The Persistence of Anthrax: Charlie Benante discusses the band’s 40th anniversary, playing lead drums and police brutality

The Persistence of Anthrax: Charlie Benante discusses the band’s 40th anniversary, playing lead drums and police brutality

- By Dan Franklin

As the Big 4 band hits the big 4-0, their drummer takes a look back at their illustrious career through the prism of their anniversary livestream.

The only time I’ve managed to get a house party shut down was by putting Anthrax on the stereo. As a teenager, one of my friends was the stepdaughter of designer Storm Thorgerson. Back then, I was pretty ignorant of his classic album covers, but the amount of Pink Floyd artwork on the walls of their house should have been a clue.

One weekend when Storm was away, we had a party at his house. This must have been in 1998, around the time Anthrax released ‘Volume 8: The Threat Is Real’ – the first album of theirs I owned. Storm had designed the cover of the previous Anthrax album, 1995’s ‘Stomp 442’ – it featured a giant ball of scrap metal and a backside-out naked man.

I spotted a CD copy of ‘Stomp 442’ in the front room and late in the evening put it on at full blast. The opening blows of the song “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” thundered through the house. It was the final straw for the neighbours, who promptly called the police. They later joked that the party had been tolerable until the metal went on. I was given that copy of the album to keep. To this day I have one of Storm Thorgerson’s own copies of ‘Stomp 442’ in pride of place… well, it’s in a box in my attic.

‘I love that story,’ says Charlie Benante, drummer of Anthrax, over Zoom. ‘I loved working with Storm. He was quite an interesting fellow. He had so many variations of the cover. And that kind of threw me. I was like, wow, there's too many choices here. And there's something to be said about giving someone too many choices because they can't pick – it's overwhelming. But there was something about the ball of metal and the whole “stomp”, the weight of it, and he just went with it. He put the naked man in there. I don't know, man, I was just like, wow, let's do it.’

Sporting an excellent ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’ t-shirt, Benante is reflecting on forty years of Anthrax – the four action-packed decades since guitarist Scott Ian formed the band in high school, to be precise. Benante is the band’s drummer but is also a multi-instrumentalist and deeply involved in all aspects of Anthrax – from songwriting to creative direction.

The nineties saw him partially hand over the reins on their album covers to external artists, beginning with 1993’s ‘Sound of White Noise’, where his only direction was that he wanted a photo of the band indulging in its favourite pastime – eating.

Whether it was the ‘Poltergeist 2’-referencing cover of 1987’s classic ‘Among The Living’, or the retro ‘War of the Worlds’ look and feel of ‘Volume 8’, Anthrax seemed to shape-shift and absorb popular culture in different ways to their contemporaries. Whereas Slayer – another member of thrash metal’s ‘Big 4’ – drew listeners into their own lurid visions of hell, Anthrax always seemed to reflect the world around them.

Anthrax referenced everything from Stephen King novels to ‘2000 AD’ comics to TV show ‘Twin Peaks’. “Random Acts of Senseless Violence” is taken from the title of a cult dystopian novel by Jack Womack, much vaunted by fellow science-fiction writer William Gibson. The final song of ‘Sound of White Noise’, “This Is Not an Exit”, is named after a line in the novel ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis.

‘Sometimes we are inspired by things that are so blatant,’ says Benante. ‘But it has such an effect on us that we feel compelled to talk about it or write about it. And sometimes, a lot of times with our audience, some people don't know about it, and then we enlighten them on this particular book, this particular band, this particular comic or whatever it is.’

He speaks about finding out that Robert Plant was using fragments from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in Led Zeppelin’s lyrics, but sparingly and often cryptically: ‘I always liked the way they would take a little piece of that and put it in this song, and I have no idea what it's about. I mean, to this day, I still don't know what “Stairway to Heaven” is about. I guess it's left to your own interpretation of it. So I always thought what's cool is to have a bit of mystique to that.’

For the last few weeks, Anthrax has been releasing testimonial videos about each album in their discography, featuring contributions from the band, their collaborators and celebrity fans (including Corey Taylor, Rob Zombie and Henry Rollins). From these it is clear that the replacement of singer Joey Belladonna with John Bush for ‘Sound of White Noise’ was effectively the band putting out another first album.

It’s difficult to think of other bands that have successfully continued with a new lead singer – AC/DC is a famous example, as is Iron Maiden. Anthrax had two distinct incarnations before they reunited with Belladonna in 2005: one up to the early 1990s as a thrash band, and the other up to the early 2000s as a thrash band and also something else. It’s almost as if the band stepped into the Black Lodge from ‘Twin Peaks’ and found a parallel identity as one of the world’s best alternative metal bands.

‘I mean, I don't know if I would put that stamp on it, like “alternative”,’ says Benante. ‘Because, to me, I always felt that was a bit of a wrong term to use for music. Where I was, I was very angry around that time, when certain bands that I knew were trying to go more alternative but blatantly. It was like, don't forget your roots here. And that's the one thing we didn't want to do is forget our roots. From “Fistful of Metal” to “Attack of the Killer Bs”, in musical terms, we went from thrash metal/speed metal, towards heavy metal, as you could see, towards the end of it. We were evolving, you know, back to a metal band with the roots of where we came from.’

The way Benante sees it, Anthrax got swept up in the thrash movement as part of a sort of backwards evolution: ‘In the middle of it, the thrash metal thing really started to take shape, and people started to really catch on to it. By the end of those other records , we were moving into a different direction. And I guess, for me, especially, I said what I had to say throughout those records. Now, I wanted to speak a little differently, musically.’

In the early nineties, the Seattle sound and grunge was becoming a dominant musical force. In recruiting John Bush, Anthrax found a singer whose rich, gravelly, emotionally tuned-in voice suited the era. They also hired Dave Jerden for ‘Sound of White Noise’, fresh from producing the Alice In Chains masterpiece ‘Dirt’.

‘I always said I would love to take that record and remix it to make it sound like it originally sounded,’ says Benante. ‘Which I think had more of an Anthrax and more of a “Persistence ” sound to it. Dave Jerden put his stamp on it. And that's why the tones sound like that. And now with John's voice, especially, I was writing in a different way. If that makes any sense. When I hear Joey's voice I write a certain way. When I hear John's voice I write a different way.’

When Benante speaks of the Anthrax sound, he means the unique three-line rhythm section of him alongside Scott Ian and bassist Frank Bello. Whereas ‘Sound of White Noise’ grooved, 1991’s ‘Persistence of Time’ was a precise, bruising record, seething with frustration. The rhythm section was in total lockstep and brutal to boot, from hammering opener “Time” to the dragged-across-gravel crunch of “Keep It In The Family”.

‘I think that the rhythm section was like a well-oiled machine and everything was firing at the top levels,’ says Benante. ‘If you take AC/DC, you know, the Malcolm Young/Phil Rudd/Cliff Williams rhythm section, it doesn't get any better than those three right there. And I think they know what each other is going to do, you know what I mean? So that's the same way when you've been in a band this long – you know how that person walks, talks, eats. I think that's where it came from.’

The truth is, it’s doing Anthrax a disservice to say Benante is part of a rhythm section. Really, he plays lead drums. In the video documentary about ‘Sound of White Noise’, John Bush speaks about how Dave Jerden struggled with how loud in the mix Benante’s drums were and joked it was ‘beach bongo fury’. Listen to the opening bars of hit single “Only” from that album or the Tom-Tom destruction on “Crush” from ‘Volume 8’ and you hear a drummer setting the pace and leading his band out.

‘Rhythm guitar and drums definitely propel a lot of the music in the band, so absolutely, I totally get that,’ says Benante. ‘And if I take the bands that came in this genre – Metallica, Slayer, us – the drummers were always very popular with people. There was some sort of connection that was very, wow, I mean, everybody knew our names, if you know what I mean. Whereas other bands, you don't really remember the drummer's name. Unless, you know, it's Alex Van Halen, or someone like that. I think a lot of those drummers, too, really propelled their bands as well.’

More than anything, over the forty years the band has been around, Benante has learned how to play for the song in question. In the early days, he would look to crowbar in two-bar drum breaks and moments he could showcase his talents. As he played more guitar for the band, writing and supplying solos as well, he began to get a better sense of when everything was in its right place. He has always advised the lead guitarists in Anthrax to get into the song strong and leave stronger: to create a song within the song. He learnt to adopt the philosophy for himself.

Benante is also an innovator. With side project Stormtroopers of Death, he is credited with inventing the blast beat on the song “Milk”. He revisited the blast beat for the thrilling, dissonant opening of the song “Earth On Hell”, from 2011’s comeback album with Joey Belladonna, ‘Worship Music’. Itself ten years old now, for Benante ‘that’s the record that put us back on the map’. On it, Anthrax recaptured the fire and fury of their early thrash albums but also gave Belladonna the platform to deliver one of his greatest vocal performances on the towering, hook-filled “In The End”.

It always seemed ironic that for someone who partially wrote the rulebook on extreme-metal drumming that Benante and the band were in Norwegian black metal's crosshairs when the genre emerged during Anthrax’s shorts-wearing heyday of the late eighties.

‘A lot of the guys I know from black metal bands always speak very highly of us and love that whole thrash metal thing that came through, and really inspired what they would do next,’ says Benante. ‘I mean, black metal, to me, is a genre that it's either fucking awesome, or it's not so good. There's the real purists that love that noisy type of stuff. And for the most part, I'll take that for what it is, but I can't listen to it over and over again. There's definitely a vibe. For me, I like a song. And I like production. That's my favourite thing. So I love Satyricon. I love Dimmu Borgir, I love Mayhem – those types of bands. Because there's songs there and there's a style to it.’

What’s also remarkable about Anthrax is that forty years later they still have their chops. On 30 October last year, Benante posted a video of a remote performance of “Gung Ho” from 1985’s ‘Spreading the Disease’. It was 35 years to the day of that album’s release. Alongside 2003’s ‘We’ve Come For You All’, he thinks it is among the band’s most underrated albums, often overshadowed by ‘Among The Living’ which followed two years later. This performance of “Gung Ho” is as fast and furious as anything in thrash metal. The band, all in their late fifties/early sixties (apart from lead guitarist Jon Donais), are still fit as whippets.

During the pandemic, Benante has been posting cover-song collaborations with a host of musicians. He has compiled his favourites into a recent album called ‘Silver Linings’. It was a means of escaping the ‘bleak darkness’ of the pandemic and show himself, his musician friends, and his fans, some chinks of light during these depressing days. The album is a diverse collection, with covers of U2, Mother Love Bone, Run DMC and Tom Petty, amongst others. Benante set himself musical challenges with the song choices – one of the most testing was his version of “Teardrop” by Massive Attack with his girlfriend, Carla Harvey of the Butcher Babies, on vocals.

‘I pushed myself to places that I was like, you know what, I'm committed to this. I was going to do the best I possibly could,’ says Benante. ‘So there were so many layers and textures to that song. And then, of course, I pushed Carla out of her comfort zone. She doesn't really sing like that. So that was fun. And it was also very stressful. And I think I really stressed her out a lot. But, for me, you have to come out of it going, wow, that was the end product – I get it now, that was hard to do. And yet, look what you achieved.’

This year there is also a new graphic novel anthology of ‘Among The Living’ – with a story inspired by each song on the album – featuring Brian Posehn, Gerard and Mike Way, and Grant Morrison as writers. It sees the band coming full circle on one of their most famous pop-culture collaborations, with Scott Ian writing a story for “I Am The Law” featuring Judge Dredd, the character who inspired the song.

Dredd is a fascinating figure from the Anthrax songbook: he is to be feared and disavowed, but he is also loved and respected by the band’s fans. There is a strange and sometimes uncomfortable dynamic at play in Dredd, which is exactly what his creators at ‘2000 AD’ intended – one which hits home harder than ever in today’s social and political climate.

‘Well, the key line in the song is “Respect the badge” and that’s something that here in America, we’ve had a lot of controversy over the past year with the police,’ says Benante. ‘I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. And at the end of the day, people should respect the badge. But you cannot abuse the power that you have been given. And, to me, especially in America, a lot of people who become policemen get drunk with power. And I've had it many times, dude. I've had run-ins with the cops where they threw me on the ground, pushed my face to the floor, and were just screaming at me, in front of my daughter – for nothing. And the thing that I got out of it was they were pushing me so that I would react to them. And then they could beat the shit out of me freely, you know what I mean? But I witnessed that go down myself. So when I see these other situations that happened, I think back to my situation, and I'm like, just do what they say, and it'll be over, you know? So when I look at a comic-book character, like Judge Dredd, it is a comic-book character, but a lot of it is kind of coming true here and there.’

“I Am The Law” is almost certainly going to get an airing during the band’s 40th-anniversary livestream on 18 July. According to Benante the band is also delving deep into the back catalogue: ‘We're pulling out some songs we haven't played in a long time. It's gonna be very energetic. We're working up to it. We're rehearsing really well. And everybody's really excited. So it's going to be long. Just so people understand that. Don't get bored! But yeah, there's going to be some songs that you haven't heard in a long time.’

I don’t think anyone will get bored. With the band in such rude health I think we can begin to look forward to their 50th anniversary. Preferably without the pandemic next time, OK?

Tickets for Anthrax’s 40th-anniversary livestream are available - HERE

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