Alongside Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer, Anthrax is part of the “Big Four” architects of thrash metal, and the band is a monolith in the metal genre in general. Drummer Charlie Benante may be the single biggest reason for the group’s trailblazing success over the past three decades.
Like so many drummers, Benante was first inspired by the Beatles—in Charlie’s case, largely from their feature film A Hard Day’s Night. Later Benante would find inspiration in proto-metal bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, before edging closer to his own calling with groups like Motörhead and Venom. Benante joined Anthrax in 1983 prior to the recording of debut album Fistful of Metal, and over the course of the next several releases his drumming became the definition of speed in the ’80s, reaching previously unimagined heights of double bass quickness, endurance, and precision.
“We just have this New York type of vibe,” Benante tells Modern Drummer, “and we were really influenced by the hardcore scene. That’s why we kept up with the speed so much. It was just this ball of energy, and when we played together, it naturally happened that way.”
Anthrax’s breakthrough 1987 release, Among the Living, is one of the most influential metal albums of all time, with songs such as the title track and “A Skeleton in the Closet” highlighting the kind of playing that baffled scores of would be metal drummers. Benante also helped usher in the prominence of blast beats—the all-out aural assault that has become a metal staple in the years since—with his work on the 1985 album Speak English or Die by Stormtroopers of Death, a side project featuring other members of Anthrax. Benante points to the track “Milk” as the first time such a beat appeared on record—a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he played it on a single kick.
Charlie is one of those drummers who is seemingly gifted from up on high, having never practiced in a regular, disciplined fashion. As he explained simply in his first Modern Drummer feature, in 1988, “As far as speed, I started using the double pedal, the songs got faster, and before I knew it the double bass got faster. Kids were starting to ask me how I played so fast. I don’t know—it just happened.”
Beyond his speed, Benante has always brought a play-for-the-song mentality to Anthrax. As the band matured and entered new phases through the ’90s and beyond, the drummer adjusted his playing accordingly rather than stubbornly clinging to increased bpm. He put it best in his ’93 MD feature, when he said, “There are other players who I think are good with two bass drums, but is the end result me having to race those guys? To me, it’s not about trying to outdo anybody, and I’m not trying to win a poll. Too many younger drummers think it’s about how fast you play. That doesn’t matter. Whatever the song calls for, that’s what I deliver.”
While his drumming alone would be enough to enshrine him in the all-time pantheon of metal influences, Benante has never been satisfied to be a one-trick pony. In addition to drumming, Charlie designs all of Anthrax’s artwork, handles much of the business side of the band, and plays guitar. In fact, he’s been Anthrax’s primary songwriter throughout its history. And while songs like “Only” and “Caught in a Mosh” were reportedly written around beats Benante had in mind, most of his work begins on the guitar rather than on the instrument he’s famous for. Indeed, Benante had a hand in writing all of the songs for Anthrax’s 2003 album, We’ve Come for You All, and has played guitar on every record since 1993’s Sound of White Noise.
The fall of 2011 finally saw the follow-up release to We’ve Come for You All, titled Worship Music, as well as the continued progression of this drumming icon and his bandmates.
“Charlie was one of the innovators of thrash metal drumming, with a sound and style that are untouchable by most mere mortals,” says 2011 MD Pro Panelist Jason Bittner, who toured with Anthrax in 2006 while Benante and his wife were having a baby. “Charlie was the guy who was pushing the envelope as far as pure speed in speed metal, but he has a certain finesse to his playing that his peers of that time didn’t have, and I personally feel that he never gets the credit he deserves. I can’t even begin to explain how he’s influenced me as a player.”