Hard Lines, Sunken Cheeks
“Everybody ruins music / Not just me.”
—Philip H. Anselmo, “Walk Through Exits Only”
If there’s one thing that can be said about Philip H. Anselmo that rings true, it’s that the former Pantera firestarter has oozed a life’s worth of molten metal. The man (or “the kid”, as he refers to himself) is responsible for unfuckwithable heavy metal milestones such as Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell, Vulgar Display of Power, and Far Beyond Driven—not to mention Down’s now-classic Sabbath sermon, NOLA—and because of these metal landmarks, there isn’t one person out there who could disagree that Anselmo’s heavy metal status is adamantium. His love for underground and extreme metal has been well documented over the years, and as far back as his early days with Pantera, Anselmo affinity for black metal, sludge, hardcore-punk, grind, and death metal have never been something he shied away from sharing with metalheads around the world. His wearing of obscure band t-shirts in photo-shoots and his smuggling of hordes likes Satyricon onto Pantera tours all had an inadvertent, if not direct, effect on the future tastes of his fans. Intrigue led to Pantera’s fanatics—including this hack—tracking down the bands emblazoned across Anselmo’s barrel-sized chest, and his role in the promotion of extreme metal over the years has been unquestionably huge. Whether we admit it or not, those of us who grew up with Pantera’s domination of mainstream metal during the 1990s were exposed to vicious underground artists partly because of Anselmo.
As a public figure, Anselmo has gone from a “Fucking Hostile” caged animal riddled with back pain and the demons of drug abuse to a sage and endearingly humble musician; back surgery, quitting drugs, and the impact of Dimebag Darrell’s death put life into perspective. But as “the kid” has moved into middle age and seems to have found a semblance of peace, the extreme side of heavy metal still burns a hole in his heart. Anselmo’s first solo album has been on the cards for years, and earlier this year we finally got a taste of what he had in store for us with a split EP, War of the Gargantuas, with Warbeast (a band signed to Anselmo’s own label, Housecore). This split showcased two tracks from Anselmo’s bunker of metal, and as far as musically extreme comparisons go, Anselmo and his talented backing band, The Illegals (Persian-born guitarist Marzi Montazeri, Warbeast drummer José Manuel Gonzales, and bassist Bennett Bartley), brought The Great Southern Trendkill-era Pantera and Anselmo’s Superjoint Ritual to mind. Up until recently, Superjoint Ritual was probably as close to extreme metal as Anselmo managed to trap onto tape and showcase to a wide public arena. The New Orleans band, which boasted members of Eyehategod and even Hank Williams’ grandson, released two mongrel albums full of sludgy filth, which alienated Pantera fans and excited underground aficionados. It’s likely that Anselmo’s debut solo album, Walk Through Exits Only, will achieve the same effect.
Walk Through Exits Only is a strange record, insofar as it doesn’t give you anything on a first listen. It’s alienating in its atonality—an album that picks the extreme from Anselmo’s past endeavors while taking inspiration from bands like Brutal Truth and Voivod. Discordance and inaccessibility seems to be Anselmo’s MO here, and the stop-start rhythms and scraping riffs that blitz and shape-shift at will are quite hard to grasp initially. Anselmo himself gives a performance that foregoes the gravelly croon we’ve come to expect from his work as Down’s frontman in favor of the kind of maniacal rants (although not devoid of humor or sarcasm) that governed Superjoint Ritual’s Use Once and Destroy and the superior A Lethal Dose of American Hatred. But often, his attempts at being “extreme” with both the songwriting and the vocals lack the desired impact and instead grate and irritate—and not in an enjoyable way. Opener “Music Media Is My Whore” is built on a lively snare pattern with Anselmo’s choice words for the industry delivered with contempt. However, the songwriting is awkward and somewhat self-conscious in its attempt to be atypical. The same can be said for the other songs that don’t work due to an over-reliance on trying not to conform to traditions, which, in effect, hampers the moments of genuine anger and bile-filled belligerence: “Bedroom Destroyer”, “Bedridden”, and “Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens”.
“Bedroom Destroyer” houses a jackhammer groove led by Montazeri and Gonzales, which really punishes around the song’s half-point, but it’s buried by Anselmo’s desire to disaffect and sound difficult; because of this, the song lacks cohesion. Anselmo also refuses to let the music breath and smothers both “Bedroom Destroyer” and “Bedridden” with his gasping diatribes (lyrically he pulls from the anguish surrounding his back surgery and his subsequent rehabilitation). But, in stating this, his gonzo approach actually accentuates the churning death thrash of “Battalion of Zero” (a song replete with a rare glimpse of Montazeri’s fret-burnin’ solo skills) by ramping up the warlike hostility and paranoia with threatening orders (“Hands up, heads down”) and brutal imagery (“...[our] teeth on the pavement scraping”). “Usurper Bastard’s Rant” and “Walk Through Exits Only”, too, are songs where Anselmo’s objectives hit their desired target. “Usurper Bastard’s Rant” is a sickening illustration of death metal at its warped best, and a declaration such as “I will destroy tradition” gives us an insight into what Anselmo was thinking when creating this album. So, too, does, “A comeback doesn’t come gently / It’s as ugly, as ugly is,” taken from the throttling interchanges of harsh squeals and grooves pitted against the truly untamed vocals of the title track, a song that wouldn’t sound lost on a Pig Destroyer release.
At 40 minutes and eight songs, an album that’s brazenly focused on being anti-melodic and pummeling the listener with music that shows little in the way of variation is a bit on the long side—especially considering the closer, “Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screen”, drags on for six minutes too long. Self-produced with the assistance of Michael Thompson and recorded at Anselmo’s own Nodferatu’s Lair, an outsider’s ear may have been of great benefit to Walk Through Exits Only, as Anselmo’s aim for this album, though admirable, lacks the control and clarity of songwriting necessary to warrant repeat listens. Nevertheless, we should continue to champion artists like Philip H. Anselmo, whose passion for extreme music remains steadfast. They don’t make them like this guy anymore, and even though his overall vision is blurred by aggression and a need to be “extreme”, Walk Through Exits Only is still a success for Anselmo in terms of his never-say-die attitude.