Anthrax, not the biological weapon but the pioneering thrash metal band, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2011. Guitarist Scott Ian, who founded the group with bassist Danny Lilker in New York, easily ranks last year in the top 10.
"It was a really good year," he says with a chuckle during a recent phone interview.
The reasons are many, starting with the release of their 10th studio album, Worship Music. It's Anthrax's first new material in eight years and marks their reunion with singer Joey Belladonna, who performed on their classic '80s releases and hadn't recorded with the band since 1990's Persistence of Time - not counting 1991's Attack of the Killer B's EP.
Much of the set sounds like the band's savage melodicism of yore. And while John Bush, Belladonna's replacement, was a powerful vocalist in his own right, followers have clamored for new Belladonna-led songs since Anthrax (rounded out by drummer Charlie Benante, bassist Frank Bello, and guitarist Rob Caggiano) toured with him as far back as 2005.
Belladonna didn't commit initially, however, leading to a back-and-forth between him and Bush (and another singer, Dan Parker, who mysteriously left after performing with the band from 2007-09). Ian can't say if it was a case of something finally convincing Belladonna to rejoin the fold permanently. He says everyone sat down as a band and discussed whether or not to go forward. They agreed if they stayed together, they wanted new material and not to just tour behind the old music.
"Everybody agreed it was what everybody wanted to do," Ian says.
So far fans seem to be on board with that decision. Worship Music has enjoyed near-universal critical acclaim, and Ian says fan response to the new songs they've played on tour has been the same.
"It's the opposite of the usual, when a band breaks into a new song and people go for a beer," he says. "For us it's been the opposite. I feel like people leave for a [bathroom] break when we play something they've probably heard us do 20 times. People have really taken to this record."
Performing with fellow thrash luminaries Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth at Yankee Stadium over the summer also made 2011 a memorable year for Ian (becoming a father helped too). Collectively known as "The Big Four" of thrash metal, Ian has repeatedly stated the reason for the bands' staying power in a mercurial musical landscape: "We're all really good at what we do."
Though Metallica went through a bit of an eyeliner phase and Megadeth embraced MTV a bit too closely, The Big Four have done a good job of not neglecting their roots while still branching out. Ian was adamant his group had nothing to do with glam metal acts like Motley Crue and Poison, even as they began to eclipse groups like Anthrax. What Anthrax was doing, Ian says, was much more valid.
"At the time, that was said from a much more defensive posture," he says. "Now I can say it because it's true."
During those youthful days, though, the members of Anthrax were too busy doing what they were doing to worry or even realize they were at the forefront of a musical evolution.
"I find with anything in life, when you're in the middle of something you're not really paying attention to the ripple effect that it's causing," Ian says. "Twenty years later maybe you can put things into context. But at the time, we had no idea."
They had the same mindset, really, in the eight years between new albums. Despite the vocalist carousel that was endured, Ian was never truly concerned that Anthrax would disband.
"We were pretty much working nonstop that whole time," he says. "Most of that time we were on tour. I never really had any fear that the band wasn't going to be able to continue in some way, shape or form. It was just a case of figuring how to continue in the best possible way, and that was with Joey."
For now the drama seems confined to the stage, which Anthrax plans to be on for the rest of this year.
"Everybody's in a good place right now," Ian says. "It's all we ever want to do, is just work. We just want to be a band. Right now we're being afforded that opportunity again."
There are currently no predictions when the next album will drop.
"I think I can safely say our next record will be out sooner than eight years from now," Ian says.
Anthrax will play at the Egyptian Room on Friday, January 27.