Almost every band has that album: you know, the critically and/or commercially reviled dud in an otherwise passable-to-radical back catalog. Well, every Wednesday morning, a Decibel staffer or special guest will take to the Deciblog to bitch and moan at length as to why everybody’s full of shit and said dud is, in fact, The Shit. Today’s submission: Shane Mehling sounds off about Anthrax’s Sound of White Noise.
First off, I’m in no way contending that Sound of White Noise is the only Anthrax record that can be considered a blot on their legacy. But since I don’t personally know a single person willing to defend Stomp 442 (and let’s hope no one comes forward), this is less an attempt to excuse one misstep and more to point out that the band was able to successfully staunch of the flow of suck until 1995.
Now before we start discussing the merits of Anthrax’s Belladonna-free sound, we need to solidify the admittedly dubious but noteworthy distinction this album has over any others: it was packed with hits. While your glinting thrash badge may signal that you can name every State of Euphoria track alphabetically, you and millions of others have at least four SOWN tracks forever imprinted onto your ganglia. (We will get back to these, which you’re remembering right now, and likely humming.)
Released in 1993, three years after Persistence of Time, and roughly a year after going permless by firing Joey, SOWN came out after both Metallica and Megadeth had fully sloughed off their thrash labels and pursued the catchy metal sounds of the “Black Album” and Countdown to Extinction. After Persistence’s more serious, experimental turn, the band could have potentially gone against good business sense and tried to evolve their thrash into something more dense and dynamic. But after their contemporaries became household names, we cant fault them for trying their hand at something more commercial-friendly. And they happened to do a great fucking job.
Opener “Potter’s Field” pretty much lays out the band’s strategy. The first seconds of the song are a gatling drum roll that evolves into a semi-thrash groove, and then come the rock riffs with John Bush’s sneering croon. Even critics of the album have to admit that the majority of songs start out like they’re going to plunder every orifice before the hooks kick in. But while the band focused heavily on verse-chorus-verse, they were able to use the two-guitar attack brilliantly, creating plenty of counter-rhythms, intricate movements and harmonies, while Frank Bello continued to play his bass like a boulder-handed monster. All of this adds to the fullness and cohesive sound of Anthrax, the only band of the Big Four that can sound like a legitimate group of musicians instead of the vision of one or two members.
Now, the record is not without a couple duds. “Packaged Rebellion” and “Invisible” are dreary six-minute cockrockers, and some riffs have not aged well. But the album is surprisingly consistent. The penultimate “Burst” is the most traditional ‘Thrax track, and shows that Bush can easily deliver over speed metal, while “This Is Not an Exit” is an epic conclusion that starts off swampy, like a hulking Down song, and almost falls apart before thrashing off into noise. And this is even without mentioning the four goddamned hit songs, comprising over a third of the album. “Only,” “Room for One More,” “Black Lodge” and “Hy Pro Glo” remain metal classics that outshine the likes of “Sweating Bullets” and “Sad but True.” No less than James Alan Hetfield called “Only” a perfect song, while the opening riff from “Hy Pro Glo” is the aural equivalent of tongue-kissing an IED. “Black Lodge” may be reminiscent of Alice in Chains, but it’s still an off-kilter spaghetti western dirge inspired by Twin Peaks and co-written with Mr. Angelo Badalamenti himself. Maybe for all of these songs you can point to there simply being a sacrifice of shredding for groove, but these are the motherfuckers who brought the noise, and SOWN was still a full year before the advent of nu-metal.
Of course, back then the real criticism of the album wasn’t that it aped rap-rock, but that it ignored its roots and attempted to ride the still-thriving grunge movement. In retrospect, this is much harder to attack because, unlike nu-metal, grunge was a catch-all for a wide range of music that shared few characteristics. And time’s dulled much of this initial anger. Unlike roughly 99 percent of all pimp rockers, it’s not easy to dismiss the young flannels like Soundgarden or Nirvana. Quality of music aside, Anthrax’s use of grunge elements in 1993 made them sellouts, but the blatant worship by Mastodon in 2009 made them “progressive.”
So then we’re left with John Bush, a man who in no way can be mistaken for Anthrax’s previous singer. But while the vocals are definitely the mark of a new band, to nail him as some sort of radio-friendly pariah is obviously completely misplaced. The guy was almost in Metallica, and Armored Saint may not be brutal (or good at all), but they’re still trendless old-school heavy metal. If anything, Bush’s vocals are the only thing on the album that didn’t alter with the times and, yes, he is arguably a much stronger singer than his predecessor.
I have no qualms if you prefer Belladonna’s high-pitched frontman cries, but there are more than a few parts on Persistence of Time that show the band simply outpacing him. The opening molten riffage of “Keep It in the Family” is only hindered by the flavorless vocal melodies he floats on top, glamming up the music when he should be getting ugly. After Anthrax decided to get serious and adapt, they were stuck with a relic. But even if you consider that statement high heresy, the video below shows that a SOWN with Belladonna would have been a featherweight version of the original.
Much of this, of course, comes down to a generational gap. There are many of us who became curious about heavy music at a time when the bassline from “Peace Sells” was more familiar as the intro for MTV News. Daft Punk’s electronic music created with synthesizers and MIDI controllers was at our college parties. “Enter Sandman” was played at our junior high proms. As much as it may pain those who actually remember the literal mosh this band was caught in, their previous material sounded under-produced and drab to our virgin ears when placed next to the blunt force of these tracks. While we grew to understand, appreciate and finally fucking love the band’s earlier work, it has not changed the fact that there’s room for one more album on the list of Anthrax’s finest.
1. Potter’s Field
3. Room for One More
4. Packaged Rebellion
5. Hy Pro Glo
7. Thousand Points of Hate
8. Black Lodge
9. C11 H17 N2 O2 S Na
11. This Is Not an Exit