features

Charlie Benante: Anthrax’s Worship Music

Charlie Benante

Heavy Metal Lifting

Imagine the thrash-punk rawness of 1985’s Spreading The Disease crossed with the technical sophistication of Persistence Of Time and bits of Sound Of White Noise’s anomalous hard-rock vibe and you get a feel for the epic reach of Worship Music. “There are so many peaks and valleys in it for me,” says Benante. “Just getting this record off of my back was huge.”

The album’s beats remained relatively unchanged from Benate’s early demos. It was only after Belladonna was fully on board that they had to be rerecorded at Groovemaster Studios with Jay Ruston in Chicago. This was necessary to better suit the singer’s voice, a combination of piercing caterwaul and tremolo-laden notes that, in defiance of time, he still manages to hit after two decades. But for Benante, who wrote the second half of the album with Belladonna’s vocals in mind, the drums were second nature. “I don’t need anybody telling me how to do it at this point,” he says matter-of-factly. “I know exactly what I’m doing.” He’s quick to add that Ruston’s opinion on certain things still had value. “If he’s gonna get something better out of me I’m totally open to that too.”

After the drum tracks were laid down, Scott Ian did most of his tracks in L.A., where Belladonna also did his vocals. Bello did bass parts in New York, and Ian and Benante did additional guitar and lyrics in Chicago. Benante might have done most of the creative legwork on Worship Music, but lyrics aren’t his thing. The exception was “In The End,” a tribute to Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell and Black Sabbath/Heavan And Hell frontman Ronnie James Dio, a tune he collaborated on lyrically with Ian. “The first line is ‘The lone star is dark tonight / a diamond shines so bright / I watched it burn faster than I ever …’ I forgot the other part,” he says, chuckling. The “lone star” would be Dimebag, a native Texan. “It’s funny because when we go to Texas I kind of get bummed out because usually when we go there I think sometimes, like, we’ll see him. Obviously, the last time we came through he was gone but I felt he was there anyway.”

Elsewhere, the band nods to influences in more indirect ways. The track “Judas Priest,” which came about just after the English heavy metal legends announced last year they would be doing their final tour ever, pays tribute with a middle section in which the lyrics are all titles of well-known Priest tunes strung together so that they flow and make sense lyrically. It’s also the part of the song where Benante shows a rhythmic change of pace, slowing the tempo and changing up the meter, which, according to the drummer, is either in three or six. “I count it as a waltz,” he says. The changeup was a way to more effectively frame the lyrical puns. “Then it goes into this kinda crazy metal-jazz section.”

The band’s playful side, namely a love of comic books and horror movies, is also reflected in “Fight ’Em Til You Can’t,” a serio-comic thrasher about battling zombies that features everything from juiced-up d-beats to bomb-blasts. Benante is particularly proud of the bpm insanity that bookends Worship Music, a pleasing symmetry that happened by accident. The four-limb fury that sets off opener “Earth On Hell,” a tune about modern-day apocalypse, is mirrored in the final 15 seconds of closer “Revolution Screams.” “I was like‚ ‘F__k it, I have some gas left so I’m just going to blow it up.’”

The Song Remains The Game

Like the “peaks and valleys” Benate described earlier in Worship Music’s writing process, his playing style follows a similar trajectory. There was a period in the ’90s, circa Sound Of White Noise, when he became less interested in speed and instead played more rock-type grooves. But then around 2002, the Charlie of Spreading The Disease was back. “I got that kind of hunger back from playing a thousand miles an hour and that type of thing just because it was interesting to me again.”

The critical difference this time was that now he discovered a secret to playing those higher velocities without tiring himself out so quickly. Nowadays, he’s got it down to a science. “Judas Priest,” a real ankle-punisher in the verses, is one of the record’s ideal vehicles for the energy-saving technique. “Let’s say some shows I don’t feel like playing it as fast as I would alternating feet, so on my right kick I’ll do two hits and then on the left kick I’ll do one. So two-one, two-one, two-one, two-one, and the faster you go … Daga-daga Daga-daga ... it sounds like you are doing singles. And then sometimes I’ll do two on the right and two on the left.”

Whichever way he does it, the trick is to make it come off like alternating single strokes instead of a bass drum paradiddle — not an easy thing to do even at slow speeds. “So, yeah, I won’t accent because then it would sound off.” Whether it’s a way to make the double bass runs more interesting or a redistribution of power, the kicks are Uzi smooth throughout Worship Music. “It still feels like I’m on autopilot.”

A small eureka moment occurred for Benante around two years ago when he started to lead with his left hand on the hi-hat. “Watching other drummers play I started to think, Why am I criss-crossing my hands to do a fill if I’m already open since I can go into [a fill] right there? I don’t have to then uncross my hands to go for a fill.”

There was once a time when a vaguely formed idea, aesthetic, or prevailing trend in metal would dictate Benante’s approach. On a more micro level it was operating within the band. Listen close and you can feel the difference between John Bush– and Joey Belladonna–era Anthrax albums with the way the drum attack is pegged to particular vocal phrasings, which were more thrash and rough for John Bush compared to the high notes and complex articulations of Belladonna.

Now the people-pleasing anxieties that used to needle Benante have slipped away for a deliberate swagger that explodes across the album’s 11 tracks, setting the tone for all the other members. “I used to care more about everyone’s feelings, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve come to learn that you have to worry about yourself and the thing that you’re focused on at the time. You need to just focus on that and don’t worry about other things because it doesn’t even matter anymore.”

Concerned how the remark might be interpreted, Benante clarifies, adding that everyone pursuing their individual artistic needs has a way of working out for the best — or at least better than it would by trying to please everybody. “People need to be more adult about things and if you can’t hang with it and you can’t handle things this isn’t the business for you anyway.”

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