Monday, July 22, 2013

Philip H. Anselmo & The Illegals - Walk Through Exits Only (2013)

He is one of the most recognizable frontmen in the history of heavy music, both in sound and appearance. His voice and attitude have graced more albums that I can count without the help of the internets. And yet, for the last nine years, Phil Anselmo has spent more time answering questions about what he did or didn't do, said or didn't say, meant or didn't mean. In the wake of the senseless murder of the legendary Dimebag Darrell, the former voice of Pantera has grown to expect the daily attacks by elitists and trolls alike. Nothing he's done since has been judged on its own merit; it has been compared to "Vulgar Display Of Power." Private grudges have been aired like dirty laundry in the press, bizarre reunion rumors swirling like water down the drain. But despite the assertions of many, the last decade has not been wasted. With the release of "Walk Through Exits Only," the first solo album in a career that has spanned decades, Anselmo puts himself in the spotlight again, and reminds us that when one door closed all those years ago, others stayed open.

The scathing two minute intro track, aptly titled "Music Media Is My Whore," is a statement of intent that we haven't heard from Anselmo in many years. Crushing drums beats and the marching of snares would be all the foundation he needs to grunt his way through an indictment of all things press related. But when his backing band, known as The Illegals, jump down on the one in "Battalion Of Zero," you quickly realize that this is who we are now. Anselmo pushes his vocal to the breaking point, screaming over screeching guitar riffs and a battery of chaotic percussion.While he hasn't lost any of the power in his voice, it has changed since the glory days; though when he screams, "we're going, going, gone," it grabs you by the throat in a pretty forceful way. The simplicity of it all says a lot about where Anselmo is in his career at this point, stripping things down production wise to achieve a gritty, more raw emotion feel to each track. This isn't to say the it doesn't have the moments of clarity, but those times are outnumbered by rough edges five to one. Tracks like "Betrayed" fit that mold perfectly, bearing a trademark honesty, at least from his perspective,  that oozes through his lyrics which, to his credit, seem to take function over form throughout. Bruising stop/start guitars give way to a bizarre electronic interlude, the first real departure from the back catalog.

And while most song titles might not require much thought, it seems as though "Usurper Bastard's Rant" might be to the contrary. With the thunderous gallop of drums, Anselmo unleashes low rumbling growls, as well as he forced screeches that once made him an icon in the metal community. The sloppy, almost haphazard instrumental that dominates the breakdown seems disjointed at times, but reels itself in without much wandering from the mainline. But it is the title track that steals the show. "Walk Through Exits Only" may come off as straightforward, or at least more than you'd expect at this stage, but with the screws tightened on the musicianship, the vision for the track is clear and delivered to the nines. There is a cockiness to the lyrical content that suits Anselmo, as he growls, "I walk through exits only, because I can." It is this unrestrained, uncensored side of the man that makes him such a polarizing figure. It would be hard to argue his ability to ignite a mosh pit, as this track is sure to do. He says it himself, just before the chugging monster of a break comes through; "a comeback doesn't come gently." If there is one track where Anselmo himself takes a back seat, it would be the bombastic "Bedroom Destroyer," where the shackles come off The Illegals, and they unleash hell in musical form. It's this atmosphere that may best suit Anselmo is his current form, the reckless, damaging riffs pushing him beyond his comfort zone.

By the album's final pair of tracks, we seem to have Anselmo boiled down to his core, his most honest and identifiable self. The opening line to "Bedridden," in which he declares that he is a "meticulous man," is delivered with conviction and raw energy, something you may remember long after the life cycle of the album has expired. the sheer speed of the guitars in the chorus and bridge is ridiculous, at worst, and astronomical at best. With a short run time, it stands as one of the best songs on the album, and the perfect launch pad for the long running "Irrelevant Walls And Computer Screen." Bringing the album full circle as only he could, the track stands as another attack on the anonymous detractors who have criticized from afar, afraid to sign their names to the bottom line. As he doles out line after line of aggression, the background instrumental wanders the median between thrash, southern sludge and wild riffing. It's exactly what you would have expect from the once Pantera frontman, a decade after that chapter closed. The breakdown of the mix, which stands as more than half of the track, seems right at home, eventually building back into a lonesome groove, right before the album fades to black.

For the first time in his long and fruitful career, Phil Anselmo has a voice all his own. This album, his first real solo album, isn't clouded with the thoughts and ideals of others; it speaks straight from his murky brain to your speakers. And maybe that's why it stands so tall after all these years of anticipation. He's brought the beast back to life, the man who once stood at the front of an arena stage and belted out words that everyone across the world knew. The door known as Pantera closed for good on that fateful day in 2004, and people have stood, throwing rocks at it ever since. Blame was spread, pushed back and forth from side to side. Time has passed, and people have moved on. Other bands have started and ended, and projects have come and gone. But for whatever reason, it took until now for Anselmo to find his voice again; not the one that comes off as argumentative in interviews, or the one that seems conflicted about his own role in the end of that era. But the voice that inspired countless teenagers and adults to pick up a mic, the one that ushered in millions of copycats and knockoffs. It's time for the hatred to stop; "Walk Through Exits Only" is the the open door Anselmo had to walk through.


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