This week it’s a deep dive into one of the pivotal albums of thrash metal. This record has come to be the defining moment of one of thrash’s most enduring institutions and would launch the group into heavy metal royalty.
Anthrax – Among The Living
Released March 16, 1987 via Megaforce and Island Records
My Favorite Tracks – I Am The Law, Among The Living, A Skeleton In The Closet
Anthrax had been a band on the rise after their second album Spreading The Disease. The group had toured extensively with a variety of metal luminaries and were in Europe opening for Metallica when a bus accident claimed the life of Cliff Burton. Anthrax were motivated by grief at the loss of their friend and peer, and hit the studio to vent their anguish. They chose to record at Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas, and purely because it was where Iron Maiden had laid down their classic run of albums.
Anthrax worked with super producer Eddie Kramer on the album. Kramer has an extensive list of works to his credit, for my own purposes he is best known as the caretaker to the legacy of Jimi Hendrix. Among The Living was recorded in quick and easy fashion, but then Kramer had an idea for a mix laden with more modern techniques. Anthrax did not like Kramer’s embellishments and it was decided to proceed with the original, dry mix. A wise choice, as what was released truly captured the music in its pure form.
The album was primarily written by drummer Charlie Benante and guitarist Scott Ian. It is 9 songs with a 50 minute run time, so a fair bit to go over here.
Among The Living
The opener/title track bears lyrics inspired by Stephen King’s epic novel The Stand and the main antagonist Randall Flagg. The song thrashes hard and also lays down a groove foundation, an element that would go on to redefine and carry metal several years later.
As with all of the songs here, Anthrax deftly walk a line between heavy and melodic, incorporating more melody than their thrash peers were known for. Much of that had to do with the talents of singer Joey Belladonna, a more accomplished vocalist than what was found across much of thrash.
Caught In A Mosh
The lyrics see Scott Ian venting frustration at any number of dumb people and occurrences, but the song itself became a calling card for the mosh pit and outgrew its original meaning. In life or at a show we are all often caught in a mosh. At least the second one is fun (if you’re under 30).
I Am The Law
It’s geek time on the album as Anthrax offer up a homage to Judge Dredd, the gritty comic book character from an apocalyptic future. While it’s not rare for bands to offer up tribute songs to fictional characters they like, it is pretty rare for the songs to turn out as great as this. This truly does capture the essence of Judge Dredd and the harsh atmosphere of his comic series.
I Am The Law was the first single from the album and was backed with I’m The Man, Anthrax’s first foray into combining rap with their metal. They are chief among acts who deserve credit/blame for the 1990’s.
Contrary to popular opinion, the song is not about the National Football League. Rather the NFL refers to the song’s full title backwards, “Nise Fuckin’ Life.” It’s a song warning of the dangers of drug addiction and, unlike last week’s band, Anthrax walked the walk in that regard. The primary inspiration for the song was John Belushi, the beloved actor who died of substance abuse at age 33.
A Skeleton In The Closet
It’s back to the dark, dark world of Stephen King, this time his story Apt Pupil provides the backdrop for the song. The story involves a very sadistic teenager discovering his neighbor is a Nazi war criminal in hiding and a lot of murder and other bad stuff, like faking report cards. The songs does a pretty good job of summing up the story.
This tune pays tribute to the Native Americans who were genocided off their lands by evil colonizers (i.e., our ancestors). Lest they be accused of cultural insensitivity, singer Joey Belledonna has heritage from the Iroqouis tribe. This was another single from the record and remains one of Anthrax’s most popular songs. The “war dance” riff is one of the band’s most memorable.
In a bit of a twist for thrash metal, this song actually warns of the dangers of environmental destruction and nuclear holocaust, rather than wishing for it to happen like many in the thrash world. It is steeped in Cold War-era dialog, which was still simmering in the late ’80’s when this hit.
A.D.I./The Horror Of It All
The first part of the song is an instrumental, the second pays tribute to Cliff Burton. Though the lyrics are a bit vague in that regard, Scott Ian did eventually shed light on their true meaning.
Imitation Of Life
No science fiction here – the final track is about all of the slimy people in the music industry. Far more than what can be compressed into one song, for sure.
Among The Living saw Anthrax rise to a new level of recognition. The album would go gold, and I’ll admit that I’m a bit shocked it wasn’t platinum. It does appear the band never had a US platinum, which is surprising. But no matter, Anthrax were now a band of note with this 1987 magnum opus.
One area where Anthrax got a lot of love was the skateboarding world. The Anthrax image didn’t quite “fit” the thrash scene, even if the music did, but they were a big hit among the skateboarding faithful. And while I myself never really got into skateboarding, my peers who did were who I got a lot of my early music from, including this.
This album essentially “made” the careers of Anthrax, giving them a far bigger platform and bigger tours to go along with it. It can be tough to haggle over the best of their catalog, what with their different phases and shifts, but this is the album that probably lands a consensus number one.