Anthrax’s tenth album, Worship Music, should rightfully be seen as a triumph. Its 11 apocalypse-gazing, zombie-gouging tracks pick up where 1990’s Persistence Of Time left off—the staccato stomp, caffeinated chug and skywalking screams that made the Jams®-shorted hooligans NYC’s most famous metal exports. The day after Worship Music‘s national release, Anthrax will enjoy a victory lap at Yankee Stadium with Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth—collectively the “Big 4” of thrash—for a show that could easily bring 50,000 to the Bronx.
But it’s hard for lead vocalist Joey Belladonna, who sang on four albums released between 1985 and 1990 and who has had a complex relationship with his former bandmates since his first dismissal from Anthrax in 1992, not to paint the occasion as bittersweet. “I always feel like I’m starting to work my way back in a back-door way,” says the once and current singer. “It kinda makes me laugh sometimes, really. Thinking I’m just kinda getting shuffled around like a deck of cards. Hopefully I come up every once in a while.”
Worship Music was originally recorded with ersatz Anthrax vocalist Dan Nelson. The band later hoped ’90s vocalist John Bush would re-record the tracks; bassist Frank Bello considered stepping up to the mic; and Slipknot’s Cory Taylor was even tossed around as a possibility for frontman duties.
Ultimately, though, Belladonna was brought back, and the band loves the way the album turned out. The lean, brusque alt-metal that accompanied a four-album Billboard decline is gone, replaced with the raspy, theatrical howl that made them the goony good guys of ’80s thrash. “Just hearing Joey singing on songs was just like . . . ‘Ah, now it sounds like us,'” says drummer Charlie Benante.
Belladonna, who led the band through their classic era, still remains guarded. “It’s a little bit sad that I’m not really the first choice,” he says. “In some ways, why wouldn’t I be?”
The first time Belladonna ever traveled by plane was during the mid-’80s, when he took a Plattsburgh-to-Ithaca flight for his audition with the then-up-and-coming band. “Joey came walking in, and someone kinda made him wear a certain thing that they thought the band would like,” says Benante. “So when he walked in, he was wearing these black and red striped pants. Scott [Ian, rhythm guitarist] saw him, and he said, ‘What the hell is that?'”
Belladonna did a cappella versions of Journey’s “Lights” and Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” for most of the band, and he later sang for Benante over the phone. “The first thing I said was, ‘Sign him up,'” says Benante. “He sounded great.” Within two days, Belladonna was laying down vocals for the band’s second album, Spreading The Disease.
The band soldiered through three more records, their popularity growing exponentially each year: an MTV contest where they trashed a winner’s car, a Married… With Children episode called “My Dinner With Anthrax,” a Public Enemy collaboration that got them new love from college audiences. But after a half-decade, Belladonna still felt like the new kid. “I always had to be the outsider looking in,” he recalls. “And for some reason, I never got anywhere past that point. And even what I did and how successful we got, I don’t know if it really translated.”
In 1992, he was fired and replaced by Bush, the Armored Saint singer whose earthy growl was more in line with the alt-rock explosion. “They didn’t even have the balls to call me,” says Belladonna. “The management called up and said, ‘The band wants to part ways with you.’ Just like that. Boom.”
“If there are certain things that I regret, maybe that was one of them,” says Benante. “But at the time, we didn’t know what else to do, we didn’t know how to make this band grow. We thought this was the thing.” Anthrax ventured forward, and Belladonna spent the next decade touring in minivans with a thrashy solo project and doing odd jobs. “I don’t want you to think I’m Rolls-Roycing it around,” he says.
In 2005, the band had an abortive attempt at a reunion tour, “There were situations where one guy stayed in the front of the bus, and one guy stayed in the back of the bus and never spoke a word,” says Benante. “I wish we had some time to regroup and just get to have our relationship again. It wasn’t like that. It was pretty much like we’re back together, we’re out on the road, repair your relationships out there. I don’t think it was fair to any of us.” Adds Belladonna: “I find out on the Internet they’ve got a new singer. That’s beat.”
Thankfully, the current reunion’s beginnings had the casual tone of old buddies getting together. Benante had rekindled a friendship with Belladonna over e-mail, “but we weren’t talking about Anthrax, we were just talking music,” the drummer recalls. “And then one day, I just got the courage up to talk to him about Anthrax again . . . I said it at the time, ‘If anyone deserves to do these Big 4 shows, it’s Joey. He was there, he should be there.'”
Belladonna rejoined the band in time for The Big 4 to play a series of European shows in 2010. In April, the tour came stateside, and the show in Indio, California, was the band’s biggest ever. Being in Yankee Stadium, surrounded by friends and with Anthrax’s hometown of New York as a backdrop, will easily top it. “That’s gonna be the one where I may break down,” says Benante.
And while Belladonna isn’t exactly psyched about having to sing the occasional song originally laid down by his replacement—”We do [the 1993 track] ‘Only.’ That’s plenty”—the singer proudly boasts that he and his bandmates are older and wiser this go-round. “I find that when we can all go to dinner on occasion now, it’s like, ‘Wow, is this really happening,'” he says. “I feel like a little kid that I actually got invited to a party.”
“Joey remembers everything from the past. He never lets it go,” says Benante. “But, you know, whether or not he realizes it, this is the best he’s ever sounded on a record. . . . He’s fucking amazing.”
Additional reporting by Kory Grow