‘Persistence of Time’ or ‘Among the Living’. Which is the best Anthrax album? (And look, if you think Anthrax have ever produced a better record than either of those 2, then feel free to shout this article down in the comments section below. But as far as The Hawk is concerned, those 2 remain the classic and best work the band ever produced.)
So in this article, we’ll examine both and try to figure out which is the best. It’s a tough task, and The Hawk has had to pluck up all the resilience in the world to come to a decision. Want to know the verdict? Then dive right in.
Wanted: A Thrash USP
Anthrax are a great thrash band first and foremost, of course, and a fully paid up member of the Big-4 thrash club comprising themselves, Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth. And as already discussed by The Hawk, the reason these bands were top of the tree was that none of them played ‘just’ thrash – they all had a unique selling point that made them stand out.
For Anthrax, that ‘extra something’ was a willingness to experiment with different styles and influences even outside of the heavy metal genre altogether. All their members grew up listening to classic heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead and many others. They were one of the original drivers of thrash, taking that metal sound and making it faster and more extreme. But importantly, they were one of the pioneers of combining heavy metal with hip-hop and rap influences which eventually lead us to the Nu Metal scene. (The Hawk hasn’t decided whether Nu Metal counts as Classic Heavy Metal for blogging purposes, but he’ll get back to you on that – whatever, it was ‘Bring the Noise’ that probably spawned the whole thing).
Anthrax were big fans of bands like Public Enemy, so the idea of making cross over music didn’t faze them at all, even if some heavy metal fans reacted in horror at the time. But whatever you think about that, there’s no denying that this is what elevated Anthrax as a musical offering, and made their albums more interesting and deeply textured.
As well as that, they were willing to write on a wide range of topics. ‘Among the Living’ alone features nuclear war (‘One World’), Native American rights (‘Indians’), drug abuse (‘Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.)) and pandemic (‘Among the Living’) among its topics. That title track is based on the novel ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King, about a deadly flu pandemic and its aftermath of good and evil factions clashing with one another. The evil looking dude on the cover of ‘Among The Living’ was thought by some to be a representation of Randall Flagg, the evil protagonist from ‘The Stand’, and no doubt that was an influence, though in reality, Anthrax wanted to depict a more generic representation of all the evil in the world.
The Hawk has always had a soft spot for ‘Among the Living’, coming out as it did in 1987, at a time when so many all time thrash classics were hitting the shelves – big 4 classics and many others. You know what I’m talking about.
It’s also such an album of contrasts. As said, the range of topics covered by the songs was both wide and deep, with some of the band’s humour weaved into the lyrics. On the other hand the overall dynamic of the album is angry and aggressive. And that’s very deliberate.
After all, before writing the songs that would go onto ‘Among the Living’, Anthrax had been the support act of Metallica’s European tour for ‘Master of Puppets’ – the same tour that had been curtailed by the tragic death of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton after the band’s tour bus crashed in Sweden.
Cliff was the soul of Metallica, but also widely liked and respected across the heavy metal scene. Anthrax certainly considered him a good friend and were devastated by his sudden death. Guitarist Scott Ian put it bluntly in an interview with Loudwire journalist Jon Wiederhorn years later:
Part of the reason that song and the rest of the album sounds so angry is because Cliff died. We’d lost our friend and it was so wrong and unfair. Yeah, we were pissed.Scott Ian
As with Megadeth and ‘In My Darkest Hour’, Anthrax channelled their anger into their next album in general, and closer ‘Horror of it All’ in particular – an emotional tribute to Burton.
There are so many other highlights on the album that The Hawk won’t have space here to cover then all in detail. But to touch on some personal favourites, there’s ‘I am the Law’, named for the catchphrase of comic book super-cop Judge Dredd. (The band were fans of comic books as well, a great source of the humour they bring in at times.) That song went out as a single with the rap number ‘I’m the Man’ as a B-side. It’s a cringe inducing rap, but shows how the band would experiment fearlessly.
And ‘Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.) is also great – a diatribe dealing with the drug death of the Saturday Night Live comedian John Belushi.
It also allowed the band to filter out which journalists and / or fans were serious about listening to the music. If anyone asked why they had a song about NFL football, they could be instantly marked as time wasters. (After all, you only have to read the title backwards to figure that there must be more to it than that.
Anthrax scored quite a coup when they persuaded legendary producer Eddie Kramer to come on board. Kramer had worked with all kinds of music legends – anyone from Led Zeppelin and KISS through to Whitesnake through to Carly Simon. So producing a 2-album thrash outfit with no particular commercial success at all be that point wouldn’t have been an obvious choice.
Anthrax’s manager Jonny Zazula (instrumental in the early Metallica story of course) managed to persuade him though. Kramer seems to have regarded it as a technical challenge, because at that time, getting a good sound thrash was not seen as straightforward. How could you get good audibility of all the instruments when the heavy guitars, bass and drums threaten to create an indistinguishable fog of noise?
Live in the Studio
Kramer’s approach was to have the band record as live group performances, rather than laying down individual instrument tracks, and Anthrax were delighted by the vibe that created in the studio, as well as by the results. It was an innovative approach at the time, widely copied since. Mixing was done at the famous Compass Point studios in the Bahamas, famous for hosting Iron Maiden which would also have been cool for an up and coming band.
When ‘Among the Living’ was finally released, it proved to be the commercial breakthrough for Anthrax, eventually going Gold and planting them firmly in the top echelon of thrash bands. Indeed, the critics compared it favourably to anything Metallica had done at the time. Clearly, these were now guys with plenty going for them. The fans obviously approved, The Hawk included – and special mention here for ‘Caught in a Mosh’, which must get any true metal head nodding in approval at the shared experience. And the tour was a real breakthrough – bigger venues, more fans, and a triumphant appearance at Donnington Monsters of Rock in 1987. Warning: clip involves bad-boy stage destruction!
Next Cab From The Rank
So, plenty of great reasons to regard this as the best ever. What about ‘Persistence of Time’? How can we make the case for that? Well, it’s a much more mature work for a start, and that’s really at the heart of the debate – do you prefer the more raw, emotional breakthrough work of ‘Among the Living’, or the more thoughtful writing on ‘Persistence of Time’. And let’s face it, that’s a debate we could have about any of the Big 4.
Anyway, what makes ‘Persistence of Time’ a more mature offering? Well there are no comic book inspirations here. Instead, the songs deal with peace and tolerance – perhaps not the subject matter you might expect from a thrash band, and a courageous choice for that reason – entirely in keeping to Anthrax’s approach throughout their careers. Anthrax were pro peace and tolerance, but positioned the songs as a take on all the problems getting in the way, ‘railing against every societal ill known to city-bred man,’ according to one critic.
Slow(er) Tempo Shock
They also slowed things down somewhat – knowing what reaction that would get in some quarters – this was not that long after Slayer’s ‘South of Heaven’ after all, and look what happened there.
Sure enough, ‘Persistence of Time’ had the same mixed reaction. Plenty of people loved the more aggressive direction, others naturally saw it as a sell out. It did better commercially than ‘Among the Living’, with a chart peak of #24 in the US, which obviously served to encourage those on the sell-out side of the fence.
But The Hawk is a fan. Look at all the classic songs – there’s the ripped version of Joe Jackson’s ‘Got the Time.’ (Jackson himself didn’t like the Anthrax version, apparently, but it gets the thumbs up on here.
Or there’s the instrumental, ‘Intro to Reality’, which captures the overall mood of the album perfectly whilst also showcasing the bands musical ability. There’s also ‘In My World’, which inexplicably got them a gig appearing in the US sitcom ‘Married With Children’. Now all recorded for posterity.
Anthrax had to overcome some adversity to get the album out at all – a fire at their rehearsal rooms burned up some $100,000 worth of equipment, which would have been a major hit even for a successful act in the thrash genre in 1990. But not to be defeated, they finished writing and recording at a different location later on.
Quick mention also for this being the last album for a long time to feature Joey Belladonna on vocals. After ‘Persistence of Time’, Belladonna was fired in somewhat acrimonious fashion because of musical differences, but only after they’d toured with Iron Maiden and been part of the Clash of the Titans tour with Megadeth, Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies. So that must have been a blast, and anyway, differences were eventually put aside with Belladonna re-joining in 2005.
So what’s the verdict on which album is the best? To be honest, at the start of writing this article, The Hawk had no idea which way he was going to jump. But I guess that looking back over the evidence, ‘Among the Living’ seems to have had more reasons going for it, so it gets the vote here – just.
And for that reason, we’ll play out on the fan engagement favourite ‘Caught in a mosh’. Enjoy.
Did you agree with The Hawk’s verdict? Or would you have gone with ‘Persistence of Time’? Or something else completely? Is it fair to compare across different eras of the band? How do you decide? Let us know in the comments below.