It's been a tumultuous decade for Anthrax, starting in late 2001 with the post-Sept. 11 anthrax scare, which threatened to be a PR disaster for the band. (They responded by adding information about the disease to their website and performing at a 9/11 benefit concert.) Then, in 2005, a reunion tour with lead singer Joey Belladonna and original lead guitarist Dan Spitz to celebrate the 1987 album Among the Living sparked a long series of lineup changes that only now seems to have been resolved. The weirdest part of the reunion is that John Bush, who took over vocal duties after Belladonna quit in 1992, was asked to accompany the band on the Among the Living tour. That didn't work out, and Bush and Belladonna have rotated in and out of the band ever since, with short-timer Dan Nelson filling the role for a few months last year.
"They never really asked me to join fully" after the 2007 reunion, Belladonna says. "I don't think they were really open-minded to it yet, like ‘Let's do it again with the band.' Their consensus is we did it all too fast, everybody was thrown out there. And we can‘t ever do it like that, we needed to spend time together. To me, it ended up being really cool, and I'm not sure if they really wanted it in one way, and if they did, they didn't really include me. It's a business, so for me to be in there, it has to be right."
So it's entirely appropriate that Belladonna is back in the band. This has been the summer of thrash nostalgia, evidence that what once seemed like the most extreme form of metal imaginable has matured into the equivalent of classic rock. The so-called Big Four of first-wave thrash—Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax—were all on the same bill together for the first time earlier this year during a brief package tour of the European festival circuit, and now Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax are recreating their classic Clash of the Titans U.S. tour from 1991. Slayer and Megadeth are playing classic albums from the period—Seasons in the Abyss and Rust in Peace, respectively—in their entirety on the tour, and Anthrax is performing with the singer from the band's commercial peak in the late 1980s and early '90s for only the second time in almost 20 years.
Much of the set list for this tour is made up of songs from the Belladonna era—the albums Spreading the Disease (1985), Among the Living (1987), State of Euphoria (1988), and Persistence of Time (1990). But Anthrax is also pulling from the four albums they recorded in the 1990s and 2000s with Bush, many of which are considered by some hardcore fans to be just as good as the Belladonna canon. They're also presenting a few new songs, which are expected to be part of a new album set for release next year.
"I did the reunion, where it was nice to be able to take on the classic songs that some people really hadn't heard me do with them, versus say John or even Dan," Belladonna says. "It's hard to avoid that kind of thing. Many concerts I see, people are still trying to pull out new stuff. But then we've also pulled out some of the Bush stuff, so we're digging into some of their later catalog as we go. Then we have some new stuff we're bringing to the table in the live show, too."
Belladonna was unique among thrash vocalists for his range and his pipes. Slayer's Tom Araya and Metallica's James Hetfield, with their growling, barking styles, were more typical. Belladonna was a traditional heavy metal singer, modeled after the operatic theatricality of Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden—exactly the kinds of bands that were being eclipsed by the speed and heaviness of thrash, and especially the hardcore punk-inspired kind of thrash that Anthrax played.
"I think most everybody I was playing with in my earlier bands, they were just content to play a bunch of cool cover songs and keep ripping it out," Belladonna says. "A lot of the stuff wasn't super-heavy metal. The most I did back then was the Priest and Sabbath and stuff like that. Then I was doing more of the classic rock, which I do now. I have a cover band, I play five nights this week. I'm drumming, it's a three-piece, we're doing anything to Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin to Journey to Rush to Triumph, just clear across the board, some strange and cool stuff. We do four hours a night, and I love it. But mostly, early on, I tried to stay close to stuff I liked. Anthrax were doing something completely different I'd never heard, and it didn't mean I couldn't come in and take on that role, just trying to be someone who would work in that project. That's the coolest thing about it."