Call it a mid-rock crisis. That's probably the best way to sum up Charlie Benante's state of mind while he was holed up in his New York home a year ago, working on the music for Anthrax's latest release, Stomp 442. Day and night, Benante stayed inside with his guitar. He became so close to the thing it was like a second skin or, as he describes it, like another pair of pants. Benante did take a short break one evening to check out a Slayer concert, but he ended up coming home and jamming solo well into the early morning. More and more, a voice in the back of his head grew louder: maybe, just maybe, he shouldn't be Anthrax's drummer anymore. Though Benante has been at the core of the band's mosh-metal sound for years, he wondered seriously if it was time to leave the back of the stage and head up front to stake out some new turf with rhythm guitarist Scott Ian and crank out blistering guitar leads. No more toiling away in obscurity behind a phalanx of tom-toms.
"I don't mind telling you this," Benante says. "I never brought it up at the time, but I was really questioning what role I was playing in the band. I didn't think I was interested in the drums anymore, and it was like a crossroads."
Though Benante didn't mention this to the other members of Anthrax, he did confide in a friend who, Benante says, "told me I needed to go out and find out why I was a drummer in the first place."
So the stick man with an itch for the spotlight sought some answers. He found them in a HYsker DY cover band he assembled with friends called, unoriginally enough, DY HYsker. Here, he was playing drums just for the sake of playing, and he discovered that it felt good. "Something happened to me," Benante recalls. "Maybe I just needed that to light a little fire under me."
So Benante returned to Anthrax and his drum kit with more of a commitment than ever. That was probably a good thing, given how much turmoil the band was already going through; a little extra might have been more than Anthrax could have taken. The turmoil came to a head just as the group began working on Stomp 442; lead guitarist Danny Spitz was told to leave by the other members of the band.
"I feel bad about how the whole thing ended up, because having to get rid of Danny was the worst thing for us," admits Benante. "But the guy was no longer participating, and he'd lost interest in music in general. And we weren't going to suffer for it."
For all the angst in the air, Stomp 442 portrays an Anthrax that's hardly the worse for wear. The surprising versatility of the disc's guitar dynamic furthers the band's hard-core/metal underpinnings while staking out new turf and avoiding the metal cliches. Benante ended up playing lead guitar on four tracks, with other guitarists, including Pantera's Dimebag Darrell and two of Benante's buddies, Paul Crook and Mike Tempesta, chipping in. Crook, a former guitar tech for Spitz, has signed on with Anthrax for the current tour, but Benante is quick to point out that the band is leaning toward remaining a four-piece and may not hire a new permanent member.
"The four of us -- the core of the band -- are really in sync now," he says. "I was worried about what some people might think; you know, 'Oh, here's another new guy in the band. These guys are so wishy-washy. They kicked out Joey [Belladonna, the band's former singer] and now Danny; they're all screwed up.' But the weirdest part is: we get along better than ever now. Maybe we're more grown-up."
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If the band had its first rebirth by hiring vocalist John Bush to replace Belladonna, then another with the decision to can Spitz and maybe even another with a recharged Benante pounding the crap out of his kit again, it's not too much to see Anthrax as being in the middle of a full-blown renaissance. More important, the band has stayed on the cutting edge for 15 years without slowing down, which is no small feat, considering the kind of unforgiving aural assault Anthrax unleashes night after night. The band continues to woo the ornery teenage skate rat with its blend of searing riffs, pneumatic beats and the-world's-a-fucked-up-place lyrics. On the new CD there's an acoustic guitar number titled "Bare" that's a byproduct of Benante's long hours home alone with his guitar, but the drummer says that at a live show the band won't be pulling out the stools and acoustic guitars. Not yet, anyway.
When you look around, you can see only a few high-profile bands of Anthrax's ilk left -- Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer; one might almost wonder if they're a dying breed. Benante, though, would prefer to see Anthrax's hanging on as a measure of persistence and artistic integrity.
"It's that rebellion kind of thing," Benante says. "A kid's gonna say, 'I want something that's my own music, and Hootie [and the Blowfish] sound just too old for me.' Kids just want a fucking release."
Anthrax performs Friday, December 15, at Millenium, 2654 FM 1960 East. Life of Agony and Deftones open. Tickets are $15. Doors open at 8 p.m. For info, call 443-8878.