By Jules Diepstraten
With his relentless double bass drum and his rapid blast-beat, Charlie Benante from Anthrax has been one of metal’s leading drummers for well over thirty years. We had the chance to have a chat with the legendary drum monster to discuss the band’s 11th album ‘For All Kings’, which was released on Friday 27th February. This new record may very well be the band’s best, as it combines the melodies from their breakthrough album ‘Spreading The Disease’ with the thrash riffs from their landmark album ‘Among The Living’; while at the same time incorporating the thought-provoking lyrics from ‘Persistence of Time’ and the more adventurous songwriting from ‘Sound of White Noise’ and ‘We’ve Come For You All’.
Benante is the right man to talk to in order to find out more about the album, as he has been writing all of Anthrax’s music for many years. He has a good laugh as I describe the album as “a greatest hits-album with only new songs on it” but explains that was not something the band deliberately set out to do: “This time ideas were flowing. I felt I was onto something good, it was good momentum and I just let it happen. There is a thrashier side, and a melodic side, and they came together very well”.
The career highlight that is ‘For All Kings’ comes at unexpected moment, as the band in general and Benante in particular have had a few difficult years. The 54-year old drummer has been battling carpal tunnel syndrome for a few years, a nerve condition causing injury in the carpal bones in the hand. As a result, he had to miss several tours. The break from touring gave him the time to focus on writing music for the new album: “I never write on the road; there are too many distractions plus I can’t be creative around people. I need to be in my studio”.
The time away from the road was needed to recover, as touring was how the heavy metal veteran developed carpal tunnel syndrome in the first place: “I got it because of the extensive touring schedule we had, it was too much use and overuse”. After having a successful operation he should now be fully cured: “It’s gone gone gone, but there is still wear and tear, not anything like it was before though. I missed some shows but of course we have John Dette who is a great drummer who filled in for me”. Not taking anything away from the awesomeness of John Dette, but when fans go to see Anthrax they want to see the original guy behind the drum kit. Benante responds with a rhetorical question: “Is it better to see the band without the drummer, or not see the band at all?” It couldn’t be clearer; he’s just happy the band kept going in his absence. During the time when Dette was filling in, there was also an additional personnel change in the band, and this was a permanent one; lead guitarist Rob Caggiano had such a good time producing Volbeat’s new record that he decide to join the Danes instead and he was replaced by Jonathan Donais from Shadows Fall. While the newcomer initially looked a bit uncomfortable on stage when the band last hit our shores in early 2013, his contribution to the new album has been terrific with lots of excellent solos. Needless to say Benante would like to point out that Donais is here to stay: “He’s great and he’s really an official member of the band”.
‘For All Kings’ has been finished several months ago, yet the band is only releasing it now. Why the delay? Sure enough the band would’ve wanted to release it straight away? It turns out things aren’t that simple: “We were going to release it in December, but the record company was not ready, then we pushed it January”. This may work in the band’s favour as it should enable the record company to fully throw their weight behind it: “There are lots of things in motion with the record company”, Benante confirms, and he’s glad about that, as he is damn proud of ‘For All Kings’: “I think we are making better records than we ever did, we make better records than a lot of other bands really”.
In recent years Anthrax has mainly been playing short sets of nine songs opening up for other bands. Just in recent months they supported Slayer in Europe, toured with Lamb of God in the U.S. and are about to hit the road with Iron Maiden in South America. Is there a relation between Benante’s health issues and the band doing shorter special guests slots instead of their own headline shows? None at all, it turns out: “We just keep getting asked for those, and we keep saying yes. At some point we will do our own headline shows again. I haven’t thought about it that much”.
Except for the two singles ‘Evil Twin’ and ‘Breathing Lightning’, Anthrax have not played any other songs of their landmark new album live so far: “We haven’t played them live yet because we just want the audience to get the record and experience it before they hear the songs live”. ‘Breathing Lightning’ is arguably the most radio-friendly song Anthrax has ever made. The band has been playing this track in front Lamb of God-fans, who you think might be more into heavier stuff. It turns out they love the catchy new single as well: “They react to it very well actually, they respond to the new songs as if they’ve already heard them many times before”.
As the band is about to hit the road with Iron Maiden in South America, I suggest the title track should be played as well as it has a Maidenesque chorus, to the extent where you can imagine the British Heavy Metal Pioneers wishing they would have written it themselves. Benante likes the comparison: “Hahaha! I think we should play that one too.” The topic of touring with Iron Maiden makes him reflect on the influence the band has had on metal as a genre: “It’s funny how things always lead back to Maiden. When we and the other big thrash bands started out we were all influenced by them, and even right now the promo photos that we did for this album, with all of us wearing leather jackets and all, look very much like those from Iron Maiden around 1982 when they released ‘Number of the Beast’”.
When the topic of setlists comes up it is impossible not mention how the band has been playing basically the same songs live for the last five years. (‘Indians’ and ‘Caught in a Mosh’ from ‘Among the Living’; ‘Fight ‘Em Till You Can’t’ and ‘In The End’ from ‘Worship Music’, the Joe Jackson-cover ‘Got The Time’ and the Trust-cover ‘Antisocial’.) How come the band does not put more variety in their setlists? Benante disagrees: “Sometimes you have to play the favourites, but we do play other songs”. He does admit there is one song he’d like to throw out: “I am so sick of playing ‘Got the time’, it’s the only song we play from ‘Persistence of Time’ and it’s a cover!” He also admits the ‘Persistence of Time’-album has not been getting the love it deserves in recent years, and points out that may change in the near future: “We have been rehearsing ‘Keep It in the Family’, and we do play ‘In My World’ now and then, plus ‘Belly of the Beast’ is a song I suggested we should be playing again”.
When Joey Belladonna left Anthrax in the early nineties, guitarist Scott Ian said in an interview that one of the frustrations the band had with him was that he didn’t know the words to all the songs in the back catalogue, so there were certain songs they couldn’t play live. Although Benante admits that was the case at the time, he is clear to point out things have improved and that this has nothing to do with the band playing the same setlist: “It does have some truth to it, but we don’t think like that anymore”.
Although the band does not play any songs live from their John Bush-era (even though it did feature two of the band’s strongest albums, ‘Sound of White Noise’ and ‘We’ve Come For You All’), there is a track on ‘For All Kings’ that has a strong similarity to a song from the Bush-era: the song ‘Suzerain’ sounds a lot like ‘Poison My Eyes’, which Anthrax recorded for the soundtrack of the Arnold Schwarzenegger-movie ‘The Last Action Hero’. Benante did not realise there was a similarity and is quick to point that it’s not intentional: “Not all all, that it just a coincidence. ‘Suzerain’ is one of my favourite tracks on the album. It has this really primal beat, it sounds very organic, and it came out just how I wanted”.
While addressing an Anthrax-song made for a movie, the question arises why their Judge Dredd-anthem ‘I Am The Law’ was not used in the fantastic 2012 Dredd-movie with Karl Urban. “I don’t have the answer for that” Benante sighs, “You think anyone with some smarts may think ‘Hey we are making a movie about Judge Dredd, these guys made a song about him, let’s put it in there’ - but they didn’t”.
With an upcoming tour through South America supporting Iron Maiden and a whole slew of major European festivals throughout the summer, things are looking good for Anthrax. But it’s ‘For All Kings’ that Charlie is most excited about: “I’m mainly looking forward to releasing the album”. When their hectic touring schedule will bring the band down under again is not yet clear, as there is no answer to the question of when the next Australian tour will take place: “I don’t know to be honest. I love Australian fans though and I can’t wait to get down there again!” In the meantime, Benante has a piece of advice for Anthrax-fans everywhere: “Get the record, stare at the cover, listen to the music, and let it take you on a metal journey!”
‘For All Kings’ is out now on Nuclear Blast Records.