Charlie Benante's Cure For The Common Thrash

Charlie Benante

Photo: Bobby Talamine

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.”

Infected Again

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.”

{pagebreak} 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.”

{pagebreak} Charlie Benante

Blast Without Breaking

Try as we might we could not pin Benante down on the song he considers the most difficult to play. “Earth On Hell,” with its precise kick drums locking into every guitar note, was one of the ones he practiced the most before going into the studio. Ditto that on “Fight ’Em Til You Can’t.” The tune’s middle section has back-to-back drum sections that he has to work up to gradually because it takes so much out of him. “When you’re in the studio you can just start and stop whenever you want if you don’t feel it. When you play it live, you have to really learn how to play these songs because you have to pace yourself and not blow it all out in the beginning of the song, and then you’re shot by the end of it. It’s always been an issue for me to try to really capture the excitement live as well as I did in the studio.”

No mindless speed fiend, Benante’s fluid power helps him to flay fast and tasty at the same time. Take the multiple pattern changes and feels in “Crawl,” which on the surface doesn’t seem that drummy, but only because Benante seems to make this beast of a track less showy by playing so attentively to the song. “Roger Taylor from Queen has this habit of playing so that when he opens the hi-hat whenever he hits the snare in a lot of Queen songs it’s like [mimics the sound]. He just opens the hi-hat a little bit and adds this whole vibe to the song and if you listen to ‘Crawl,’ that’s on there too. I always wondered if Roger Taylor made a conscious effort to put it in the songs or it was just something he did.”

Around 70 percent of Worship Music was recorded to a click. Benante never even used a metronome until the late ’90s when he discovered he actually enjoyed using it. “It’s just fun to play around the click. I don’t feel any restraints. We just take the song and map it out, and we’re gonna bump it up here, and bump it up there, and take it back here. Just have fun with it. I don’t even realize that it’s on.”

As for the metronome on stage? Fuggedaboudit. “Live, we tend to take it up a notch when we play, so I feel that if I have a click it would be holding me back.”

Benante has been trigger-happy for 20 years. He’s got them running through his in-ear and the sounds he created in the studio are on a cartridge for his Ddrum module. He also used to trigger the toms but that was when there was no luxury of soundcheck and the soundman could just throw them into the mix to be safe. “Later on I stopped using the tom triggers because I felt that, I don’t know, I wasn’t really digging them.”

Thrash Is Forever

Benante cops to digging the revivalist/hipster thrash bands of the last few years: Havok, Municipal Waste, etc., none of whom will ever have the kind of success enjoyed by members of the Big Four. Yet their existence is somehow an affirmation for Benante, who seems to keep finding ways to make thrash a rich, adrenaline-charged good-time experience instead of a terminally ’80s rock phenom that hasn’t aged well. “I think it’s great that they have so much interest in making this type of music, you know? I applaud them for it.”

As for the more br00tal precincts of the metal underground and its correspondingly mindless bpm race, Benante is more dubious. “I think there’s bands that do the extreme-metal stuff and I think they do it well, but that’s not where we are at this point. You can shock people with whatever you’re doing at the moment but that’s all it becomes, just the shock.”

The advice he has for aspiring metallers depends on what day you ask him: “If I was feeling good about the business I’d say ‘Go for it.’ Just do it the right way and make sure it’s in your heart and you love what you’re doing and not just hoping for a quick success. And on another day I would stay ‘Stop. Don’t even bother.’ Now it’s really hard for a band to succeed.”

What about Anthrax’s own ticking clock? Benante has been in the game 30 years and the road wear manifests itself in everything from the challenges of being a good dad to his five-year-old daughter to wrestling with a persistent case of carpel tunnel that makes his right hand go numb five songs into a set.

How much longer is he expected to blast for a living? The drummer refuses to put an expiration date on it: “I’ll put it this way, if we made music and it was just whatever, that day would come sooner rather than later,” he says, letting the idea hang there a moment. “But I feel so excited about this new record I think this could all go on for a while.”

Next page: Benante’s 3-D Drum Set Diagram


Charlie’s Setup

Charlie Benante

Drums Tama Starclassic (Black Metallic)
1 22" x 20" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Charlie Benante Signature Snare Drum
3 10" x 10" Tom
4 12" x 10" Tom
5 13" x 9" Tom
6 14" x 14" Tom
7 18" x 16" Tom
8 13" x 5.5" Snare Drum

Cymbals Paiste
A 13" Signature Dark Crisp Hi-Hat
B 16" Rude Crash
C 16" Prototype Custom Mega Cup Ride
D 18" Signature Crash
E 8" Signature Splash
F 10" Signature Splash
G 19" Rude Crash
H 18" Rude Crash
I 20" or 22" Signature Dark Metal Ride
J 18" 2002 Novo China
K 14" Sound Edge Hi-Hat (closed)
L 20" Signature 2002 Novo China

Charlie Benante also uses Tama hardware and Tama Speed Cobra pedals, Evans heads (G2 Clear batters; G1 Clear resos; and EQ3 kicks), Vic Firth Charlie Benante Signature sticks, and Ddrum triggers and module.

Charlie’s Lethal Beats

Charlie Benante is a multitalented musician and ripping metal drummer. His pioneering double bass work with Anthrax has inspired a generation of younger metal drummers and his early adoption of blastbeats helped popularize the groove throughout the thrash genre. He’s also one of the primary songwriter’s in his band and plays guitar on Anthrax’s studio recordings. His creative side even extends to his artwork, which is used on many of the band’s CD covers and T-shirts. Most importantly, he’s also a nice guy and annually drops off holiday treats to all of us who work at the Drum Pad in Chicago. Thanks, Charlie!

“Earth On Hell”
This aggressive track starts with a quick blastbeat that Benante tags with a tasty triplet fill. The verse has another variation on a thrash beat. Benante often plays these kinds of patterns open-handed, with his left hand on the hi-hat and right hand on his snare. There’s a quarter-note triplet fill that turns into a metric modulation that occurs in the fifth line. At that point the quarter-note triplet becomes the new implied pulse of the song, seen in the bottom line.

DRUM! Notation Guide

Charlie Benante

“Fight ’Em Til You Can’t”
Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t more songs about Zombies rising to eat our brains since it seems to be such fertile material for lyricists. Here’s a helpful tip: Football helmets slow them down.

Benante begins this one with a triplet bass drum ruff leading into quarter-note triplet cymbal crashes. He then plays a backwards polka or downbeat skank beat with the snare on the beats and the kick drum on the &’s. Next, he amps it up with the sixteenth-note double bass version of this groove. There’s a nice fill based on “quads” (RH LH RF LF) used to set up the entrance of the first verse. The kick pattern in this section implies a 4:3 relationship.

Charlie Benante