If the heavy music community had an award similar to the sports world’s “Comeback Player of The Year” then legendary Anthrax frontman Joey Belladonna could proudly display that trophy on his Metal mantle. Certainly, Belladonna might have preferred to be leading the Anthrax charge to battle these past twenty years, but with past melodramas far behind them, Belladonna and the boys plan to spread their Thrash Metal vision to the masses moving towards the future. Still riding the high of 2011’s Worship Music, an album selected on every respectable list as one of the year’s top discs, Anthrax has set about touring the world these past months, including headline spots on the summer’s hot Metal ticket, the Mayhem tour. And of course, let’s not forget about those exciting Big Four shows they’ve been a part of, most notably at the Holy Mecca of venues right in their hometown, Yankee Stadium.
But the road to this point in Anthrax history was not without its bumps. The last album Belladonna appeared on was 1990’s Persistence of Time, after which he was unceremoniously removed as frontman for the deeper scratchier voiced John Bush, of Armored Saint fame. And when The Sound of White Noise hit number 7 on the billboard charts, their highest charting album ever, it appeared that the band’s decision was the right one. Maybe the soaring vocal of Belladonna was best left in the 80’s as the music climate changed heading towards the new millennium. But for his part, Belladonna doesn’t seem to begrudge his bandmates, but still doesn’t quite understand why things went the way they did. “We were really clicking during the Persistence of Time era, we were growing as a band, so I always thought it was a shame the way things broke down between the band and I. To this day I don’t understand why it had to be torn apart and that I had to be the odd man out. I could go on forever, but no matter what the rationale was it didn’t seem like it was something that could have been fixed without things taking the course they inevitably took.”
Though not quite the Hagar/Roth battle for lead singer supremacy, the Anthrax fan base did find itself debating who the better vocalist was between the two similarly initialed JB’s. Along with the warring factions came dwindling record sales, touring smaller sized venues, and a general malaise in the Metal scene as a whole. And that’s when the rumors began. As bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Twisted Sister began reuniting with their original singers and having great success, rumblings from the Anthrax camp began to circulate. Talk of a tour with both Belladonna and Bush made the rounds for a bit, but then in 2004 Belladonna had once again agreed to front Anthrax, opening for Judas Priest, and Bush was out. The shows with Priest were epic forty-five minute sets laden with their greatest hits of the 80’s, primarily tunes from Among The Living. The fervor for more from the classic era Anthrax grew, but once again, inexplicably, Belladonna was gone, baffled and bewildered, “We were really good when we were together and I never knew why we couldn’t be together. I don’t know why they made the change. I had nothing to do with it. However I’m glad eventually we did get on the same page and we’re together again, and everything is going really well. We’re all older and wiser and grateful to be where we are.”
And thus, we have Worship Music. Eight years in the making since 2003’s We’ve Come For You All. Bush passed on the album over creative differences and a bit of hard feelings. Dan Nelson recorded some tracks and was dropped controversially, and even Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, was rumored to be the next Anthrax screamer for a while. But out of the blue, in 2010, Belladonna was re-introduced like Muhammad Ali, fighting for the title a third time, and on Worship Music, he comes out swinging. “I was kind of left alone to record the vocals on this record. There was no one really leaning on me and I was able to be really focused on what I was doing. Sometimes it’s good to have other people around when your recording, but other times it can be hard to have commentary on every take.” So, besides a well written record we’re hearing Belladonna unleashed, out of the box and hitting all cylinders on an Anthrax album unlike anything else they’ve ever done. The soaring power of his vocal is there but unlike their 80’s albums, there’s a veracity and ferociousness to his vocal. Whereas previous efforts with Belladonna came with the signature Anthrax character and back-story; full of skater vibe and a bit of self-deprecating Punk Rock bravado, Worship Music is unapologetically heavy, piercing, and angry. Maybe a few weeks alone in the studio with a producer and a mic did it, or possibly twenty years of frustration as the former singer of Anthrax provided the impetus, but the central element of what makes this album great is Belladonna’s barking fury.
We’re staying busy and we’re working on new things and even just finished recording tracks for the new Dio tribute record…
Going forward it looks as if Belladonna will be the man on the mic. Given the success of Worship Music on both the sales and critical levels, undoubtedly Belladonna’s return has had an impact in that regard. And even Belladonna, himself, agrees that things are starting to feel like old times, like they are a band of brothers marching off to war when they hit the stage at night. “I think we’re starting to feel like a gang again. Plus it just makes sense to keep things moving forward, so we’re all on the same page. Of course everybody is still an individual and has their own things going on, but we do still try to hang out together and meet up a lot. It does feel like we’re a team.” And so the future is wide open for Anthrax, now enjoying bigger shows and better album sales than they’ve had in years, thus they have no plans to stop riding this current wave for as long as they can. “We’re staying busy and we’re working on new things and even just finished recording tracks for the new Dio tribute record and some B-side stuff. As far as a new record it tends to be a little early, especially when we’re still rolling with the one we have out now, but we have every intention of continuing.”
So it appears whatever bad blood may or may not have existed between Belladonna and the rest of Anthrax seems to be a part of the past and they’ve managed to let bygones be bygones. “At least for me, I never really had any resentment, I just went on with my life. I sort of always kind of felt it would come back around anyway and that we would get back together. I think we’re all in it to win it right now, all on the same page and excited about the future. Overall, I think we’re all totally focused on what else we can do and feel like we’re back on the right track.”
Even with the focus being on Anthrax, Belladonna still keeps his other gigs going, most notably the Belladonna band and Chief Big Way. One of the things that often gets lost in Anthrax folklore is that Belladonna is not only a vocalist but an accomplished drummer and has often played the drums while singing when he had to. “Many times I’ve started out in bands as the drummer and ended up being the singer. And there’s been nights with Chief Big Way that a drummer has been sick and instead of canceling the gig I played the drums and sang. I’m definitely qualified to play the drums for that band, but let’s not get confused here, I’m not Charlie Benante, and even if I practiced everyday I don’t think I could do the technical stuff he does, let alone sing as well. But doing the stuff I do in Chief Big Way, cover songs and stuff like that, it’s just fun for me to do when I get the chance. I am definitely a singer that drums at this point, instead of a drummer who sings.”
It was during the auditions for Anthrax and subsequent recordings of the EP Armed and Dangerous, and LP Spreading The Disease, that Belladonna first realized that his voice was suited for Metal and what he would eventually become famous for. It is part of the Anthrax folklore that when he showed up for the auditions he belted out some Journey tunes instead of Judas Priest. “When I first recorded the EP and heard myself singing I was pretty surprised at how I sounded. I had thought of myself more of a Rock or Classic Rock singer, but hearing myself on Armed and Dangerous and Spreading The Disease I realized that my true voice was heard in this style of music. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Metal music at the time, I just hadn’t been exposed to a lot of it. I really listened to Classic Rock or fusion stuff like Yes, I listened to some really weird stuff along with bands like Journey, Foreigner, Boston, etc.”
One could logically conclude that finding his voice in Metal led to Anthrax finding their place in the Metal scene. With the Belladonna era, Anthrax became a part of the Big Four of Thrash Metal (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax), establishing themselves among the Metal elite, part of the Metal lexicon forever. “Just be able to do this for so long is an accomplishment in itself. There are so many great bands that just can’t get an opportunity to even tour. It took a helluva long way to get here. We’re not some band who’s easily accessible to a large audience, so to have a career is amazing. Playing the Big Four shows, especially at Yankee stadium is something I am very grateful for, to be a part of something that has historical significance in music is awesome. But in hindsight, knowing this isn’t something just handed to us, we worked very hard to be where we are, and as a band have gone through tough times and myself not even being part of it for so long, to come full circle and be at this spot is just incredible.”