|Anthrax/The Raven Age – Birmingham, O2 Institute – 9 February 2017|
|Written by Rich Hobson|
|Friday, 10 February 2017 20:48|
It can’t be easy being The Raven Age tonight. Right now, they are a band of ‘firsts’. This is the ‘first’ night of their stint as the opening act for Anthrax’s ‘Among the Kings’ tour. They are the ‘first’ (and only) support band to play each night for the next month. And they haven’t even got their ‘first’ album out yet. It doesn’t seem to faze them all that much though and, despite the fact that the fans are still steadily piling into the venue as they play, the band do their damndest to get everyone into the right spirits.
The one thing that isn’t a ‘first’ for The Raven Age is supporting a band recognised as a hero of the genre, having previously played with Iron Maiden for their Book of Souls World Tour in 2016. This time though, papa-bear Harris isn’t there to give someone a swift kick up the arse should they decide to give the band trouble. Thankfully, that’s not a problem; the room rapidly fills as the band blast through their set (culled from their 2014 self-titled EP and upcoming album). Far from the thrash metal fans’ reputation for indifference or outright hostility towards opening bands, The Raven Age seem to be winning people over.
Despite the familial ties to Iron Maiden (guitarist George is the son of Steve Harris), the music of The Raven Age is tied more to the modern metal landscape, the band sharing as much sonic similarity with Maiden as a band like Bullet For My Valentine, or Trivium. The more melodic elements of Trivium and Five Finger Death Punch offer the best comparisons to The Raven Age’s sound. The band draw on the epic guitar-work and instrumentals of classic-era metal, whilst also infusing it with some of the modern genre’s penchant for big choruses, for a crowd-friendly package that gets heads banging. With little in the way of released material, there’s not much chance of a sing-along during their set, but the elements are certainly there for the future.
“Future” is a particularly effective word when describing The Raven Age. The band playing tonight are already getting their first ins to the metal world, learning from the genre’s biggest and best. Right now, they are able to communicate with a crowd, but not necessarily capture them. Their songs sound strong, but not essential. But, the same could be said of Avenged Sevenfold in their early days. Or Trivium. Or Iron Maiden... everyone starts somewhere. What the crowd gets tonight with The Raven Age is a band refining themselves right in front of our eyes. As it stands, there is a long road ahead of this band before they can take up a prominent place on the metal scene. Luckily, they’re getting the experience they need and might just be winning the fans that can get them there.
As one of the ‘big four’ of thrash metal, you’d expect a show like this to be as natural as breathing for Anthrax. You wouldn’t be wrong. From the opening snarl of guitar to ‘A.I.R.’, Anthrax have the room heaving with excitement. Guitarists Scott Ian and Jonathon Donais gurn, snarl and howl with every lick as they stride around the stage. Bassist Frank Bello bangs his head so frantically you can’t help but wonder if he even remembers the 80s. Drummer Charlie Benante sends clattering scattershots out into the room as he machine-guns his kit to death. And Joey Belladonna is Joey. Fucking. Belladonna. Grinning, snarling, howling, singing – Joey does the lot, often several times within the same song. It doesn’t matter where you stand or what you do, Belladonna is performing just for you.
The crowd hasn’t even had chance to digest ‘A.I.R.’ when the tumbling riff to ‘Madhouse’ starts.
“Iiiit’s a madhouse!”
The crowd roars and the band are infused with napalm; getting harder and faster the louder their audience get. Two songs in and already crowd-surfers are flying overhead, landing in the photographers’ pit. Joey can’t get enough – he grabs the hand of every single one that he can reach as they are ushered away by security.
It’s not just the classics that provoke a reaction though. ‘Evil Twin’ marks the first track from the band’s latest record (‘For All Kings’) to get the live treatment. The songs have only gotten bigger and more authoritative; Joey’s vocal less now the yelp of a young man as powerful intonation that would do Ronnie James Dio proud. Riffs chug and gallop and the crowd respond in kind, bouncing around like the last thirty years haven’t taken their toll (and, for many members of the crowd – myself included – they haven’t!).
Just eight songs long, the first set nonetheless feels like an epic and commemorative moment for the band. By mixing in some miscellaneous classics with newer material, the band prove to be the very best support band they could ever ask for. The crowd are frenzied and in their eyes, Anthrax can do no wrong. Closing their first set of the night on ‘Be All, End All’ (from the band’s 1988 album ‘State of Euphoria’), the band have built the crowd up to fever pitch for tonight’s main attraction – the 1987 thrash metal classic ‘Among The Living’, played in full.
‘Among The Living’’s status as one of the greatest thrash metal releases of all time is up for no discussion. On strength of songs alone, the album spawned more than half of the classics in the Anthrax live repertoire. ‘Among The Living’, ‘Caught In A Mosh’, ‘I Am The Law’ and then ‘Efilnikufesin (N.F.L.)’ stands as one of the greatest running orders of a track-listing, ever. Live? Aw man! The guitar sound that chimes in the album’s title track sounds every bit as menacing and devious as it did in 1987. Once the riff to ‘Caught In A Mosh’ takes hold, it’s like having a demon jackhammer the back of your neck as you hammer your skull along to the beat.
Anthrax cottoned on much earlier than their contemporaries that thrash metal was at its best when the riffs left you wanting to bounce until your knees gave way. This was metal you could dance to, lyrics that insisted you howl along, riffs that made you want to strangle a guitar. ‘I Am The Law’ is the epitome of this, the room erupting with moshers, bouncers, headbangers and a ubiquitous roar:
“I AM THE LAW!”.
No fan in the room tonight doesn’t know what’s coming next and even as the final notes ring out for ‘I Am The Law’, the next chant is building up. ‘NFL! NFL! NFL!’ – “Efilnikufusen” might not be the easiest thing to chant, but the track’s bracketed addition is prime roaring material.
Of the ‘big four’, Anthrax always did seem like the band having the most fun, even when their lyrics covered topics as dark as fascism or insanity. In turn, their fans tonight return that sense of fun tenfold, participating in every chant, shout and bounce that they can get into. A glance over to the mosh pits for ‘Indians’ sees a single colourful figure bouncing along in a colourful Amerindian-chief style headdress, amidst a sea of black, clearly having the time of his life.
Clearly, he’s not the only one. For all of the crowd’s enjoyment of the show, the band seem to enjoying it infinitely more. They beam constantly throughout the show and take every opportunity they can to play up as the ringmasters of mayhem. ‘Among The Living’ still sounds every bit as vibrant and exciting as it did upon release in 1987, anti-war lyrics like those of ‘Indians’ feeling all the more poignant in 2017 as they did back then. Playing past the usual 11pm curfew, the band return to the stage after finishing ‘Among The Living’ for a last one-two sucker-punch for the crowd.
Charlie Benante introduces the track’s iconic beat and suddenly, things are getting even better. Blasting out a live iteration of the band’s brilliant pseudo-Beastie Boys track ‘I’m The Man’, Scott Ian revels a moment as he takes up vocal duties.
“Watch the Beat!”
Finishing on their cover of the Trust song ‘Anti-Social’, the band give one last blast of pure energy thrash-metal-cum-rock-n-roll, a final affirmation that this show is all the evidence needed to prove themselves as kings of the metal scene. Anthrax have been around a lot in the past eleven years since Joey Belladonna first got back with the band. They have played clubs, supported bands like Motorhead, played festivals and even sub-headlined Bloodstock 2016. On a personal level, I’ve seen the band five times over that span – none of those shows holds a candle to the performance of Anthrax in a room full of their own rabid fans.
Metallica etched out a space for themselves fairly early on, finding themselves most at home surrounded by a sea of faces in venues like Wembley Stadium. Slayer and Megadeth’s careers haven’t been nearly so neat and linear, each band finding different homes at different times throughout their careers. For Anthrax, give them a respectable music venue and a couple thousand excited fans, then watch the magic happen.
Anthrax’s ‘Among The Kings’ tour continues:
Photographs by the author.
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