Retro Review: Anthrax - Spreading the Disease (Megaforce/Music for Nations)

Before the shorts, before the rapping and tracksuits... there was METAL!

I know, I know. Thrash classics? Anthrax? And it’s not Among the Living? Look, you may well be right; history tells us now that AtL was the album that broke Anthrax to a wider metal audience, but if you were there, in the moshpits, in the mid eighties when this whole thrash thing was kicking off, you might think differently.

Anthrax first came to my attention in late 1983 when the track Deathrider (from their splendid Fistful of Metal debut) appeared on the Music for Nations label sampler Hell on Earth. Quite possibly the greatest compilation album ever released, Hell… featured tracks by, amongst others, Metallica, Manowar, Mercyful Fate, Virgin Steele, Tank and, erm, Ratt. It opened this young headbanger’s ears to a whole new world of aural pleasure beyond the staple diet of Priest, Maiden and Dio I was ingesting at the time. Fistful of Metal was the first album I bought on the back of Hell…, and I immediately warmed to its NWoBHM-on-speed stylings on tracks like Panic and, of course, Metal Thrashing Mad. It was still ostensibly the metal I knew and loved, but there was an indefinable something else about Anthrax that beguiled me, a heads-down-see-you-at-the-end hysteria when they slammed the pedal to the metal that I knew I wanted more of.

Those desires were fully satiated by Spreading the Disease. The band had released an EP after Fistful of Metal, Armed and Dangerous, in 1985 that hinted at a slight but crucial tilt away from trad metal to something more abrasive and aggressive (the soon to-be-cliched ‘metal band covering punk’ tactic made an early appearance here with the band’s spirited take on the Sex Pistols anthem God Save the Queen), but nothing could fully prepare the listener for the raw, edgy heaviness that made up much of Spreading…

Sure, there are still moments of pure trad metal – the cod balladic intro to Armed and Dangerous is a pure, untainted homage to Priest and Maiden – but for the most part the album was feisty, unfettered and utterly, compellingly fresh to the 1985 listener. Anthrax at this point were still, just about, ahead of the annoying gimmickry that they so readily adopted later, and for many like me that’s why Spreading the Disease still represents something of a high water mark for the band. There’s no hip-hop here, precious little hardcore apart from speedy rhythms and a few gang chants at chorus time; But there is an abundance of savage rifferama, blistering soloing, battering drumwork and a fine, wailing performance from vocalist Joey Belladona. In short, it’s a damn-near perfect heavy metal record.

Opening with the skittering anthem A.I.R, a strident, bullish call to arms that lets the listener know exactly what they are in for for the next forty-odd minutes, Spreading the Disease melds stomp and surgical precision in equal measure, all the while forming the essential Anthrax template for all the albums to come in Belladonna’s first tenure with the band. After A.I.R. clears the, um, air, Lone Justice is next up, a classic Anthrax comic-book inspired tale of violent retribution that, whilst never reaching true thrash speeds employs some of that glorious downstroke crunch for which the band became justly notable over the next decade or so. 

So far, so metal, but the next track threw a huge curve ball into the mix in the shape of the uber-commercial Madhouse, a song which was confusingly as anthemic and poppy as it was rifftastic and crushingly heavy. A pointer to some of the radio-friendly singles the band would release in the future, it nevertheless gave joy to millions in moshpits the world over with that skank-friendly riff and awesome, soaring vocal from Belladonna. It’s also a testament to the band's superior songwriting skills, showing that their grasp of melody and dynamic was already streets ahead of many of their peers in the thrash genre in 1985.

Of course many thrash bands at the time wouldn’t have been seen dead anywhere near a song as mainstream as Madhouse for fear the dread ‘poser’ soubriquet might be attached to them, but for some reason that sort of logic just doesn’t apply to Anthrax - sticks and stones and all that for sure, but also the band's sure-footed confidence in their own ability and instincts enabled them to transcend the more narrow-minded desires of some of their fans to achieve true artistic fulfilment - and damn the torpedoes. Next track S.S.C./Stand or Fall is one of the album’s true thrash metal songs, but it’s place on the album after the ‘hit single’ doesn’t sound false or out of place. Much of this has to do, I think, with the melodic qualities of Joey Belladonna’s contributions to StD; He imbues everything with a sort of skewed melody that means even the heaviest tracks – like Stand or Fall – have a singsong quality to them that makes singing along as natural as punching the air. It’s a rare talent, and one that wasn’t really shared by any of the man’s counterparts contemporaneously. 

Side one ends with the loping grind of The Enemy, replete with its epic ‘Screams in the Night’ chorus and titanic riff that makes audience participation unavoidable. One of the band’s lesser-known tracks, it nevertheless is something of a quiet classic in its own right. 

Side two kicks off with the albums’ punkiest offering, Aftershock; Drummer Charlie Benante eases off on the double kick assault whilst the band ramp up the chants on the chorus, bringing to mind English street punks GBH and the Exploited; that said, Danny Spitz contributes a blistering solo to soothe any concerns more strait-laced metal fans might have had about the song. Pure mosh nirvana for the kids, it’s an energising start to the album’s second side and once again reinforces the notion that, even at this comparatively early stage in their career, the band had a mastery of their medium that few could so readily muster.

Armed and Dangerous shakes off the wimpy intro to morph into another mid-paced stomp replete with another singalong chorus (you must be getting the picture by now?) and another spine-tingling performance by Belladonna who, obviously not aware of his low standing in the band at this point, sings with a rare freedom and joie de vivre that I really don’t think was captured on any of the band’s subsequent outings with him at the vocal helm. Man of the match? Possibly, but it’s certainly his best performance on wax for me. 

Medusa is more trad in both speed and lyrical bent, but no less effective for it, and once again features some rather excellent screaming from Belladonna, before the album ends in spectacular style with the out-and-out speed kills blitzkrieg of Gung Ho. Still one of my top five Anthrax tracks to this day, it is, quite simply, a superb piece of thrash metal. Benante’s feet fly in frankly ridiculous fashion, the riffs spit hatred, the gang chorus exhorts you to storm the barricades and hit the stage, primed and ready to rejoin your mates in the pit (after a little bit of mic action, natch), and the chaotic end section really sums up what it was