Live Review: Anthrax with Black Label Society and Exodus (Grey Eagle Events Centre, Calgary, AB: 1/22/23)

Those of you who were early thrash fans during that vaunted period known as “back in the day” will remember being pilloried by the majority of the metal world for daring to open your ears to the then-new style of sound. It was a sound that injected hardcore punk energy into metal’s thick and viscous origins and did it at velocities that had genteel segments of the metal community — fans and press included — running for the hills and screaming for vengeance. Comparing those times to today (and the genre’s heyday), it’s sometimes difficult to believe that thrash was once metal’s red-headed step-child, a bunch of fucking noise some said, that would never amount to anything. Since 1981, the year New York’s Anthrax gathered to go metal thrashing mad, even those naysayers and doubters and relics working on their ass-grooves at booths at the Rainbow have come around and 40-plus years later we’re at the stage of the game where thrash metal’s Big Four remain as successful as…blah, blah, blah. 

I’m going to hazard a guess that you don’t need to be handed a thrash history refresher, but the back of my brain still has a giddy time reconciling the genre’s scuzzy beginnings with the fact that I just witnessed 40-plus years of Anthrax in a ginormous casino concert hall/events centre festooned with carpeted floors and chintzy chandeliers where over-priced concert beers, foot-long hot dogs and gourmet burgers were as plentiful as band merch. It’s a far cry from seeing Anthrax, Exodus and the like in cramped and sweaty shit boxes back in the day. As I’m sure everyone involved is much happier at the upgrade, it’s still amazing to think that the music that was once derided as a bunch of bullshit is now hobnobbing with games of chance and still coming out as the lucky one. Then again, all it takes are a couple of fights, a couple dudes passed out in the hallway and more than a couple of spilled beers to show that the more things change the more they stay the same.

On that note, openers and ‘Big 6’ members (along with Testament) Exodus took to the stage with the same energetic vim and athletic vigor as…well, every other time I’ve seen them going back to the mid-‘80s. Possessors of arguably the most brutal and crushing guitar tone in thrash history, the Bay Area war-horses emerged from the wings like bats out of hell straddling gun powder-filled missiles. Over the course of a relatively scant 45-minutes, the legendary and notorious slay team faithfully represented their own 40+ years of existence, including showcasing the diversity available on newest album, Persona Non Grata. The band knows where their bread is buttered though, as the set leaned heavily on Bonded by Blood with stops along the way for sonic look-sees at Fabulous Disaster, Tempo of the Damned and Blood In, Blood Out. Accompanying classics like “Strike of the Beast” and “A Lesson in Violence” was their always entertaining stage presence, rife with loads of cross-stage skipping, Lee Altus miming out lyrics and singing along as much as playing guitar, a frontline of friendly violent hair whipping and neck abuse, and vocalist Zetro Sousa’s uncanny ability to engage eight different members of the front row in set-long, metal sign language conversations. Mad props should be reserved for drummer Tom Hunting for recently beating squamous cell carcinoma as hard and savagely as he knocked out the two-beats and skank patterns during “The Toxic Waltz” and “Piranha.” Fuck cancer, indeed.

The internet has informed me that Black Label Society has been a band since 1998. This means that yours truly has gone almost 25 years without (knowingly, at least) hearing this band. That particular cherry was finally popped tonight and it’s not a milestone I’m entirely happy about it. Definitely not as happy as the pure elation being expressed by the band’s devoted and faithful, but after my first experience with the band, I’m failing to understand what the big deal is. What with all the time I spent in the pre-show line surrounded by dudes in Black Label Society leather cuts, “motorcycle enthusiasts’ club” inspired merch, the band throwing around of terms like “chapter” and “family” and the reference of members as “Father so-and-so,” there’s a distinct fictitious biker gang air to all of this. Ironically enough, as a parallel, Black Label Society comes across as the Sons of Anarchy of hard rock/metal, except not nearly as entertaining and with a lot less random gun play. This can’t be the first and only time BLS and SOA have been compared/referenced/connected to/equated with one another, but witnessing the spectacle firsthand is uncanny, if not hilarious. The glaring plot holes, untenable situations, ridiculous chase scenes, comical dialogue and cartoonish violence are parallel to the unadventurous and elementary rhythmics, collection of dumbed down, pinch harmonic-peppered riffs that the likes of Pantera, The Atomic Bitchwax, Down and Monster Magnet were smart enough to discard, and Zakk Wylde’s tuneless, yet soulful vocal moan. In the end, it came across as a gathering of low common denominators that together have struck a chord with those looking for a safe expression of rebellion, intrigue and community wherein consumers look to turn their brains off for an hour or two in order to forget the day.

Full disclosure: Anthrax was always, personally, my fourth favourite of the ‘Big 4.’ That’s not to say I didn’t and don’t still get my panties in a twist whenever Fistful of Metal, Among the Living, Persistence of Time, Sound of White Noise and their various covers make their way off the shelf. But not everyone can own the podium and that a few thousand folks and I are still feeling the excitement of songs that are as much as four decades old — and that a few thousand of others are feeling that same excitement for songs that were written before they were born — is indicative of veracity, staying power and host of well-crafted numbers.

The celebration of 40 years of Anthrax began with a slickly compiled and edited video testimonial from fans across the spectrum; from Keanu Reeves, Lady Gaga and Gene Simmons to members of Death Angel, Refused, Slayer and a bevy of the usual collaborators and suspects. Once the curtain came down on the two-tiered stage and thematic, seizure-inducing light show (the red and blue cop lights during “I Am the Law” were a stellar touch) it was straight into the hits. As with Exodus, Anthrax have been doing this long enough to know the drill, how to rile up and communicate with a crowd, plus this occasion is a celebration of their career. So, as tempting as it might be to pull an Iron Maiden and bust out a set of deep cuts, Anthrax know the biggest reaction is going to come from “Among the Living,” “Caught in a Mosh,” “Metal Thrashing Mad,” “Madhouse,” “Keep in the Family,” “Indians” and their cover of Trust’s “Anti-Social,” which might as well be their own song at this stage in the game. The energy was lightning, the production value was a spectacle in and of itself and Joey Belladonna’s voice along with Scott Ian and Frank Bello’s onstage flurry of movement (and down picking) belied their chronological ages. Despite even the band themselves not seeming to be entirely convinced of much of their post-1993 output, this, as far as a exhibition lauding them for doing their thing through ups and downs over an unexpectedly vast stretch of time, they certainly brought the…ahh, you know.