The Italians’ enthusiasm probably had less to do with a paisan in the drum chair than it does with the fact that they were witnessing on the same stage — for what may be the first and last time ever — The Big Four, a reference to Anthrax and three other essential U.S. thrash bands: Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth.
If the grouping of the four bands feels forced, Benante isn’t copping to it. “Believe me, I don’t take one part of it for granted,” he says, evoking the mulleted teen who taped classic rock posters on his bedroom wall. “I just want to enjoy it.”
What exactly has the band been doing in the eight years since We’ve Come For You All? For starters, Benante relocated to the Midwest to raise a family, leaving behind the craziness of New York and North Jersey, where guitarists Scott Ian and Rob Caggiano, as well as Charlie’s cousin, bassist Frank Bello, remain. While everyone went their separate ways in 2003, Benante, a self-described “guitar player trapped in a drummer’s body,” was on a creative roll. “I contacted Scott, and me, him, and Frankie got together because I had these songs that were so good they had to be written.”
The collaborative spirit would be short-lived. After a successful 2006 reunion tour, vocalist Joey Belladonna announced he would not be participating in the upcoming album. The band recruited one-time Anthrax singer John Bush. But not long afterward (and not surprisingly), artistic differences emerged. A third singer, Dan Nelson, jumped into the fray and toured with the band on and off for two years only to be ousted and replaced, yet again, with Bush. “At first there was a honeymoon period and then the honeymoon period was gone,” says Benante, reluctant to get into the details. “People who had problems in the past, those problems came up again.”
By early 2010, Bush was gone from the band for a second time. Coincidentally, Benante was crafting songs for an imagined solo record. “They were just songs that didn’t really work with Anthrax,” he says. The songs he came up with didn’t fit into the hard-rock metal genre, so he was going to ask different singers to participate, one of whom was Belladonna. Belladonna liked what he heard. But as he and the drummer soon realized, the material was too good to squander on a side project. “That led to, ‘Hey, man, so what are you doing right now?’”
Belladonna’s return has energized Anthrax in a way no one anticipated. Benante readily admits that he and the other bandmembers underestimated the singer’s talents in the past. “Boy, did he prove us wrong on this record,” he says. “Because he applied himself to every song in such a way that I was totally, totally blown away.” Some in the Anthrax camp joked that Belladonna, who hadn’t sang on an Anthrax record in 18 years, had been saving it for this album, and the drummer is inclined to believe it. “His tone, his emotion, everything about it. I just think he really married the song with his vocals.”
Despite a revolving door of lead singers in recent years, the drama is mere backdrop to what is probably — we’ll just say it — Anthrax’s best album. For bands that hang around for three decades, their best work is behind them. Does anyone talk about what Slayer did after Seasons In The Abyss? Most will agree Metallica reached their creative peak in 1986 with … And Justice For All. Anthrax has gone through many phases since Benante graced the cover of DRUM!’s premier issue exactly 20 years ago. The occasion was the band’s audacious collaboration with militant rap-group Public Enemy for the crossover novelty hit “Bring The Noise.” Two radically different forms of extreme music meeting in the middle was a quixotic yet beautiful moment in the annals of pop. While some lauded the move’s chutzpah, other ridiculed it.
Benante was keenly aware of the cold response from Anthrax’s core audience, but it was a price he was willing to pay. “If we’re going to put this in context with the other three bands that are on this tour then, yes, we did abandon some of our fans and we didn’t stay the same like those other bands did,” he says. “We ventured off a bit and that was only because I never felt that music should stay the same. It should always take a chance.”
The theme of the new record is in the title’s imperative: Worship Music. It may not be subtle but it sums up the collection’s diverse aggro-excellence. Not inclined to wax spiritual, Benante does feel as though Anthrax concerts are as close as he gets to religion. “It’s like church, and these people are coming to be uplifted,” he says. “The fans and myself included, we worship music. It gets us through our day-to-day life; it gets us through school; it gets us through a hard time. We should never take music for granted like we have been because if it disappears, it will be a huge void in your life.”
Echoing Ulrich’s anti-Napster crusade in 2000, Benante then plunges back to earth: “Music isn’t free to make so it shouldn’t be free to have.”