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30 Years Ago: Anthrax Make Thrash Metal History With ‘Among the Living’

Island Records
Island Records

After Anthrax finished touring for their second album – their first with vocalist Joey Belladonna – the band was on fire. They had just experienced their first taste of mainstream exposure and had even played eight shows as the opening band on a bill with Black Sabbath on their ill-fated “Seventh Star” tour. While they were on the road, Anthrax wrote several new songs, including “I Am the Law” and “Indians” and they couldn’t wait to get into the studio to record them for what is now widely regarded as one of the best thrash metal albums of all time, Among the Living, which came out March 22, 1987.

“We were on a roll in every way,” guitarist Scott Ian told me in 2005. “It really felt like we were being guided by the power of metal and it was out of our hands. Satan was channeling his will through us and we couldn’t help but succeed.”

There are several ways Anthrax captured lighting on Among the Living. The songs they wrote in their New York practice space, like “Caught in a Mosh,” “Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.)” “A Skeleton in the Closet” and “Imitation of Life” contained infectious, razor-edged riffs as well as frantic thrash beats and barreling double-bass drums. Then there were mid-paced stompers, including “I am the Law” and “Indians” and “One World.” And finally, the band crafted “A.D.I./Horror of it All,” a touching tribute to late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton, who died in a bus accident in Ljungby, Sweden while the two bands were touring Europe together. The track begins with an elegiac acoustic passage and builds into a chugging mosh riff, ending with a flailing guitar solo and a storm of hardcore beats.

“Part of the reason that song and the rest of the album sounds so angry is because Cliff died,” Ian told me in 2012 during an interview for his book I’m the Man: the Story of That Guy From Anthrax. “We’d lost our friend and it was so wrong and unfair. Yeah, we were pissed.”

Lyrically, Among the Living addressed a mix of real and fictional subjects. Ian wrote “Caught in a Mosh” after one of the band’s tech’s got pulled into a roiling mosh pit against his will. “Indians” is about the plight of the American Indians forced to live on reservations and “One World” is about the threat of nuclear war. Elsewhere Ian penned songs based on tales by the U.K. comic book superhero Judge Dredd (“I Am the Law”) and Stephen King (“Skeleton in the Closet” is about the short story “Apt Pupil” and the title track was inspired by the novel The Stand).

“I was so into, Stephen King, especially The Stand,” Ian said. “It was such a big part of my life. Most of my world at that time was either horror books or movies and comic books.”

After they finished writing the songs, Anthrax flew to Quadradial Studios in Miami, Florida to track Among the Living with legendary producer Eddie Kramer, who had previously worked with Led Zeppelin and KISS among others. They recorded quickly and performed with urgency and enthusiasm. Belladonna’s vocals were raging, but flush with melody and the songs sounded raw, fierce and explosive.

“I can safely say we knew who we were, and we certainly knew what we wanted to be, and we knew what we were capable of,” Ian said. “We were all completely stoked because we were making our third album, and things had only gotten bigger, and the buzz on the band was awesome. We felt the wave around us, we had caught a perfect wave and we were in the tube and it just never ended. The planets were aligned. It was the right songs at the right time.”

By the time Anthrax finished tracking the album they were convinced they had created their pièce de résistance. They recorded much of the record live in the studio and at the time, the chemistry between, Ian, guitarist Danny Spitz, bassist Frank Bello and drummer Charlie Benante was undeniable.

“We always felt like when we were in a room rehearsing, we were at our best,” Ian said. “So to be able to record this album in what was basically a live environment was amazing. We were in our element. We were killing it and we had all the confidence in the world.”

When Anthrax finished recording the album, Kramer told them to take off for a few hours while he worked on the mix. At the time, Anthrax thought they were on the same page as Kramer when it came to the brutal sound they wanted from the record. However, Kramer had something else in mind.

“At the time, the biggest record in the world was Def Leppard’s Pyromania, and he really wanted to make a modern sounding metal album like that, which was the antithesis of what we were,” Ian recalled. “The first mix he did, I remember all of us coming into the room and listening to it and being like ‘Oh, my God, what is he doing?’ Everything was giant reverbs and just completely blown out, and we were like, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ We want everything dry, everything raw. Everything in your face.”

At first Kramer tried to pull rank, but Anthrax held their ground. “Eddie and I actually got into a screaming fight over the direction of the mix,” Ian said. “His attitude was, ‘You need to be modern and on the cusp, using all the technology at your disposal,’ and we were like, ‘F— that. We want it to sound like this record was made in 1977.’ It took lots of scratching and clawing and I finally had to say, ‘Look this is an Anthrax record. It’s not an Eddie Kramer record. You get to move on and do 100 more albums. This could be the last thing we ever do. It’s our album and our way and that’s all there is to it.’ In the end, he basically just turned off every f—ing reverb in the room and we were like, ‘Okay, that’s more like it.’”

Having completed his work on the album, Kramer went home and Anthrax flew to Nassau, Bahamas to work with Chris Blackwell at Compass Point Studios on the final mix. Fortunately, Blackwell understood the sound the band was going for and kept the record sounding crunchy and confrontational.

“It came out so great,” Ian said. “When you listen to that record, it has such a rawness and such an attitude to it. I can’t believe I had the nerve to stand up to one of our idols, Eddie Kramer, but if I hadn’t done that the album would have been totally ruined. And if we had out an album like Pyromania, that would have been the end of our career. We knew that, and made the record we wanted to make, and you f—in’ hear it when you listen to the album. It rips your head off.”

Among the Living entered the Billboard album chart at No. 62 and gained Anthrax the admiration of thrash diehards and attracted a new crowd captivated by the mix of catchy, melodic vocals and ferocious rhythms.

“When we finished the headlining run of Among the Living, in those four years, we went from being basically a complete unknown to selling out places that held 6,000 or 7,000 people, and even bigger in some markets,” Ian marveled. “We had no idea how it happened because we never once stopped to think about it, it was just always, ‘Go, go, go, go, go.’ Album, tour, album, tour. But at the same time we were working our asses off, everything we did was amazingly fun.”

Among the Living sold steadily through the years and on July 31,1990 the album was certified gold. In 2005, Anthrax reunited their Among the Living lineup, bringing Belladonna and Spitz back into the fold. During the world tour that followed they performed numerous cuts from the album live and performed the record front-to-back at some shows. Unfortunately, the decision to tour with Belladonna caused a rift with singer John Bush, who had replaced Belladonna in 1992. After the tour, which was fraught with tension, Spitz left the band, seemingly for good.

On Nov. 10, 2009, Anthrax released a remixed deluxe version of Among the Living, which included bonus alternate takes, live performances and the B-side from the “I Am the Law” single, “Bud E Luv Bomb And Satan’s Lounge Band.” The package also included a bonus concert DVD.

“It originally came out on VHS and was called ‘Nice F—in’ Video,’” Ian said. “It was our first big headline performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in London from December 1987 and it has been out of print forever. But it was never released on DVD because we could never convince Island to put it out. So I just went, ‘Well, why not put this on DVD and add it to the package?’ People have been waiting for this forever.”

While many Among the Living songs have been a major part of Anthrax’s set since the album was released, the band performed the full album again on during the “Metal Alliance” 2013 tour. And the band is currently celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album by playing it in its entirety.

“We have a killer set planned — new stuff, old faves, deep tracks and Among front-to-back said Ian in a statement. “You’d better start getting in shape now for the epic wardance! See you soon my friends.”

Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the primary author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen.

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