Comes Like the Flood: Anthrax’s “Persistence of Time” Turns 30

Bile black the thoughts that run my head
There’s so much to be said
They’re so much living dead
Walking corpses shambling through life
With nothing in their sight
Dance on their bones, step in and fight

Sandwiched between the game-changing Decibel Hall of Famer Among the Living and the bright glare of exuberant, arena-ready, family friendly, MTV-hyped “Antisocial” videoWhy, hullo Ozzy! — that helped raise the profile of State of Euphoria (1988) on one side and the grunge-y alt-metal of Justify Your Shitty Taste entry Sound of White Noise on the other, Persistence of Time — which turned 30 on August 21, and is out now in a gorgeous and revealing deluxe remastered edition — often gets a bit lost in those hourglass sands.

And that’s a real shame. Anthrax‘s fifth studio album is not merely one of the single greatest records to come out of the thrash era, but a high water mark for heavy metal generally: A masterwork that further concentrated every enlivening and empowering element previously mined by the band, deftly fused it all together with hitherto unseen complexity and nuance, and imbued the whole collection with a evolutionary/revolutionary pathos, rage, and existential heft that transported the songs from the realm of sick riffs to life-changing anthems.

It wasn’t as if the darkness of Persistence was, in a larger context, unique. The vast majority of metalheads who purchased the album in 1990 no doubt at a minimum had Reign in Blood, So Far, So Good…So What!, and …And Justice for All in their collections — hardly Sunday school fodder, any of that. Yet there was something particularly potent about Anthrax’s turn toward the shadows, both in terms of (literal) tone and introspective, socially conscious thematic content, precisely because it followed so closely on the heels of the Bermuda shorts, goofy T-shirts and MAD style caricature era of the band.

“We were on a tour cycle for an album I hated, and we had to play songs from the album every night,” guitarist Scott Ian writes of the State of Euphoria moment in his excellent, exceedingly honest 2014 autobiography I’m the Man. “That made me angry. We’d play ‘I’m The Man,’ and I’d think, ‘Who are we? What is this? You don’t see Metallica doing this.’ I felt like maybe we were becoming a parody of ourselves. I second-guessed wearing shorts onstage and thought, ‘Oh, no, our image is becoming really goofy. At least we’re not still wearing chain mail.’ But it just didn’t feel ‘Anthrax.’ In the video for ‘Antisocial,’ Danny Spitz was wearing a fucking Tweety Bird T-shirt with long red jam shorts that came down past his knees with the Jetsons all over them. And he was playing a guitar with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on it. I fucking gag thinking about that. How is this metal?”

As a fan, I’ve personally got considerably more love for State of Euphoria: I bought the album on CD a full six months before I, uh, actually owned a CD player simply because, after warping more than one cassette copy of Spreading the Disease and the I’m the Man EP into melted-plastic oblivion, I wanted the most advanced possible version of the record (not to mention the limited edition holographic sticker!) — even if it meant a listening experience that would be extremely delayed outside of convincing my junior high music teacher to play “Be All, End All” in class as an example of cello-to-mosh dynamics.

Sure, Ian may believe, as he writes in I’m the Man, Euphoria represents “Anthrax slumming on autopilot,” but it’s nevertheless a record miles above some of their peers’ nadirs! Most bands would kill for that kind of killer shortfall.

Still, if angst over State and its concurrent image — as well as a devastating practice space fire, as drummer Charlie Benante explains in this great short doc tied to the reissue — is what it took to instill in Anthrax the drive to expand and transcend on virtually every level en route to the serpentine musical epics of Persistence and some of the most incisive lyrics exploring the heart of the human condition in metal, ever…well, as the man said, “Dance on their bones, step in and fight.” No one ever said iconoclasm was an easy path. (Just ask Joe Jackson, who Anthrax deftly reinterpret on Persistence with a “Got the Time” cover that’s at least as subversive and slyly executed as “Bring the Noise,” for the record.)

All of which is to say, if all you’ve known from a band is brutality than brutality is baked into the heavy metal cake. There’s an authenticity and a relatability to the fears and monsters Anthrax wrestles with on Persistence — fears and monsters which, much like most of their listeners, Anthrax appears to have come by honestly; not as a matter of cultural disposition or artistic license, but, rather, as the price of attempting to live a life sans interior or exterior blinders and outside the traditional boundaries of polite society.

Of course, there was a lot of flux in the aftermath of the album and the tribulations which followed — lineup changes, industry shifts, individual and collective maturations — all but guaranteed Persistence would be a singular record in the Anthrax discography. The gobstopping Clash of the Titans tour, your humble correspondent’s first show, proved less to herald a new era than mark the end of a storied one.

In this way, Persistence of Time is a fascinating paradox: A record obsessed with the inexorable passage of time and the dreams that steals from us — “Life and death are fighting for my time/I can’t seem to find the time…Time through the clock/Just keeps talking/It just walks any damn place/It feels like walkin'” — that achieves immortality for its creators.

“We knew we didn’t want Persistence of Time to be a thrash album,” Ian writes. “Even though less than three years had passed since Among the Living, we felt so far removed from that scene. We had grown into something bigger and better than just a thrash band, and we didn’t want to be pigeonholed. We wanted to be taken as seriously as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. We naturally started to change, evolve, and explore other avenues of heavy music.”

Mission accomplished.

As the lyrics on “Time” put it:

Life and death as words they don’t mean shit
It’s what you do with them
And how you live with it

Thirty years on Persistence of Time remains as beguiling and powerful today as it was in 1990 — a thrash metal apotheosis with a deep philosophical grounding and the soul of a bullshit-free prog record. It’s a testimony to life in the face of death and Anthrax’s unacknowledged finest moment.