Pioneering hip hop act Public Enemy mentioned thrash metal band Anthrax in its groundbreaking 1987 song “Bring the Noise.” The seemingly unlikely reference indicated that the members of Public Enemy considered Anthrax a similarly disruptive act bent on challenging established conventions in music.
Anthrax demonstrated that its sonically imposing attributes are still intact a quarter of a century later in an appearance Thursday at the Midland Theater. Even though a key member of the band was missing, Anthrax brought the noise to an audience of about 1,000.
The band headlined a four-hour concert characterized by jolting displays of extreme speed, alarming volume and rampant violence. The barbarous flailing in the mosh pit, reckless crowd surfing and foolhardy head-banging might have frightened the unconverted, but most in the audience seemed to find the chaos invigorating. Unfortunately, Scott Ian wasn’t on hand to instigate further mayhem. According to an announcement posted on the venue’s doors after the concert began, “an unexpected illness” prevented the most recognizable member of Anthrax from appearing.
“Thanks for bearing with us,” vocalist Joey Belladonna said as he explained Ian’s absence. “We’ll be as good as we can.”
Anthrax performed a handful of songs as a quartet, but most of the band’s 85-minute set featured additional musicians recruited from opening acts Testament and Death Angel in an effort to compensate for Ian’s absence. As instruments were swapped and musicians shuttled on and off the stage between selections, Anthrax’s performance resembled a freewheeling jam session. While it was a fascinating spectacle, the result was understandably sloppy. Even Belladonna, a typically brash frontman, became flustered.
“Who’s next?” he once asked. “I don’t even know who’s coming in and out.”
The difficult circumstances allowed Testament to outshine Anthrax. The fearsome set by the veteran thrash act was a study in contrasts. As hulking vocalist Chuck Billy bellowed ominously, svelte guitarist Alex Skolnick played with dazzling complexity. In a genre that doesn’t always prize such qualities, Skolnick’s work is nuanced and artful. His subtleties are especially remarkable given the blinding speed of most of Testament’s material. During “Into the Pit” the frenetic strobe lighting failed to keep pace with the song’s hypersonic tempo.
Speed was also the defining factor in the opening set of Death Angel. Its precisely synchronized pummeling impressed early arrivals. Those fans didn’t yet realize that they were about to witness a particularly odd evening in Anthrax’s remarkably loud career.