Retro-review: ‘Sound of White Noise’ by Anthrax

Back in the early 1990s, Anthrax, a cover band with a few original songs here and there, decided to hire a new singer and release an album of all original songs.

And man, it was a great album. One of the few that I can play in my head from start to end.

That album, Sound of White Noise, was released 25 years ago today and remains the creative high point of the band’s career before they embarked on what seemed to be a constantly uncertain future.

I say “uncertain” because the band would go without an official guitarist, suffer through poor sales and be dropped from their major record label over the course of the next decade of their existence.

Now, my metal friends back in the day, will probably disagree vehemently with me, but up until their 1990 album Persistence of Time, much of Anthrax’s original material sounded pretty much the same. Their songs would open with a really heavy and pounding intro, go into a speedy and crunchy verse and usually go back to the opening riff for the chorus. There’s nothing wrong with being formulaic, it’s what most metal bands do, but there was very little divergence in regards to the way songs sounded. Though, in many (if not most) metalheads’ opinions, that is just fine because they hate change of any sort.

Yep, I just said that metalheads are the Republicans of the music world.

Anyway, Anthrax decided to be more adventurous with P.O.T. and it resulted in a really good album. They introduced a lot more melody, added more variety to their songs and got more serious with their lyrics. The only weak spot, aside from the bass drums sounding like cardboard boxes, was singer Joey Belladonna’s performance.

The stories vary. At the time, the band said Belladonna didn’t contribute at all. Belladonna said he was never asked to contribute. Disagree with me, but on P.O.T. Belladonna sounded out of his depth and lacked that extra “umph” when it came to singing the lyrics.

At the time, it seemed the band agreed on this point and they ditched Belladonna, and recruited Armored Saint singer John Bush.

Bush was a whole different type of singer than Belladonna. Where Belladonna was clear and almost operatic at times, Bush was raspy and rough. Belladonna would usually sound the same in all his vocal performances. Bush would change his delivery from song to song. Belladonna could be dropped into a band like Journey and sound right in place, Bush was courted by Metallica at one point.

Which speaking of Metallica, their Black album kicked off a major change in the world of the Big Four thrash bands. Up until the Black album, thrash metal was much like classical music. By that, I mean the songs were often long, complicated and resulted in a loyal, albeit rather small, fanbase.

Metallica changed all that with the Black album, writing more-focused songs based around an handful of riffs with more focus on the delivery of the lyrics instead of multiple guitar solos and being heavier than thou.

And it worked. The Black album would become one of the most successful metal albums of all time, appealing not only to metal fans, but also nonmetal listeners.

Along with Nirvana’s Nevermind, the two albums pretty much killed the glam/hair metal that had been popular throughout the 1980s dead, like Raid being sprayed on cockroaches.

This left people wondering what Anthrax, along with Megadeth and Slayer, would do next.

Megadeth would follow the Metallica blueprint to great success of their own with Countdown to Extinction. Slayer, afraid of pissing off their fans, released an album that sounded like everything else they did. Anthrax chose to change altogether, though, you could say that change was a natural and necessary evolution.

With the Sound of White Noise, Anthrax tightened up their songs, much like Metallica did, basing them around a few strong riffs. They incorporated more melody and put more emphasis on tone. They even experimented more, writing a near-power ballad.

Sound of White Noise was a resounding success, becoming the best-selling Anthrax album to that point, achieving the highest chart position that the band ever reached (№7 on Billboard), despite many fans crossing their arms and complaining about it being “grunge” (which I never understood), selling out or just sucking.

Like I said, metalheads.

Anyway, the lineup for Sound of White Noise is, of course, Bush on vocals, Scott Ian on rhythm guitars and backing vocals, Charlie Benante on drums, Frank Bell on bass guitar and backing vocals, and Dan Spitz, making his last appearance as lead guitarist.

The album

Sound of White Noise begins with, well, white noise, that sound that accompanies that snow on TV when a channel refuses to come in. At least back in analog days. Soon, Ian joins in with an “AHHHHHH” and a distant sounding percussion lays down a beat of sort. This all culminates with the first beats of “Potter’s Field” which rips right into you. “Potter’s Field” is one of the best tracks to kick off a metal album. It’s fast, relentless and it sucks you in with its memorable chorus.

“Potter’s Field” then gives way to “Only,” which everyone already knows was called a “perfect song” by James Hetfield of Metallica. It’s also the first single from the album, which introduced the world to the new Anthrax. “Only” is not only a great song, but it’s also unique, with nothing by Anthrax before or since really matching its melody, tone or sound. It’s the song from this album I’d most recommend to anyone who says heavy metal isn’t art.

After those two, it’s a matter of taste on what you as a listener likes, dislikes or keeps coming back to. Anthrax pulled out all the stops for this album and unlike what came before, there’s no cover songs and they manage to make every song stand on its own. Sound of White Noise is an album by a band trying to drive home a message — that the days of shorts and comics are in the past — and make a lasting impression on the listener. They manage to do both with resounding success.

There’s several great songs on this album and none of it really sounds like filler. I’m going to mainly talk about my personal favorites and a couple of others though.

For myself, my next favorite song chronologically as the album goes on is “Packaged Rebellion.” Back then, it was directed at people who bought things like Malcom X and peace sign T-shirts without caring about what the message of each actually meant. In the age of Hot Topic and Walmart, it seems to be even more relevant as the messages on T-shirts become more devoid of meaning, more fleeting and more mass-produced.

1000 Points of Hate” is another one that has some sentimental meaning to me. It’s one of the more aggressive songs on the album, nearly matching “Potter’s Field.” For me, it lyrically sums up the emotions at the base of hate and anger. Bush and Ian mesh well here, with Bush being the ego, Ian being the superego and the music being the Id. Well, maybe both Bush and Ian are the superego.

After “1000 Points of Hate,” things cool off with “Black Lodge.”

“Black Lodge” is Anthrax’s first slow, almost power ballad, song in which they take the song seriously. It’s here you can really hear the difference Bush has made with the band. They’re experimenting, treading new territory and wanting to be taken seriously as mature songwriters. Aside from “Only” it’s probably the nearest thing to a so-called “perfect song” on the album. It’s moving, it’s haunting and it sticks with you.

Burst” is exactly how it sounds. It is the penultimate song on the album and sort of gets that last burst of aggression out before going into the mid-paced grind of “This is Not an Exit.” It’s hard to separate those two songs as they compliment each other very well, kind of like “Potter’s Field” and “Only” at the beginning. I’d say these two stand out together for bringing a great close to the album.

Before I wrap up the album itself, I will have to mention “Hy Pro Glo,” which seems to be everybody’s favorite song on the album except for me. I think it’s a good song, but I never got Riki Rachtman or my fellow metalheads’ declaration of this being their favorite.

But, that difference of opinion shows how much diversity this album has. With virtually no filler, many people will pick different songs because it offers a wide variety in speaking to them. The variety is an accomplishment in itself, especially when you consider that the songs on the album flow exceptionally well together.

Also, there’s one song that was recorded for this album that didn’t make the cut. That song is “Poison My Eyes” which wound up on the Last Action Hero Soundtrack. It’s an awesome song, the Anthrax equivalent of Faith No More’s “Cowboy Song” or “Absolute Zero.” Despite being one of the best Anthrax songs of John Bush’s tenure, it would be hard to place on the Sound of White Noise because it doesn’t seem like it’d flow well with the rest of the songs. On its own, it’s probably one of the best metal songs you’ll hear.

The album sounds great, with the individual parts coming in clear, especially Spitz’s leads and solos. Even Benante’s bass drums sound great in that you can feel as well as hear them.

The verdict

After a quarter of a century Sound of White Noise still holds strong. It’s still my favorite Anthrax album and I hold it near and dear to my heart. Upon hearing it, it’s amazing that the band didn’t go on to greater success, but the mid-1990s was a terrible time for metal. It was during that point that thrash essentially died, with all but the most prominent names continuing to survive. The genre has never made a come back either.

Anyway, I definitely recommend taking your hard-earned money and buying Sound of White Noise. It’s one of the best metal albums of the 1990s and what it might lack in influence, it makes up for with being a memorable and powerful listen.

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