I saw Anvil play to 15 people in Kansas City last year at the Riot Room. I heard about it as if by accident — The Well bassist Lisa Alley told me Anvil was playing a block away from their in-store performance — and booked it over to see one of the greatest cult metal acts of all time and the most underrated thrash band of the ’80s. Years removed from the 2008 documentary that revived their career, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, only a handful of diehard fans were in attendance, half of them wearing Anvil shirts.
The band could have mailed it in for 15 people — but not Anvil. Steve “Lips” Kudlow grabbed his shining red guitar and Robb Reiner took his seat behind a massive set of custom drums. An overwhelming noise consumed the venue. The double bass fired off in a rapid, successive drone. Lips wandered off the stage and into the crowd, right in front of me, shredding his ass off and wearing a huge grin the whole time. There was even a vibrator solo. We all gathered round in awe.
It stands as one of the best sets I’ve ever seen, and I’m glad to report that their 12th studio album, Anvil Is Anvil, evokes all the same enthusiasm. Recorded by U.D.O. producer Martin “Mattes” Pfeiffer, the record is true to its title. There are no tricks or gimmick. It’s thrashy rock ‘n’ roll as Anvil has played it for years. But it’s Lips’ personality and humor that keeps this fresh and relevant.
There are a handful of songs on Anvil Is Anvil that stand out for their blatant political messages: “Gun Control” (a staunchly anti-gun anthem), “Die For a Lie” (a takedown of religious zealotry and facism), and “Forgive Don’t Forget” (a tribute from Lips, who is Jewish, to the country of Germany, where the album was recorded). Thrash, like the hardcore punk that informed it, has always been about calling out corruption in society and government. The Big Four and other mainstream thrash bands seem less interested in this form of music as watchdog, but what those bands are forgetting is that lyrics about corruption make for damn good metal lyrics. Lips knows this and works memorable and pointed phrases into many of these songs. “Protect the constitution, another 21 die,” he deadpans to a Sabbath-style riff on “Gun Control”. On the campy “Zombie Apocalypse”, he warns of a nuclear future provoked by atomic war: “Weapons of mass destruction may one day be employed/ The human race is poisoned as chemical warfare’s deployed.”
Reiner is one of the most gifted drummers in metal history, and everything on Anvil Is Anvil is tightly arranged around him. This is as spry and vibrant as anything the band’s recorded since This Is Thirteen, if not more so. There are a few duds in the mix, mostly suffering from forgettable song structures and weaker lyrics (“Runaway Train”, “It’s Your Move”, “Run Like Hell”). But even still, these tracks are never jarring or annoying, only passable. Anvil has a knack for keeping your ear on this album, and rightly so as it features some of the strongest musical moments of Anvil’s late career. “Ambushed” is that rare and fleeting moment on an Anvil album where Reiner and Lips let loose and play as heavy as they possibly can; meanwhile “Zombie Apocalypse” combines a psych riff with a chorus that actually sounds like a sing-a-long for the undead: “Zombie, zombie, zombie apocalypse.”
Instead of worshipping the past, Anvil updated their vintage sound and made a thrash metal album that’s of its time rather than stubbornly anachronistic. It manages to entertain and educate, a rare combo in metal. Of course, Anvil is a rare band. On bonus track “Never Going to Stop”, Lips rhymes “playing music loud” with feeling “proud,” and that’s really what separates Anvil.
The night that Anvil played the Riot Room, they made it feel like it was Madison Square Garden. This band missed out on fame and fortune in the ’80s when all their contemporaries blew up. They’ve done the 15-person show thing many times, but Lips and Reiner love what they do so much that, even on a bad night door-wise, they can play with unbridled enthusiasm and warmth for the few people who are there. (Lips even thanked the promoter, who deserved less.) In spite of everything Lips and Reiner have endured as friends and bandmates, they take pride in what they do — and they love every second of it. As its title suggest, Anvil Is Anvil highlights that.
Essential Tracks: “Gun Control”, “Forgive Don’t Forget”