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ANTHRAX – Breathing Thrash
Anthony Morgan
February 2016

Anthrax (l-r): Frank Bello, Scott Ian, Joey Belladonna, Charlie Benante and Jon Donais

Rhythm guitarist Scott Ian, bassist Frank Bello and drummer Charlie Benante began writing sessions for For All Kings – the 11th full-length studio album from New York-based thrash metal outfit Anthrax – during early 2013, convening roughly every four to six weeks. The trio would meet one another for roughly three days at a time, arranging song fragments.

“We just kept doing that all through 2013 and all through 2014,” Scott Ian continues. “Sometimes it would be longer between the writing sessions because we’d be out on a tour or something, but it was pretty consistent for about 18 months until we had somewhere around 16 things arranged musically. Of course we worked on vocals too and lyrics and what not throughout that whole time period, until we got to November 2014. The end of November 2014 is when we went into the studio to actually start recording it.”

A given member would author a riff, a riff which his fellow Anthrax members would subsequently jam alongside. “That’s how the puzzle kind of comes together,” the axeman submits. “You just start figuring out what comes next – what sounds right, what feels right. It just goes from there until you either get stuck and move onto something else, or sometimes the songs really just kind of come and within a few hours we’ll have a whole arrangement. That doesn’t mean that that’s gonna be the final arrangement, but the creativity was coming pretty strong constantly and we were coming up with a lot of very strong skeletons of songs very quickly, which isn’t usual for us. The vibe was just really good throughout the whole process.”

Writing sessions in support of For All Kings spawned leftover cuts. “There are two songs that we didn’t finish,” Scott informs. “Musically they’re done and recorded, but I never wrote lyrics to them. At some point we’ll do something with those, but there’s no plan at all. I’m not thinking about it at all right now.”

Also omitted from For All Kings is the track ‘Soror Irruminator’, which surfaced on March 2015 compilation Catch The Throne: Vol. II, a compilation record issued to promote HBO fantasy series Game Of Thrones. “It was contractual, just for that record,” the Anthrax co-founder divulges. “It’s theirs.”

Each respective songwriter possesses individual strengths. “Charlie definitely comes up with the bulk of the riffs,” Scott cites. “I would say Frankie came up with a lot of the melody ideas and I’m writing lyrics, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not coming up with riffs too and Frankie’s also coming up with riffs. If you had to really break it down let’s say to what we did most on this record and the last record as well though, that’s kind of the groove that we’ve gotten into. It seems to be working.”

Drummer Charlie Benante was largely absent during touring commitments for previous effort Worship Music (September 2011), suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand. “A lot of that time in 2012 when we were on tour without him, he was at home working on material,” the axe-slinger shares. “That was great because in a sense, he was getting a head start on the whole process. It worked out great.”

The extent of Charlie’s issues with carpal tunnel syndrome in his right hand is unclear. “I’m not a doctor,” Scott chuckles. “I know that he can tour for a couple of weeks at a time, and that’s it. He can’t come out on a tour for six weeks because his hand just won’t work that long, so he’s been doing three weeks at a time or something like that. Four tops, maybe, but that’s pushing it. The last thing we want to do is obviously make it worse, and then have him not be able to come out.”

Scott Ian
Pic: Andrada Mihailescu

Carpal tunnel syndrome issues notwithstanding, Charlie, Scott and company didn’t plot a specific musical direction for For All Kings. “We don’t talk about music, we don’t make plans, and we don’t have meetings,” the lyricist laughs. “We just get in a room and write music that seriously just wants to make us bang our heads. That’s all we’ve ever done.”

Nevertheless, Scott described For All Kings as the ‘most metal’ record Anthrax has recorded in a long time. “That’s it,” he summarises. “It’s just a statement. It’s just how I feel about it, but I can’t expand upon it, no. It just feels like the most metal record we’ve ever made, to me.”

Predecessor Worship Music was arguably quite a ‘metal’ record itself, however. “Sure,” the composer agrees. “I just think these songs are more metal (laughs). I can’t tell you why. Music isn’t something I talk about; it’s something I feel, it’s something I hear. Not just my music, but the music that I listen to. I don’t analyse Iron Maiden, I don’t analyse AC/DC. I don’t analyse anything I listen to. I just feel it, I enjoy it and it moves me, and that’s why I enjoy music. It’s not something I talk about.”

Albeit quite ‘metal’ an affair, For All Kings nevertheless boasts ample melody. “Yeah, for sure,” Scott seconds.

A majestic title for the ‘metal’ long-player, For All Kings’ moniker was devised by Charlie. “The meaning behind it was basically a tribute to what came before – music that we loved growing up,” the guitarist discloses. “That was his meaning behind it. My meaning for the lyrics for the song, for ‘For All Kings’, is different. It’s about growing up, and taking responsibility for yourself. Not being a king, but being a man.”

Such a thread of conversation naturally leads to the subject of For All Kings’ lyrical content being broached, much to Scott’s disdain. “I really hate that question,” he laments, laughing. “There’s nothing worse to me than talking about music and talking about the songs. I think they’re pretty self-explanatory, but when it comes down to it, I’m just talking about myself. Anything on the record is coming from a place of… Every lyric, every word is coming from an emotion that’s either angry, or happy, or sad. Anything that was so strong and moved me so much that I was able to take that feeling and somehow write a lyric out of it.

“To me, writing lyrics is not a natural thing. I don’t speak in rhymes. I don’t break into song like a musical when I’m walking down the street. It’s not something I do, yet at the same time I write lyrics. Really, it has to be something that is really moving me in a very powerful way and a profound way for me to be able to take it and make it work in the context of the lyrics. So, it’s all about me and my feelings about the world, and that’s about as really as in-depth as I want to talk about it.

“I’d rather people just listen to the record and listen to the words, and see what they get out of it rather than me define everything. That ruins it for me, personally. To bring it back to Maiden again, when I sit and listen to a Maiden record, I don’t wanna know where Bruce (Dickinson, vocals) was coming from. It’s about how it makes me feel, you know what I mean (laughs)? Maybe other people wanna know everything and they can find an interview where it’s all in there, but for me, I would rather people get their own emotions from it. You don’t have to delve too deep into the lyrics to see what I’m talking about in songs, though. It’s the last four years of me living on this planet basically, and a lot of the crap that makes me angry (laughs). It’s not like it’s a secret, or I’m burying things in metaphor. It’s there for people to get into.”

Compared to 30 years ago, the performer authors lyrics from a different perspective nowadays. “Oh, for sure,” he concurs. “Absolutely, yeah. Thirty years ago, I didn’t know anything, so I wrote songs about what I knew about. I knew about comics, I knew about Stephen King books, and I knew a little bit about history, so I wrote what I knew. I wrote about the same thing – things that moved me (laughs). When I was writing things at 22 though, it was just different than writing things at let’s say 50 and as a father. I’m a completely different human, so yeah, certainly. I’m writing from a completely different perspective.”

Whom lends his voice to a given set of lyrics is a determining factor. “For sure,” Scott augments. “Knowing that we had this line-up of the band while we were writing this record and that Joey’s (Belladonna) our singer, yeah. It absolutely colours what I do, because Joey is like a weapon that can do anything. It’s like having Superman at your disposal, because any idea I have and anything I can come up with vocally – which I learnt on Worship Music – he can do it. I can’t. I can come up with ideas and kind of shout them along to the song and know in my head how I want it to sound, but I can’t do it. It’s not like I can go in the room and give Joey a guide track of exactly how it’s supposed to go, because I can’t sing (laughs).

Anthrax (l-r): Frank Bello, Scott Ian, Charlie
Benante, Joey Belladonna and Jon Donais
Pic: Stephanie Cabral

“We leave Joey alone – on the last two records, we haven’t gone in the room with him. It’s just Jay (Ruston, producer) and Joey. He basically takes it and makes it his own, and really just shows the world what he can do. Like I said, he can do anything anything vocally. That makes my life just so much easier, because there’s nothing I have to think about or limit myself with, like ‘We can’t really go high here’ or ‘We can’t do a harmony like that.’ He can do anything, and it’s nice to be able to work with that at your disposal.”

Such comments suggest certain vocalists to have stepped behind the microphone for Anthrax have possessed more limited abilities. “It’s just different with Joey,” the entertainer clarifies. “You write… at least I do. I certainly am writing and thinking about ideas with a vocalist in mind. Look, John Bush and Joey are both great singers, but Joey has a bigger range than John does. That’s just a fact. That’s not any negativity towards John in any way, shape, or form – they’re just different singers.”

For All Kings marks the recording debut of lead guitarist Jon Donais, of Shadows Fall. “Obviously all of the solos are his, and a lot of overdub stuff throughout the record,” Scott credits. “We were just assembling arrangements as we were writing, so he could start working on stuff, and then he would send us back demos of stuff that he did. Just right from the start, he was there – he was like 97% there, already. Charlie worked with him a little bit on some of the songs and gave him some direction, and I think I might’ve made a couple of notes after the first time he started recording solos with Jay – like actual solos for the record.

“We barely had to say a word to the guy, though. Besides being a great player, Jon’s an amazing guitar player. He just really understood what we were doing. He really understands the music. He understood the songs, and he understood what a guitar solo in the songs needed to be. My attitude is the guitar solos should have as big a hook as the chorus does, and Jon accomplished that without any problem at all.”

Following the departure of Rob Caggiano (currently of Volbeat), Jon was highly sought. “He’s the only person we wanted,” the axeman confirms. “We’ve known Jon forever, since the early days of Shadows Fall. We became friends ages ago, so he’s someone that we already knew and were friends with. Obviously yeah, outside of the fact that we already know that he’s a great player, we were already friends with the guy, so we knew that he was gonna be the right guy. We just knew that he was the right fit. It was just a case of whether or not it was something that he wanted to do.

“He wanted to, and at the same time when that was all going down, I was actually on the phone with Rob. He was like ‘You know who would be perfect for you guys? Jon from Shadows Fall. I already spoke to him, and he’s into it.’ I’m like ‘Funny you mention that, because he’s the only guy we want (laughs).’ Instantly, we were all on the same page with that.”

Jon’s lead guitar work minutely affected the arrangements of certain tracks. “On one song – ‘Evil Twin’ – we changed the rhythm part behind one part of the solo because it was a bit too busy,” Scott tells. “We felt that if I just play a straight alternating picking part on the E string and just chug straight behind it, then it was letting the solo kind of shine more instead of playing this busy riff behind it. It was kind of just clearing things up a bit, and that was Jay Ruston’s idea.

“He said ‘Why don’t you play it like this behind the solo?,’ and I was like ‘Yeah, no problem.’ There were a couple of times where – not necessarily rhythm guitar playing wise, but song arrangement wise – we were so happy with what Jon was playing that we actually extended lead break sections and added more, because we just wanted to hear more of what he had to offer. I believe we did that on ‘Blood Eagle Wings’, and even ‘Breathing Lightning’. I think they were two songs where we actually extended lead breaks, which was something that this band has never done.”

Jon is a revelation on For All Kings, for those unfamiliar with his work. “I agree with you,” the Anthrax co-founder replies. “I think this is really going to put him on the map. I think Jon should be held in the same esteem as a lot of these guitar hero guys that are out there. Jon’s as good or better than anybody. He’s an incredible player, and he’s got an incredible sense of melody and what’s right for a song. We’re just so happy to have him in the band.”

Jay Ruston helmed production, as was the case with Worship Music. “He’s great,” Scott compliments. “He’s the only guy that we work with, as far as I’m concerned (laughs). Jay just really makes things comfortable, and has a way of just creating an atmosphere where he works your ass off but you never actually feel like you’re working very hard – it’s always just very chill (laughs). I don’t know how he accomplishes that. I think maybe it’s because he’s Canadian or something, but he really creates an amazing vibe in the room and just keeps it fun. He really does keep it fun, and that’s really what it should be always. We’re making a record, we’re making music. It should only ever just be fun.”

As was the case with ninth studio record We’ve Come For You All (May 2003) and successor Worship Music, For All Kings’ cover artwork was illustrated by comic book artist Alex Ross. “Charlie and Alex came up with that whole concept,” the axe-slinger adds. “I just liked it. I just loved the way it looked.”

Directed by Jack Bennett, a music video was filmed for the track ‘Blood Eagle Wings’. “We had eight minutes to work with and just wanted to make more of a short film, rather than a music video,” Scott elaborates. “The director basically took my lyrical idea, and realised it. The band’s not in it at all – there’s no performance, none of that. It’s basically a short film, and it’s fucking awesome. All I’ll say about it is it’s not safe for work (laughs). It’s not safe for children; if it was a movie coming out in the theatres, it would be a Hard-R or NC-17 (laughs). It’s pretty brutal.”

Unlike the heyday of MTV, music fans arguably no longer watch video clips to the same extent as before. “I don’t know,” the lyricist muses. “I don’t watch videos, and I never did truthfully. I don’t care about other bands’ videos. I never really cared too much about Anthrax’s videos (laughs). It was just a tool that labels needed. I couldn’t tell you. It’s not really something I gave much thought to until this one, because it had nothing to do with making a music video. The label asked if we wanted to do one and we had an idea, so we did it. I think people will find this, because they’re certainly gonna hear about it.”

For All Kings was released on February 26th, 2016 via Nuclear Blast Records in Europe and Megaforce Records in North America.

Interview published in February 2016.