There's little more annoying on this planet than the immoral majority telling you how essential, transcendent and (huh-huh) seminal a particular extreme album is, when you know that it's overrated as fuck. Hence, our new Wednesday morning column, "Disposable Heroes," in which one brave soul sails against the current to inform all you clones why you can't spell classic without "ass." This week, Jeff Wagner yawns in the general direction of Anthrax's Among the Living. In writing this piece, I had to listen to Anthrax’s Among the Living for the first time in, oh, about 21 years. Before heading back in, I thought, “Maybe I’ll come around, find out I actually like it.” Stranger things have happened. And in that case, I’d have to be honest and deal with the Decibelords: “Sorry guys, I pitched the wrong album for this column. I like it. And it’s aged so well!’
But no, memory serves me: I find this album very difficult to listen to. And it has aged poorly. Among the Living is a great album… NOT!!!
I’m dating myself here, but when Among the Living was released in 1987, I could not wait. I was turned on to Anthrax via double-shot exposure to the Armed and Dangerous EP (1985) and Fistful of Metal debut (1984). A friend bought both on the same day, and we spent a good deal of time sequestered in his beer-soaked bedroom, thrashing and bashing the shit out of our impressionable teen brains with those albums. The energy of both was pure nourishment. When the band’s Spreading the Disease full-length was released later in ’85, it delivered. They weren’t playing with quite the same fury and abrasion as peers like Metallica and Megadeth, and hadn’t yet begun toying with the chunky, pseudo-hardcore elements that peeked through on later albums. From classy epics like “Armed and Dangerous” to rapid-fire ball-busters like “Gung-Ho,” they were onto something pretty unique. New vocalist Joey Belladonna’s clean, melodic approach bucked that era’s trend of exploring ever more extreme vocal depths, which was a cool pairing for the band’s intense but not-exactly-pure-thrash delivery.
Among the Living was gonna rule.
So, when I finally got my anxious 17-year-old mitts on the album, I tried to convince myself I loved it. Several years later I realized I didn’t want anything to do with it ever again and traded it away, along with my copies of State of Euphoria and Persistence of Time. No regrets.
My complaints with Among the Living are, in a nutshell: - a huge handful of the riffs are gray masses of palm-muted monotony. As if they leapt ahead to 1991 England, stole riffs from hopelessly bland bands like Re-Animator and Cerebral Fix, and returned to 1987 New York and Anthrax-ized them. - incessant gang backing vocals - entirely forgettable songs such as “A Skeleton in the Closet” and “Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.)” (not a decent moment anywhere, with terrible choruses, even non-choruses) - hokey can’t-we-all-just-get-along lyrics like “One World.” I’m a pacifist actually, but please leave it out of my thrash or I’ll kill you. - Joey Belladonna. It’s almost funny how lost Belladonna sounds on this album, but no one says anything, as if the album is too legendary to criticize.
So, okay, Among the Living has its moments. The very beginning is quite good: the creepy intro of the opening title track kicks into a “bust down the doors, we’re fucking back!” entry. Fat mid-paced riffs interlace with faster, double-bass drum-led action. It’s a dramatic intro. Then Belladonna enters, attempting to sing something, anything, over a monotonous, heavily palm-muted riff. He sounds terribly uncomfortable. The proverbial square peg in a round hole. “Off” and “strained” are two other words for it. And it’s all S.O.D.’s fault. Or partly.
When S.O.D.’s Speak English or Die was released in 1985, it was welcomed by the growing legion of fans digging both hardcore and the extremist metal of the day (thrash). The thing was legendary almost immediately. So, by late 1986, when S.O.D. mascot Sergeant D was as recognizable an icon as the ubiquitous D.R.I. mosh-guy, S.O.D. members Scott Ian and Charlie Benante seemed to feel Anthrax needed more of what S.O.D. were notorious for dishing out. I wasn’t present during the writing and recording sessions for Among the Living, but it sure sounds like they tried to cross S.O.D.’s crossover into Anthrax. Chunky rhythms! Less melody! Dumb mosh riffs! Faster faster faster! Tons of GANG VOCALS shouting asininely (and I quote): “N.F.L., Nice fuckin’ life!,” “Drokk it!” and “Stomp Stomp Stomp!” The end result: a clunky, crammed, uncomfortable sonic experience. Great stuff if this is your first thrash album; far from great if you’ve already discovered serious shit-your-pants thrash bands like Holy Terror and Dark Angel. As for my biggest Among the Living gripe: Belladonna went from fitting right in on the previous album to “Get this guy outta here. Now.” Of course, he stayed for two more albums, both of which are even worse than Among the Living.
Related to the whole S.O.D. connection, Anthrax were influenced by all the New York hardcore around them at the time. They used to get a lot of guff from hardcore purists for using the NYHC symbol, which Anthrax threw onto album graphics, T-shirts, and probably the butt pockets of their big ol’ shorts. But that was unfair. The band did in fact grow up in and around that musical/geographic neighborhood, and let’s admit it, Among the Living, with all its stiff riffs, rapid-fire vocal phrasing and gang backups, smelled way more of hardcore-influence than, say, Crumbsuckers’ complex thrash workout Beast on my Back. Another band that arose from the NYHC scene, Crumbsuckers got plenty of crap for that direction, too. Not being much of a hardcore fan is another reason I don’t like Among the Living and its pandering to that scene. I’ll take Beast on my Back any day.
The energy on Among the Living is formidable; the performances of the rhythm section are impressive; and I won’t begrudge thousands of metal fans their right to put this album on a pedestal. But I just don’t get it. And sorry, I’ll never buy Belladonna’s performance here. Look up “disingenuousness” in the dictionary and you might find a picture of Joey.
Anthrax were a better band when they played a more high-energy take on traditional metal, proven by Fistful of Metal, Armed and Dangerous, Spreading the Disease and, yes, even later, Belladonna-less album The Sound of White Noise. As for the full-on moshtastic happy-go-lucky knucklehead thrash band they evolved into starting with Among the Living, and carrying on into the next couple albums… well, I don’t regret getting rid of those albums, yet you’ll have to pry my copies of Terror and Submission and Darkness Descends from my cold dead hands…