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The band -- not the spores

Anthrax soldiers on, name intact

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Most bands spend the better part of their careers working toward household-name recognition. But when Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian chose his fledgling group's moniker from a biology class term that sounded "cool and aggressive," he couldn't have known that one day it might not be so cool.

"Before Sept. 11, the only thing scary about us was our bad hair in the '80s," the band said in a press release shortly after Americans started receiving strange white powder in envelopes. But despite initial rumors that the band might change its moniker to Basket Full of Puppies, Anthrax will remain Anthrax, as they have for more than two decades.

"I've been talking to a lot of police and firemen in New York City lately," says Ian. "These are the guys who are out there at Ground Zero working these insane 16-hour days. And hearing their stories, and how putting our music on in their cars helped them get through their day -- it means a lot to me. Even the cops have said, 'Don't you dare change your name.'"

That settled, Anthrax can now blast across the country on rescheduled dates with Judas Priest on the Operation: Enduring Metal tour. "We're looking forward to getting out there and having fun," Ian says. "I mean, why should we change our lives because of terrorism? If we do, they've won. Fuck that!"

Formed in 1981, Anthrax pioneered the speed metal genre along with the likes of Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Exodus. With its double-time bass, machine-gun drums and chugging guitar, the music was louder and more intense than anything that came before.

After recording essential speed classics like Armed and Dangerous, Spreading the Disease and Among the Living, the band branched out with more complex and melodic material on State of Euphoria and Persistence of Time (featuring a wicked cover of Joe Jackson's "Got the Time"). And while some fans balked as they moved away from pure speed (and its cousin, thrash), Ian has never had any desire to record Among the Living again and again. "If we did that, we wouldn't be making records anymore," he says.

Anthrax thrives on its goofy sense of humor. After discussing Kierkegaard with Queensryche, one could always drink beer and watch Spider-Man cartoons with Anthrax. The band was also one of the first groups to mix rap and rock in the cult favorite "I'm the Man" and the groundbreaking Public Enemy collaboration "Bring the Noise."

"Back then, none of the metal bands got rap, or understood how we could love it," says Ian, adding that the appearance of N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton began to change some minds. "Metal bands got it then because it was trendy and violent. And they cursed a lot."

The rap-rock hybrid is the dominant musical trend these days. But Father Ian wants nothing to do with his musical progeny. "The only band that got it right [was] Rage Against the Machine, and they put their own sound on it. Everyone else is just a poor version."

The '90s saw a litany of label switches and lineup changes for Anthrax, including the exit of lead singer Joey Belladonna, who was replaced by ex-Armored Saint wailer John Bush. Albums like Stomp 442 and Sound of White Noise (both recently reissued with bonus tracks) were hit-and-miss. But the excellent retrospective compilation Return of the Killer A's brought new appreciation and listeners. The current Anthrax lineup includes original members Ian and drummer Charlie Benante, longtime bassist Frank Bello, and Bush. Tour guitarist Rob Caggiano fills out the current stage show.

After its latest dates, Anthrax will continue work on a new studio album. And they'll record their Chicago date and combine it with other material for their first live effort, Maximus Metalus Livus. Though the national anthrax frenzy has subsided, the band has "temporarily" changed the name of its website from www.anthrax.com to www.anthrax theband.com. Seems the server was crashing from so many people logging on for information about the disease.

Despite the band's huge presence on the Web, Ian says he doesn't understand cyber compulsiveness. Fans are more likely to come across Ian in the mosh pit at a Slayer show than staring at a monitor at some Internet cafe. In fact, Slayer is the only group for whom he'll still wade into the belly of the beast.

"I really do go into the pit for them. I get recognized and have to shake some hands, but people are stoked to see me actually in there," Ian laughs. "It's something I've always done. I wish there were more bands I could get into that heavily."

When asked if some moshers -- perhaps seeing a golden opportunity to take down a celebrity -- go extra rough on his diminutive frame, he thinks for a moment.

"Nah. There were assholes like that back in the '80s, but it doesn't happen anymore," Ian says. "People are cool."

Anthrax opens for Judas Priest Mon., Feb. 4, at the DeKalb Atlanta Centre, 4166 Buford Highway. Show time is 8 p.m. $29.50. 404-249-6400. www.tickmaster.com.

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