When the Anthrax bassist met me for our recent interview, he greeted me enthusiastically, with his trademark down-to-earth attitude.
Knowing the Anthrax guys are infamous java guzzlers, I felt it was a pretty sound idea to meet Bello at a local Starbucks.
After all, coffee seemed to be a central part of the band members’ lives. They mention it routinely in interviews, and drummer Charlie Benante even released his own line of coffee beans last year.
I was a bit taken aback when Bello revealed that his cup contained apple cider instead.
“I’m actually trying to cut down on the coffee,” he laughed.
Bello doesn’t seem to need caffeine—as exhibited in his explosive stage presence, the man has a naturally high motor.
As we chat, he shifts in his chair and gestures with his hands, practically bursting with excitement to talk about the upcoming release of the band’s latest record, For All Kings, due on February 26.
Anthrax began writing for the album back in 2013, and started recording in fall of 2014, so Bello and his mates have lived with their newest batch of songs for quite some time, and are anxious to share them with the world.
“I’m really proud of this record, because I think it stands up to anything we’ve done,” Bello remarked.
He’s convinced that fans will appreciate the variety of sounds exhibited on For All Kings, a record that’s at once faithful to the Anthrax thrash legacy, yet also the band’s most ambitious work.
“I think this record takes you on a journey, and it lives and breathes,” Bello said.
The album’s intro is an ominous-sounding instrumental, with strings reminiscent of the beginning of “Be All, End All,” from Anthrax’s 1988 release State of Euphoria.
Yet this time, the atmosphere seems more chilling and apocalyptic, an appropriate mood considering the tense, terrorist-threatened world we currently reside in.
Then suddenly, the band slams into leadoff track “You Gotta Believe,” a frantic, locomotive-off-the-rails burner that could have been written in the band’s early years. It’s smothered with Scott Ian’s chugging riffs, soaring vocals from Joey Belladonna, and Benante’s jackhammer precision, with searing leads added by guitarist Jonathan Donais.
Listeners who’d expect the rest of the album to be a carbon copy of “You Gotta Believe” would be sorely mistaken. While heavy as hell, For All Kings touches on different sonic moods, from the melodic tones of “Breathing Lightning” to the industrial rattle of “Suzerain.”
It’s a diverse, ambitious record that works well when heard in its entirety.
“There’s so much going on in this record,” offered Bello. “The way it’s synchronized, I think each song is set up well for the next one.”
“It takes you on a ride, like a roller coaster,” he said.
A few weeks prior to meeting Bello, I phoned Benante, who said he was motivated to conjure a vintage Anthrax vibe during the early stages of writing For All Kings.
“The first three or four songs I had for this record were flat-out thrash, a throwback to the old days, and they needed to be written,” Benante explained. “I became possessed by my guitar. It was like my guitar was making me write these songs.”
Anthrax entered the studio with more than 20 new songs this time, almost twice as many as the group had written for previous records.
After penning the first few speed-laden tunes, the band chose to get adventurous.
“We wanted to explore different types of songs, and have this musical landscape that takes you somewhere from start to finish,” said Benante.
One new track the band is particularly proud of is “Blood Eagle Wings,” an eight-minute opus that is progressive-sounding for an Anthrax composition.
“I think that song is special in its own way,” Benante explained. “It makes the hair on my arms stand up.”
The tried-and-true Anthrax songwriting process is a three-pronged approach—Benante comes up with foundation riffs and ideas for the music, Bello writes the melodies, and Ian handles lyrics.
“It’s like making a cake,” said Bello. “Riffs come first, then melodies, and so on. You put the next layer on until you know it’s done.”
The trio works collaboratively to build songs until everyone in the band is satisfied.
“We’ve always had high standards,” stated Bello. “We’ve never put out anything that’s subpar.”
While laying down demo tracks, Bello will typically sing or “la la la” the base melody to serve as a guide for Belladonna when it comes time to record the song. Bello is skilled at tailoring melodies to the vocalist’s high range after working together for many years.
The bassist raved about Belladonna’s work on the latest record, and during Anthrax concerts in recent years.
“To me, Joey is a phenomenon,” said Bello. “He’s at the top of his game. He goes out and kills it every night. For my money, he’s singing better than ever. In fact, the whole band is playing better than ever.”
For All Kings marks the Anthrax recording debut for Donais, who joined the group in 2013 after nearly a decade shredding with Shadows Fall.
Benante, who worked closely with Donais in the studio to get the For All Kings leads just right, said that Anthrax’s latest axe man is a star in the making.
“I think Jon is probably one of the most underrated guitar players that exist at the moment,” Benante commented.
“The thing that I was trying to get across to him for this album was, make these guitar solos a song within a song,” the drummer said. “Put melody in it.”
Benante, as he does for all of Anthrax’s records, designed the For All Kings cover art, which was brought to life by artist Alex Ross.
Ross’ painting depicts the band members as giant king statues, being exalted by mysterious figures first seen on the cover of the band’s 2011 record Worship Music.
“The kings that I wanted to reference are everyday kings,” said Benante. “It could be Derek Jeter, Jimmy Page, your dad. Just so that people could equate it to a king in their life that helped them become the person that they are, and who they looked up to.”
For Benante, the new record’s elaborate cover harkened back to a different time was album art was meaningful, an exercise in escapism as music fans gazed at the packaging while absorbing the sounds within.
He recalled his own youth, when he would stare at Kiss album covers like Destroyer and Love Gun for seemingly hours on end.
“I would always joke that I would buy a Kiss album without a record inside of it,” laughed Benante. “I would buy it for the cover alone. Nobody creates album covers anymore that are pieces of art unto themselves.”
Lyrically, For All Kings focuses on many dark themes, including religious extremism. On “Evil Twin,” Belladona sings:
Ideology used as a weapon…
You represent your discontent
Slaughtering the innocent
You’re no martyrs
The words seem all the more poignant following the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, which included the massacre of 89 people at the Bataclan concert hall during an Eagles of Death Metal show.
The Anthrax members were rocked hard by that event.
“My initial thought was complete sadness, for what our world has become,” explained Benante.
“Complete sadness for those people who, a few hours prior to that, were the happiest people—leaving work, leaving school, going to see their favorite band. And then to have this happen to them was just sad,” Benante said. “There’s no reason for it.”
That such horrors could occur at a rock concert where innocent people are gathered to have a good time made a searing impression on the band.
“The reason why we do this is to make people forget about their troubles for a while,” remarked Bello. “You’re coming into this world that’s supposed to be safe.”
Anthrax, who performed in France just weeks prior to the attack, played at a Belgian club a few nights after the Bataclan siege. Since authorities were seeking suspects in Belgium, the terror alert was high for concerts in the area.
“Everybody was on edge,” said Bello.
“We had these security guards with huge guns and bomb-sniffing dogs come in for a meeting with the band,” the bassist recounted. “In case there was an incident, they took us through escape routes for the band and crew.”
During the show that evening, Bello found his mind wandering. Could another attack happen?
“That was the only night where I was looking into the crowd, wondering,” Bello said. “I had never done that before.”
“When I caught myself doing it, I was annoyed with myself,” stated Bello. “If fear takes over our minds, they win. I will not be intimidated.”
With the tensions of that day subsided, Bello is looking forward to getting back on the road—Anthrax will tour the U.S. with Lamb of God in January and February, then head to South America in March for a series of shows with Iron Maiden.
While Bello is champing at the bit to unleash the For All Kings songs in concert, he understands the challenge of devising a set list that balances new material with old classics.
With more than three decades of material to cull from, that’s easier said than done.
“You can’t please everybody,” said Bello. “I’d play every new song if I could, but people pay their money to hear those well-known Anthrax songs. There’s a happy balance somewhere, and we have to find that. It’s not just us; it’s every band. It’s a good problem to have.”
Bello credits the success of Worship Music with giving Anthrax a new lease on life.
“It’s been nonstop ever since,” said Bello. “We did over 300 shows on that tour, and we haven’t done that since the ’80s. There’s a buzz on Anthrax again.”
The group has relied on a lunch-pail mentality to survive, after getting little love from radio or MTV during its career.
“All that hard work of touring, that’s all we have made our reputation,” Bello stated. “Just work hard and good things happen. It’s a blue-collar attitude that drives this band.”
More than 30 years into Anthrax’s career, Bello sees no slowdown on the horizon.
“There’s a fire in the belly of this band,” he said. “This is the hungriest Anthrax has ever been.”
Anthrax will perform with Lamb of God at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City on January 23, and the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on January 26. They will also be doing in-store signings at Rough Trade in Brooklyn on January 25 and Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ on January 26.For All Kings will be released February 26 on Megaforce Records. For more information, go to anthrax.com.