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Q105.1 Presents: Anthrax & Testament with Gorgatron
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ANTHRAX: It's rare that a career gets a second shot, let alone a whole second act, but then Anthrax isn't your average band. Formed in New York in 1981, the group that would go on to sell over ten million records and become the living embodiment of America's hi-top wearing, riff-spitting, ear-thrashing answer to the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal has undergone not one, but two complete eras - but that isn't their real achievement. More than the group who let a fledgling Metallica crash on their studio floor in 1983, who became a lightning rod for geekdom by immortalizing Judge Dredd with "I Am The Law" in 1987, who enthusiastically raised a middle finger to the critics and unimaginative fans alike by collaborating with rappers Public Enemy in 1991, and who - in 2011 with the release of Worship Music - proved that classic albums aren't a bygone concept, the story of Anthrax is one of gritty determination in the face of outrageous odds.
The liveliest fourth of the Big Four, they're arguably the only member of that legendary fraternity who've kept their eyes so firmly focused forward and who've so consistently delivered the goods, both on stage and in the studio. Ironically, it was on stage alongside those immortal co-conspirators where the story of Anthrax's 11th studio record began. Seeing their names in lights next to Slayer, Megadeth, and Metallica had a catalyzing effect on the band weary from years of toil and changing times. According to bassist Frank Bello, it wasn't just a potent reminder of what they did back in the 80s, but also of how far they've come.
"Charlie, Scott and I have talked about how we have to credit Metallica with what we're doing right now," he says. "When the Big Four got back together back in 2009, it kinda reminded us that we belonged, that we really were part of that group of bands. We didn't forget it but maybe people did - it suddenly made sense. It was like, 'wow, we've been busting our asses for all those years,' and then we released Worship Music - that was the catalyst. We knew we had something awesome, but it was about everybody giving it a chance - we sold a lot of records. It's testament to how great metal fans are, because they came back.
"We've been doing this for 35 years now," Frank continues. "We are who we are, we can't be something we're not, we can't bullshit people...that's just a New York mentality."
As with any band, Anthrax has its creative turbulences, but those add up to their unique chemistry. While all five members contribute ideas and make suggestions to pretty much every song, drummer Charlie Benante makes early writing inroads with foundation riffs and other ideas, rhythm guitarist Scott Ian has a very particular way of incorporating his intense lyrical ideas into the band's music, Bello has proven to be a very talented melody writer, something that has helped set the band's music apart from others in the same genre, Belladonna crafts his vocals to best utilize that soaring voice of his, and guitarist Jon Donais brings crushing leads. In the end, the five bring it all together to create what simply is Anthrax music.
Scott will be the first to admit that the For All Kings (Megaforce/North America • Nuclear Blast/International) backstory hasn't exactly been conventional or without its setbacks. In the summer of 2012, Charlie realized that due to his ongoing carpel tunnel syndrome, he would be unable to join the band on all tour dates going forward. But Charlie wasn't about to just sit around at home, so began writing riffs for the new album.
"When the Mayhem tour was over," said Scott," Frank, Charlie and I got together in the Jam Room in my house in L.A. and started arranging, and out of those first sessions, we had like four skeletal arrangements. Those first sessions were unbelievable."
Crucially, Charlie would employ a secret weapon that would become central to the process of creating an album that would stand tall in a back-catalogue bejeweled with some of the most important and influential releases of all time: a mutant guitar called The Shark.
"It's a weird story," he says. "Paul Crook, who used to be our guitar player (1995-2001), hooked me up with a good friend of his from Las Vegas, Mark Katzen, who spent all his time making custom guitars. I wanted this Eddie Van Halen replica of his, which is taken from an Ibanez Destroyer but it kinda looks like an Explorer now. Mark made an exact replica for me and from the time I got it, there was just something strange about it - it's like I just wanted to keep playing it. About a year later I heard that Mark had passed away, and I had this weird feeling about the guitar, like he packed it with riffs and went, ‘here, take this and do something great with it.'"
The result, in short, is a record that's as diverse as it is satisfying: a feast for the ears, and something of a victory lap for a band that bears the unique distinction of inventing what they do while still being the best at what they do. From the straight-ahead, no-nonsense fury of "You Gotta Believe" and "Evil Twin" to the sprawling, heavy-riffing masterpiece of "Blood Eagle Wings" (original working title, "Epic,") to its stately title track, "For All Kings" was - as Joey reveals - as much fun to record as it was to listen to. Chalk it up to the masterful efforts of Grammy-nominated Worship Music co-producer Jay Ruston, whose credits span the likes of Stone Sour, Killwswitch Engage, and Steel Panther, among others.
"It's awesome working with Jay," says Joey. "It's like we can just nail a track and move on. I love that confidence, and we're doing some crazy things. ‘Listen to Zero Tolerance,' man - that song is so fast!"
There have been other changes, too. In 2013, it was announced that Rob Caggiano, longtime lead-player who'd become known for his startling solos as well as his backstage antics, left the band to resume his role as a producer, but not before he'd introduced the band to highly respected shredder Jonathan Donais from New England bruisers Shadows Fall.
It would be an emotional experience for Jon, who confesses to the unique problem of simultaneously being a fanboy of a band in which he's now a full-time member.
"I grew up with them," says Jon. "I still remember being in junior high, on a beach trip in Maine and my parents got me State of Euphoria. I just loved it as soon as I heard it. Anthrax was a huge influence on me and my other band so it's still kinda weird for me. I mean, Scott is just a top-notch rhythm player - there are a lot of classic riffs going on! I was working most closely with Charlie. He'd go, ‘alright, gimme some Dimebag, no - go for Randy this time. Ok, now gimme some Eddie.' It was intimidating, I mean these guys are legends."
It's about more than just the music though, and true to Anthrax form, For All Kings isn't just infused with pop-culture references, but deeper subtexts that bespeak the thoughtful artistry that underpins everything that they do. As Charlie explains, while Anthrax's 11th studio record doesn't have a running theme, there's a significance to it all that comes straight from the heart.
"A king to me doesn't mean King Henry the Eighth," he says. "My Dad passed away when I was five years old, I never really had that Dad relationship so I looked elsewhere for role model and inspirations. KISS was a big thing for me, they were like kings to me. And that's who this record is dedicated to - those people, maybe they're sports figures, family members - the people that are big in your life."
Look closely at the album artwork, and you'll notice the fingerprints of one such hero in the band's life - the inimitable work of godlike comic artist and longtime Anthrax supporter Alex Ross, whose immortal depictions of classic DC and Marvel characters are in a league of their own.
There's an interesting parallel there, because there's little that Anthrax does that doesn't have a story or thought-process behind it. Take "Blood Eagle Wings," for instance, and consider the wide-eyed imagination that inspired it. Says Scott:
"I was sitting in my hotel room in London the day before hosting the Golden Gods, specifically with the intent of needing to write - I was so behind, and when I'm at home with my wife Pearl and my son Revel I just don't have the discipline. I can't go, ‘Daddy's gotta go write!' If I here him playing, it's like, ‘alright, I gotta go play, there's some Lego Star Wars shit I gotta be a part of.' So I was sitting there in London banging my head against a wall, and Pearl goes, ‘go get out for a walk,' so I did, and I started thinking about London and the blood that every great city has been built on - the murder, the bones and the blood of so many millions of people. Any great city is built on the blood of the innocent: Rome, New York, Los Angeles, London, or go watch Chinatown. The last season of ‘Hannibal' also happened to be on TV at the time, where I learned about the Viking practice of slicing a person's back open and pulling the lungs out, so..."
"Evil Twin" isn't just influenced by the shocking state of international affairs, but by the emotions accompanied by the realization that you suddenly have everything to lose.
"Lyrically there's no overall concept," Scott adds. "I have a child now, and this is the first record I've ever written lyrics for since I've had a son. That's how I view the world now. You bring a child into the picture, and it makes everything so much scarier. Out of fear comes anger and it makes you hate the world that much more. You've got this human being you would take a bullet for - I would do anything to protect my son - so most of the album comes from that place. I don't write happy lyrics, but to have a child in this world and then tell me that I shouldn't be angry? That was a huge well of fear in my belly to draw from.
The result is an album that's as ferocious as it is sublime, as current as it is classic. From the straight-ahead thrashing brilliance of opener "You Gotta Believe" and "Breathing Lightning" to the seven-minute majesty "Blood Eagle Wings," For All Kings is the quintessential Anthrax record, and proof positive that you can't keep a good band down.
TESTAMENT: Prophecy is a territory explored only by brave men and warriors. The two are not necessarily mutual but the differences between them are certainly marginal. And truly, the best prophecies come from those who aren't necessarily seeking to be prophetic, but who simply step forward into those dark, uncomfortable places because their need for honest expression is total, no pre-determination, no intent, just pure, raw gut delivery of truths as seen.
Testament have found themselves in the prophecy business before during their 25 year career, and with "The Formation Of Damnation" they have delivered their sharpest, leanest, heaviest and most prophetic set of songs for two decades. The quintessential modern heavy metal band, the undisputedly enormous influence over a whole nu generation of aural aggressors. With "The Formation Of Damnation" Testament have deliciously served up ‘old school' without the old, a crushingly heavy album without the weight of oppression, all crisp and lively like a ball-pin hammer-wielding maniac intent on bashing your brains to a pulp. It crackles with the type of vibrant energy that comes from an umbilically connected creative core writing together for the first time in over ten years, their reserves of residual anger, aggro and raw visceral riffery greater than ever. Recorded at Driftwood Studios in Oakland, CA (except for the drums which were done at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley) and mixed at Backstage Studios in Derbyshire, UK, "The Formation Of Damnation" is a worthy sibling of previously lauded Test-efforts such as "The Gathering" whilst behaving very much like the older, wiser brother of 1988's "The New Order."
"We're talking about things we've lived through," says Eric Peterson, "we're living through the politics, we're living through the bullshit, we've lived through bad relationships and we've lived through tough times. It's not even that we're necessarily political, we're just everyday people who have always been thinking about these things. Out of all our records "The Formation Of Damnation" could be "The New Order's" big brother."
"The New Order" had also been inspired by George Orwell's ‘1984'," continues Alex Skolnick, "that whole vision of complete government control and totalitarianism taking over the US, as well as disasters both man-made an natural. Here it is years later and we have the Patriot Act, Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. So when you compare the two albums, it's kinda spooky. And this album is no going to get filed under ‘easy listening', that's for sure."
"It's also absolutely about being older and wiser," confirms Chuck Billy, "And now we also have children, their world is being affected, and everyday life generally throws up some heavy stuff, both national and personal, so all these songs are very much of our time and experiences. For example, over the last couple of years Eric and I both lost our fathers, so "The After Life" is about when we might next see them. Then there's "The Evil Has Landed" which is about the twin towers, and at first I didn't know if I wanted to sing about that, but once I performed it became clear that deep down I had to, and ‘Killing Season' is one for all the soldiers we get letters and e-mails from during this war, it's for those troops who get fired up by heavy metal before they go into combat and it's my little contribution to the cause. And with all the songs I wanted us to make the statement that we're stronger, more powerful and more confident than ever before. We've got the game!" "I think it's the best record I've ever had anything to do with," chuckles Greg Christian, "and not to sound conceited but it's also really the best heavy metal record I've heard in a long time."
Reaching this lushest of creative fields has been quite a journey for Testament, the sort that tests, stretches and ultimately breaks most bands. Formed in the Bay Area of Northern California in 1983 under the moniker of Legacy (the change to Testament came when Billy arrived to take over from Steve Souza on vocals and Derrick Ramirez was replaced by Skolnick), they grew up at the same time as Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth, being one of the five bands forming the core of what would become the world famous thrash metal scene. But from the beginning Testament trod a unique path, making sure that their extraordinary musicianship, intuitive feel for harmonies amidst the savagery established itself as a stand alone sound.
"I was in the band Forbidden back then," says Paul Bostaph, "and I remember that us and other bands at the time might stumble across a riff, think about it and scrap it simply because it was too close to the Testament sound. They really did have their own style and their own dimension, which gave them an edge from the very beginning and influenced so many bands on the scene."
1987's debut release "The Legacy" threw down a marker, and by the time Testament were about to release 1988's "The New Order" their legend was already hitting enormous popularity. However, their extreme talent got muddied and compromised by the weight of expectation, and while albums like -1989's "Practice What You Preach" and 1990's "Souls Of Black" continued to open the same creative doors for a slew of bands which Testament have always done, their level of recognition was perhaps not commesurate with their influence over an entire genre. Talent+personalities can equal problems, and thus it was that after 1992's "The Ritual", Clemente left and Skolnick decided it was high-time to essentially find himself and reclaim a few of the teenage years he lost.
"I was in high school, 11th grade, when I joined this band," laughs Skolnick, "so I really needed to go away and grow as a person, as a musician and get the necessary confidence to enjoy this and gather the strength to make things happen and fight for changes. When I left Testament I still felt like the shy, annoying brother in the room; when I came back, I felt like a respected, professional musician."
And so it was that for many years, the core creators behind Testament's music remained separate. Friendships were maintained and good times still had, but musically, matters remained separate as Skolnick explored jazzier rock climbs, Christian engaged in his own projects whilst Billy and Peterson kept Testament alive with a series of different musicians coming in and out. Bostaph had his first short stint with the band in 1992 (in the midst of joining Slayer), whilst White Zombie and Anthrax drummer John Tempesta came in with death metal guitarist James Murphy to play on 1994's "Low" album, perhaps Testament's most progressive in terms of material range.
Peterson and Billy continued to fly the Testament flag, releasing the decidedly deathier tones of "Demonic" in 1997, whilst 1999 saw Murphy again on guitar with Slayer's Dave Lombardo on drums for "The Gathering." Arguably the album which led Testament back onto their path after a little radical experimentation in the recent past, "The Gathering" became a meeting point for dozens of hungry young metal acts looking for a new metal God. But Murphy was diagnosed with a brain tumor from which he did eventually recover, and in 2001, Billy was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. It was to prove a life-affirming, as well as life-changing, event.
"I'm a big believer that things happen for a reason," says Billy, "we never split on bad terms, we always kept in good contact, we saw them on the east coast, we always supported Alex when he came through town, and we never discussed getting back together, we'd just hang out. But when I got sick and there was Thrash Of The Titans concert, that was the first time a reunion of any sort happened. It broke the ice, Greg (Christian) put some stuff behind him with Eric and I to get up there, I performed a song with everyone and that was the start of it all coming together again."
From that came the deeper realization that with a fair few years between them (not to mention oceans under bridges) it was time to jump to the next level and simply get creative with each other again.
No grandiose plans.
Just pure powerful playing, which is why 2005's 10 date European reunion tour (featuring all the original members) ended up spurring studio work.
"We didn't ever plan this," affirms Skolnick, "the reunion show in 2002 at the Dynamo was the catalyst, we never made any plans, we just enjoyed that show and then ended up doing a few more, which proved to us that now we're older and more mature we can all enjoy being in this band. And once we'd done some extra shows in 2005, once we'd seen the reactions, once we'd seen a new audience mixing with the old, we just took things to the next logical progression."
It is the journey to "The Formation Of Damnation" and the affirmation of the quintet's chemistry which is one of the album's strongest elements.
"Sometimes you can have a lot of ideas but keep on clashing the people you work with," says Peterson, "and that's what's happened to us in the past. But with this album, we really do just appreciate what we have."
"There's been such a growth in our maturity and comfort with each other," furthers Billy. "Eric's developed into such a great rhythm player and Alex really acknowledged that as well as his creativity. Those two really gelled, and Alex also had a lot of input with arrangements, he really did fine-tune a lot of the songs.
"In some sense I took a step back from the writing this time because through it all, whatever differences we may have had, Chuck and Eric have kept Testament going," explains Skolnick, "I knew they had a way of working together, so a lot of my work was assisting with their writing process. In some ways it was like a production role, and I'd never say I was a producer here because the album was in it's early stages, and for the most part I really enjoyed the role."
"This is like family," says Bostaph. "I've known all these guys for over 20 years, we've played together, bands I've been in have toured with them and I am a huge Testament fan, so joining this time was a huge no-brainer. And again, as Greg said, for me it was a case of giving myself to what this Testament album needed, and that was my only focus, making sure that the band got exactly what it needed from it's drummer."
In closing, take a moment to consider the following...
In 1988, Testament spoke of a new order and here, in 2008, Testament speak of the formation of damnation.
"It's of our time right now," concludes Peterson, "the world we live in is rife with aggravation, politics is forever more about money rather than doing what's right, we all keep taking from mother earth... human beings are basically done! We're setting ourselves up big-time for damnation, and that's what these songs talk about, from love to politics to holy wars, it's all there, it's all written about."
You probably don't want to hazard a guess as to what Testament, the true societal prophets of rage, will be speaking of in 2028...