The usual mosh pit at an Anthrax show is ramping up its cyclonic fury in anticipation of the raging, gritty sonic back-alley brawls Scott Ian and company are about to start. Perhaps they’ll launch into “Madhouse” or “Indians” next or any of the other blazing thrash-metal classics they have at their disposal. And then, those crashing bodies in riotous motion come to a sudden and complete halt, the reason being that Anthrax has just launched into a Journey cover of all things.

Quizzical looks are directed at the stage, as Journey’s “Keep on Runnin’” flies out of their Marshall Stacks. Is that Joey Belladonna singing or Steve Perry? It could be either of them; it really could, as Belladonna’s wail climbs to heights few can reach. Those who’ve heard Anthems, the new eight-song EP of classic-rock covers and two versions of the epic, slow-burning “Crawl,” off their sensational Worship Music album, would be prepared in case of such an event and not be thrown by it.

Like a raging bull that sees nothing but red, Worship Music bucked and contorted its massive, muscular bulk in such a way as to make it almost impossible to ride. Arguably the best metal album of this century, the last record from New York City’s most aggressive thrash-metal street gang was a relentless attack from beginning to end. The hurricane-like intensity, the dizzying dynamics, the simmering tension and high drama, not to mention the impassioned vocals of the prodigal son Belladonna – all of this nuclear energy was barely contained within the reactor known as Worship Music, until it melted down so spectacularly in 2011.

Considering how powerful and ferocious Worship Music was, and what unexpectedly strong melodies and what bold, high-impact production it had, Anthrax has earned the right to a fun indulgence like Anthems. Unexpectedly, Anthrax plays it straight on Anthems, with vigorous workouts of Rush’s “Anthem,” Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” and a crawling prowl through AC/DC’s “T.N.T” not deviating much from the originals; yet, in typically enthusiastic fashion, they inject each with fresh energy and lively performances. And their playing is more impassioned on “Keep on Runnin’” and Boston’s “Smokin’” – which has a particularly rowdy atmosphere – than on any of the others, as the pulse of both covers absolutely races.

Clearly, they cherish these songs, and they’re so respectful of them that they don’t take any unnecessary chances in handling these treasures. It is surprising, though, how they treat these Anthems with kid gloves and avoid giving them a good thrashing. Ultimately, what Anthems proves is that, if they wanted, they could simply be a great no-frills hard-rock band, especially with Belladonna on the mic. His vocals are astonishingly clear and melodic, fitting the material like a glove. And if Geddy Lee ever chooses to relinquish his singing duties with Rush, Belladonna could step right in and the Canadians wouldn’t miss a beat, as evidenced by his piercing treatment of “Anthem” from 2112.

Why Anthrax chose to give the expansive, chugging epic “Crawl,” one of the heaviest songs off Worship Music, a makeover is anyone’s guess. Taking a stab at a remixed version, Anthrax fleshes out “Crawl” with strings, giving it a darker, moodier and more menacing atmosphere, and the thicker, heavier groove they give to “Big Eyes” by Cheap Trick improves the original. Undoubtedly a labor of love for Anthrax, Anthems does no harm to the songs of their heroes. Could they have made less obvious choices? Maybe, but then, this is what Anthrax wanted, and had they picked deeper cuts, that pure joy and unabashed eagerness so prevalent here might be tempered. And that would be a shame.

Label: Megaforce (the CD format can be obtained here)