The band Anthrax might be remembered less for its thrash-metal music and more for its choice of name. When letters containing the anthrax bacterium were sent to several news media offices in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, the group publicly debated changing its name to avoid the association with the deadly bioterrorist event. The band ultimately decided to keep the name Anthrax, but it never regained the same musical impact it had during the 1980s and early 1990s.
That period in Anthrax's early history is commemorated on "Anthrology," which compiles songs from the band's four albums (and a smattering of EPs) released on Island Records between 1985 and 1991. Unfortunately, taken out of the context of other similar bands of the era (Megadeth, Slayer, Metallica), Anthrax's aggressive speed metal and the shrill vocals of Joey Belladonna sound more like a parody of '80s metal than the forefront of the scene. The vocal calisthenics on 1985's "Armed and Dangerous" (from "Spreading the Disease") sound like an accelerated Journey ballad, while "Who Cares Wins" (from 1988's "State of Euphoria") trudges through nearly eight minutes of slushy, pounding riffs and unconvincing yelps.
But elsewhere on this two-disc set, Anthrax shows its cutting edge -- and its sense of humor. "I'm the Man" (originally released in 1987) blends rap and metal in a boisterous display of hilarity and self-awareness ("For a heavy metal band raps a different way/We like to be different and not cliche!"). And no collection from this era would be complete without "Bring Tha Noize," Anthrax's 1991 collaboration with Public Enemy, which cross-pollinated the groups' fans, paving the way for a co-headlining tour later that year -- and for the rap-metal fusion of such later bands as Limp Bizkit.
Last year, the classic Anthrax lineup reunited, a 20th anniversary gesture whose satisfying results are immediately evident on "Alive 2," which comes as a 12-track CD and a 13-track-plus-documentary DVD. Recorded in June in New Jersey -- a home game, if you will -- "Alive 2" even dips into the pre-Belladonna daze with "Deathrider." Mostly, these live versions of songs, all featured on "Anthrology," confirm that rage and roll is a dish best served live.
-- Catherine P. Lewis