Anthrax’s ‘Among the Living’ Turns 30
The question to ask about Anthrax’s Among the Living commonly comes up with any notable effort’s anniversary. Is it a signature album for the band, a neatly packaged demonstration of the impact they made in music? Or, well, not?
We can only see past albums through our retrospective goggles. Compare each effort to what the band did before and after, and what other bands were doing at that time. Some might look back with the glow of nostalgia, others with the distance from crazed fandom or the expanded musical knowledge needed for a less gushy take.
Among the Living, released in March 22, 1987, was Anthrax’s third studio album, following 1984’s Fistful of Metal and 1985’s Spreading the Disease. Fistful of Metal was a tough act to follow in terms of breaking genre ground. Anthrax wasn’t acting alone or first. Other trailblazers like Metallica had already released their debut albums, the building blocks of thrash. But Anthrax was right there in the mix, one of the few bands at the nucleus of this about-to-explode subgenre. And they got the first true “thrash” label: Kerrang!’s Malcolm Dome coined the term when writing about “Metal Thrashing Mad” off of Fistful of Metal.
This community of up-and-coming thrashers had Anthrax at its core, and Anthrax had the raw energy, focused musicianship and penchant for brutality needed to help create this new sound. They stomped their way onto the scene with their first two albums, fist-in-fist with kindred spirits Metallica, Exodus, Slayer and Megadeth. Among the Living debuted around the time that the idea of the “Big Four” materialized, grouping Anthrax with the aforementioned bands, (controversially) minus Exodus.
Due to this timing, a lot of Anthrax fans and even the band members see Among the Living as a significant album that contributed to this metal history-making label. Guitarist Scott Ian told Metal Hammer last November:
“Because of [Among the Living’s] success…things were really pushed forward. I guess that’s also the time when the phrase ‘The Big Four Of Thrash’ was invented…It was a time when the whole thrash thing really took off, and I’d like to think that Among the Living helped.”
Ian believes the sound of Among the Living was signature thrash and signature Anthrax because of a pissed-off energy that fueled recording. He writes about the process in detail for his memoir, ‘I Am the Man’. For this album, Anthrax had some weight to throw around and wanted to hand-pick a producer they revered: Eddie Kramer. Over-produced was the prevailing sound in rock at the time, thanks to what Mutt Lange and Def Leppard had innovated with Pyromania in 1983, and Van Halen codified with Ted Templeman on 1984. Anthrax wanted to stay raw, which they believed Kramer would enable.
Allegedly, though, Kramer was drinking the Kool-Aid, and committed sins against thrash like pumping up the reverb on Charlie Benante’s drums. Led by Ian, the band butted heads with Kramer about this until they finally got their way, but apparently a lot of frustration went into their playing.
The band also cites the very recent death of their friend, Cliff Burton, as a source of brutal sound-propelling anger. (The album is dedicated to Cliff.)
Regarding Among the Living’s trademark status, critics see things a bit differently. Jeff Wagner’s edition of Decibel’s “Disposable Heroes” column for the album might be the most on-the-nose summation:
Wagner recalls being psyched for Among the Living’s release after the personal mosh pit that was Fistful of Metal and the intriguing mix of thrash, hardcore and melody on Spreading the Disease. But even at 17, Wagner found the album to be a let-down. His grievances include: “gray masses of palm-muted monotony” in lieu of riffs, “incessant gang backing vocals,” forgettable songs like “A Skeleton in the Closet” and “Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.),” cheesy kumbaya lyrics like “One World,” and Joey Belladonna’s vocals getting totally lost on the album.
Wagner doesn’t leave out the strong parts of Among the Living, and these elements presumably keep a pride of place for the album in any Anthrax fan’s collection. The very opening that rips into the title track is more than sufficiently creepy and dramatic. The rhythm section is reliably solid. And the entire band is over-the-top energetic (that might be that Kramer contempt there).
The album is high-energy with good rhythm, good mosh motivators, and a few interesting riffs here and there. Okay, but does that really make a “signature” album?
Maybe what gets confused here is whether an album is quintessential for the band or the subgenre the band helped launch. Among the Living is probably not a defining thrash moment. Not like Fistful of Metal. But it is true Anthrax.
Not only is that energy there (read any interview or Ian’s memoir to know this band’s longer-standing members have been some of the scrappiest in the game), and not only is the rhythm section showing up, but Among the Living is Anthrax’s known grab bag of song subjects at its most eclectic.
To name a few: “Caught in a Mosh” was inspired by the band’s guitar tech getting dragged into a mosh pit when he was trying to get a fan off the stage during a show.
“I am the Law” is a tribute to comic book hero Judge Dredd. Comic books have played a big role in Anthrax’s songs because the band’s main lyricist, Ian, is a big fan.
“Efilnekufesin (N.F.L.)” is “nise fukin life” spelled backwards, and is a sort of commentary on celebrity lifestyle, influenced by [Ian’s pal] John Belushi’s drug addiction.
“A Skeleton in the Closet” was inspired by the Stephen King book ‘Apt Pupil’, as Ian is also a devoted King reader.
“Indians” is a statement against the historically poor treatment of Native Americans.
“One World” is the call for peace that rubs some thrash fans like Jeff Wagner the wrong way (“I’m a pacifist actually, but please leave it out of my thrash or I’ll kill you.”).
The teenage boy lyrical inspiration; the marriage of the thrash they helped create with the hardcore they grew up with; the brutalized form of something this band had in spades, spunk; it’s all here on Among the Living. So, there’s no reason devoted fans shouldn’t keep on being devoted. This album captures true Anthrax, even if it might not capture pure thrash. Even that, though, is of course a matter of opinion, and if anyone wants fans to make up their own minds, it’s Anthrax. After all, “Did you ever think for yourself?? Just for once, did you ever think?? That’s all I want to know.”