Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Album Review: Philip H. Anselmo & The Illegals - Walk Through Exits Only

I put off writing anything about this album because I tried to give it a 6th, 7th, and 18th listen in an effort to try and put my finger on just what it was that was missing. Anselmo forewarned listeners in interviews emphasizing the album’s lack of categorization and all-around ‘catchiness’. He advised that it would be a hard listen, a slow grower. In my experience those kinds of records tend to become staples in a collection, as they don’t lose their shine as quickly. Someone once said that being beautiful is like being born rich and getting poorer every day, I think the same can be said for an album that asks for no effort from the listener. And I’m no stranger to giving that effort, in fact I embrace it. I assume now that Anselmo and his warnings were primarily addressed to those that are still losing their shit to A Vulgar Display of Power. The same kind of people that went to a Superjoint show and called out for ‘Walk’ between songs. The same folks that really think a Pantera reunion would be feasible and awesome with Zakk Wylde filling in for the role of Dimebag. Knock it off. Anselmo has always been respected within the world of real heavy metal because even at the pinnacle of his flirtatious stomp through the mainstream with Pantera, he continued to fly the flag for underground extreme music. Not only did he invite off-the-map bands like Neurosis and Morbid Angel (on an arena tour no less!) to open for Pantera, but when Far Beyond Driven went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts Anselmo was involved in several other underground black metal projects including Christ Inversion, Viking Crown, and Eibon – a black metal supergroup of sorts with Satyr (Satyricon), Fenriz (Darkthrone) and Maniac (Mayhem), who released one track on a label compilation before being put on indefinite hiatus. He even contributed guest vocals to the Anal Cunt masterpiece ’40 More Reasons To Hate Us’ in 1996 (and vice versa invited Mr. Putnam to do the same on ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’), amongst a slew of other projects where he went either uncredited or under an alias. Needless to say, there was a passion for something darker and heavier festering there that couldn’t be explored in his primary spotlighted gig.

Phil’s exploration into these darker corners of the realm became a preface and set up for the gruesome dismemberment of Pantera. After which all projects became sidelined due to the one-two-three punch of addiction, Mother Nature, and medical consequence, and if you don’t know the specifics of any of that then stop reading and keep desperately writing Mr. Wylde. To say that a decent (non-black metal) solo effort from the old man is a project long overdue would be an understatement. While both Superjoint Ritual and Arson Anthem showcased Phil’s songwriting abilities beyond just his vocals and lyrics, ‘Walk Through Exits Only’ is 100% written by Phil Anselmo. Anselmo’s pestilent touch to every project he’s been a part of was very influential to me in my formative years. My fanaticism with Pantera led me to grumblings in the black and white pages of Metal Maniacs about Down and Superjoint Ritual as far back as 1992. I could even probably develop the theory that a lot of what he did outside of Pantera and Down opened gateways for me into other more extreme and experimental ventures of sound. So I’ve always paid attention to the man’s career, and I owed it to myself to spin a record 100% Phil Anselmo, despite the fact that I wasn’t impressed with the two tracks released on the ‘War Of The Gargantuas’ split EP with War Beast.

Sonically the album is pummeling, the bass drum is massive and pushed up in the mix, even drowning out the snare and hardware at times, and though the guitar tone is low and drilling it feels like it’s all at the same volume as the other instruments. So instead of a more organic in and out you’re getting a sonic cast iron frying pan to the face – which actually works with the music in it’s stop and go roller coasting riffage. But sometimes the lack of depth in the mix takes away from what are supposed to be some of the most brutal blast points on the record, like the first minute or so of the title track. It can be as monochrome sounding as the album artwork itself. The low guitar tones stay low and the only time any foreign instrumentation is introduced is in short between song interludes, it causes the album to congeal together and make initial digestion a bit more difficult – but it still works as a collective fist to the gizzard. Anselmo is the only one that feels a bit pushed up in the mix, and he sounds as ferocious as ever – but as much as it’s his album it’s also his vocals that act as the chain to the bumper of the truck in my opinion. His rabid bark and bellow just can’t be spit out fast enough without losing it’s punch, so he kind of drags his syllables through the songs, extracting a bit of the over-all ferocity in the music by superficially holding it back.  Had he channeled the motherfucker that wiped his broken glass laden vocal chords all over ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’ for these sessions I think I’d be singing a much different tune, but the lack of range here feels to me like a lack of emotion. Phil’s vocals on Superjoint Ritual by comparison to his latest effort sound tired and loose, even sort of ugly – but they worked so well with the formula of that music. I can’t help but feel that the man was at the top of his game in heavy music when he was at rock bottom ironically enough. Superjoint Ritual had a personality to it because if you knew what was going on you knew that it was this dark, ugly, drug addled purging of hardcore and old school punk. The music sounded like an 8mm satanic ritual, covered in the kind of heroine induced dirt film that you could almost smell on the album’s insert.  Slurred vocals, and blacked out hatred – it was something ugly that needed to happen, and because of that it became it’s own entity. It’s own personality, flawed and staggering. Most importantly however the music gave the man room to ramble, gasp and sputter – even when the vocal lines were right on top of each other and obviously recorded in separate takes – and that’s where he shines brightest, when he doesn’t sound constrained, but natural, as though there is no effort behind the acrid bile spilling out of his mouth. The new album lacks that personality to me, and in comparison almost sounds mechanical in a way.

Anselmo admitted he wanted to put out something different that couldn’t be generalized and spanned multiple categories of extreme music, but unfortunately that road has already been tread upon by specialists in that field, especially his buddies in  Soilent Green. Shit, I even hear bits of Glass Casket and Norma Jean in it’s sound (sorry). My biggest problem with this album however is its length. It clocks in at around 40 minutes, but at least 10 minutes of that running time is melodic feedback or industrial-tinged creepy interludes – which brings us to about a half an hour of some pretty heavy ass shit in only 8 tracks. But in my opinion there is still a lot of fat that could have been trimmed (kind of like my reviews!). The intro track ‘Music Media Is My Whore’ over stays its welcome by about a minute, as it doesn’t go anywhere and harbors a pretty cool riff that gets tired without any variation for that long. I actually got annoyed hearing “Hands up Hands down!” a third of the way through ‘Batallion of Zero’ on the first listen that I knew I’d be fine never hearing it again, and the same for the chorus of “Betrayed” on subsequent listens. The title track ‘Walk Through Exits Only’ is the second longest track on the album and most epic within it’s own sledgehammer to cinderblock parameters, harboring arguably one of the sickest riffs on the record as well as an open space halfway through the song to allow for a quick little (and always welcome) Phil-sermon, but it’s still a track that could have been cut in half to amplify it’s intensity.. ‘Ursuper’s Bastard Rant’ coils and strikes in the creativeness of it’s riff, it even showcases Phil straining to hit the high screams, but wears out it’s welcome in it’s 4 minute glory. ‘Bedroom Destroyer’ and ‘Bedridden’ are album standouts  because they harbor some of that aforementioned looseness in the vocals to me. They also have a bit of a punk metal undertone to them which injects the inevitable familiarity of past projects and that warm fuzzy feeling of Phil falling back into the niche that powers him with poison. ‘Betrayed’ feels the same way but the Grindcore-fanatic attention span I’ve Darwined through the years kind of causes me to be cautious of bridge-to-chorus repetition over and over in a song disguising itself as something other than filler, and that’s where my problem with this album’s love handles stem from.

If ‘Walk Through Exits Only’ leaned itself out it would eeeeeasily be one of those records that bounces around your brain like a 22 gauge bullet before finding it’s exit and leaving you incapacitated and rattled. It would be an exhausting mind fuck that would leave your mouth agape wondering what it was you just heard and wanting to hear it again, like the first time I heard Meshuggah’s ‘Future Breed Machine’ in 1995 or Brutal Truth’s ‘Sound’s of the Animal Kingdom’. It’s a sonic anvil with a seasoned black smith hammering away at it – but the songs are all just a minute or two longer than they need to be for this kind of music. I’d be fine with a 40 minute album like this if it were 20 tracks long. If it wasn’t Phil Anselmo this record would be another mediocre effort in the bins. But the man has a history, the man has a story, and most importantly the man has respect. And I respect the shit out of him now more than ever for doing a sort-of near hookless record like this at his stature, even if in my opinion I can get a fix of it from other bands I think do it better. When you’ve walked through 999 miles of hard road you earn yourself the chance to do whatever you want and not give a fuck. Like start your own label, or put out the kind of music you feel like and not give a shit what anyone else thinks. There’s more of a fanbase for the black metal Christ Inversion than there is this – and hopefully it guides some more folks through the gates who may not have ever perused that path prior to. 

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