When veteran metal band Anthrax finished writing “Breathing Lightning,” the second single for their new album For All Kings (out Feb. 26), the group’s main composers – songwriter and drummer Charlie Benante, rhythm guitarist and lyricist Scott Ian, and bassist and melody writer Frank Bello – all took a step back and metaphorically rubbed their chins.
Coming right in the middle of the creative sessions for the album, the song was considerably slower than the frantic, thrashy numbers like “You Gotta Believe” and “Evil Twin,” and more overtly melodic than the mid-paced metal stompers, including “Suzerain” and the nearly eight-minute “Blood Eagle Wings.” While “Breathing Lightning” was clearly Anthrax, it seemed more radio-ready than anything the band had released in years.
“I was a little apprehensive about showing the band this song, because it wasn’t like the other songs that we were writing,” Benante says a couple days after playing a New York show opening for Lamb of God. “I was going for more of a really good riffing song and then the chorus was very melodic. It reminded me of Zeppelin.”
Benante presented “Breathing Lightning” to the rest of Anthrax, half-expecting rejection. But not only did they take to the tune like bees to a peanut butter and honey sandwich, they also made it a top priority for the album. Bello started humming along with the music and almost immediately came up with a giant hook for the chorus.
“I was trying to come up with things that fit, like I always do, and when I heard that song a lightbulb just went off in my head,” Bello says. “I sang something along with it and I thought, ‘Oh, I like that.’”
Ian connected with the melody, and he and Benante worked on it so it complimented the main riff, which burned and crackled like a lit fireplace. Then came the lyrics.
“Frank had this ‘Do the right thing’ line that he had inserted in there while he was singing mumbo-jumbo parts for the melody,” Ian says. “It stuck in my head, and the whole thing coalesced into this idea of getting to a point in your life where you’re committing to what you want to do in life even if it’s the hardest path you’re ever going to take. It all comes from me, because when I made the commitment to be in this band, I certainly wasn’t taking the easy path. So ‘Breathing Lightning’ is about pushing forward and not letting anything stand in your way.”
It’s a belief that Anthrax has not only followed since they formed in New York in 1981; it’s a motto that has kept the group from falling apart on numerous occasions. Anthrax entered the studio to record two pivotal albums, 1985’s Spreading the Disease and 1993’s Sound of White Noise, both times without a singer. The band battled with management, multiple labels, and a music scene that went from supportive to dismissive, and they have endured Benante’s severe carpal tunnel syndrome, which prevents him from remaining on the road for more than three weeks at a time (ex-Slayer drummer Jon Dette usually fills in).
“We’ve taken our punches over the years, that’s for damn sure,” Bello says. “But we’ve kept going, and the longer we’ve done this, the better we’ve gotten. And now I think we’re at the top of our games as musicians and as songwriters.”
“Whatever has come our way – and there have been a lot of things – there has never been a time when we all looked at each other and said, ‘F— it, this is impossible. Let’s take the easy way and break up the band,’” Ian says. “I always think of that scene in Raging Bull when Jake Lamotta [played by Robert De Niro] is getting the s— kicked out of him by Sugar Ray Robinson [Johnny Barnes], and then he stumbles up to him and says, “I never went down, Ray. You never got me down.’ Through the hardest times, we’ve very much had that attitude. We’ve never gone down.”
Through the hardest of times, the members of Anthrax have proven that they’re survivors. But all hasn’t been boos and thrown bottles. At the height of the thrash metal era – 1983 to 1990 – Anthrax were in the right place at the right time and enjoyed the type of stardom usually afforded much more blatantly commercial bands. Along with Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth, Anthrax were heralded as members of the “Big Four” and influenced countless bands, including Korn, Deftones, and Halestorm. Notably, at a time when other rock stars were indulging in alcohol and other recreational pharmaceuticals, most of the guys in Anthrax were relatively sober.
“We were never a really big party band,” Bello says. “We were more like really big ball-busters. We’d get the key to someone’s hotel room and go to the bathroom in their toilet and not flush. Then we’d turn the heat up to, like, 100 degrees so the place would smell really bad. We thought that kind of thing was really funny.”
Now celebrating their 35thyear as a band, Anthrax appear poised to continue enjoying, or even exceed, the critical and commercial acclaim they earned with 2011’s comeback effort Worship Music, an album the band originally hoped to record with Joey Belladonna, then almost did with John Bush (who was in the band from 1992 to 2005, and again between 2009 and 2010). They even briefly hired singer Dan Nelson, but that didn’t work out either. Finally, after planning to have Slipknot’s Corey Taylor guest on the record – a decision that was ultimately nixed by his label – Belladonna returned to Anthrax, played the commemorative Big Four shows – with Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth – and stayed on, delivering one of the most inspired vocal performances of his career. For All Kings is equally trenchant, melodic enough to hum yet powerful as a punch to the gut.
“Joey’s incredible on this record,” Benante says. “He was great on the last one as well. It’s amazing to have him back in the band, and there was a time I never thought that could happen. I’m happy that it did, and I’m also happy that we’ve learned from some of our past mistakes. Nowadays, I feel strongly about making quality records from front to back, and not being one of those bands who make records four songs deep and the rest is just filler to have something to go on tour with.”
Next week, Anthrax will fly to South America to play 11 shows opening for Iron Maiden. By the time they return to the U.S., they hope “Breathing Lightning” will have sparked at rock radio. Currently, the song is doing well at college radio; it debuted at #6 on the CMJ Loud Music Chart and is the #5 most-added song at college metal radio.
“‘Breathing Lightning is really radio-friendly, and I would love to get that same fair shake as a lot of these other metal bands have gotten,” Benante says. “I never understood why we weren’t played on normal radio, too. We’ll see what happens with this one.”
Even if “Breathing Lightning” doesn’t impact at commercial radio, Anthrax will continue to hold high the torch of metal, whether opening for stadium bands or headlining mid-sized venues. Unlike the gaggle of polished, homogenous hard rock bands whose lead singers couldn’t be picked out of police lineups, Anthrax plan to remain highly visible and keep their music loud, abrasive, and catchy in an effort to win over the masses.
“For All Kings is what new metal should sound like, done by a bunch of 50-year-olds,” Ian concludes. “I think our finger is more on the pulse of what metal should be in 2016 than anybody else. Seriously, there is no one else out there that can do this better than we can, because we’ve been doing it so long and we know it so well. When we write songs, we’re doing it the same way we’ve done it since [1984’s] Fistful of Metal. It’s us in a room writing music that we don’t hear anywhere else. We’re writing music that makes us bang our heads and puts a smile on our faces.”