Anthrax have remained humble and unpretentious throughout their career. For All Kings feels less like a contrived insult to fulfill contractual obligations and consumer demand and more like a genuine gift to their diehard worshippers who swear by ’80s thrash in all its nostalgic glory.
Essential Tracks: “Blood Eagle Wings”