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Philip H Anselmo & The Illegals
Walk Through Exits Only Mark Eglinton , July 9th, 2013 09:33

Where Philip H Anselmo differs from almost every other metal front man is that if he wasn't singing in Pantera, Down, Superjoint Ritual etc or, in this case, with The Illegals on his first genuinely solo record, he'd be down in the pit, cracking heads with the rest of us. Guaranteed. He's a fan, first and foremost, and that ability to offload his ego and bond with other fans on a simplistic heavy metal level, completely separates him from almost all of his peers. But does that common touch a great record make?

First of all let's say that the man has nothing whatsoever to prove to anyone. Hell if he'd never sung another note after Pantera's last gig in 2001, he'd have still gone down in history as one of heavy music's most compelling figures. So while Anselmo has had his detractors and still – amazingly – gets criticism for his part in the downfall of Pantera, in the decade or so since everything fell apart, he's matured both as musician and as a human being.

Given that he successfully overcame a lengthy heroin addiction and underwent major back surgery while being widely vilified by a fan base who just needed someone, anyone to blame (other than the perpetrator himself, it seems) for the murder of 'Dimebag' Darrell Abbott, Anselmo has quietly gone about his business of playing his music, developing his Housecore record label, expanding his influence into new territories like boxing and horror film appreciation – all while everyone else sat and whined about what he did and did not do. As if that wasn't enough, he seems ready to give something back to the music industry that gave him so much, by encouraging and involving young, emerging talent in every aspect of his business interests. The net result? A mature Philip H Anselmo with a better grasp on life and what it means than most forty-five-year-olds walking the planet. Was he something of a dick, in years 1998 through 2004? For sure, but so was I, and so were you. It's all ancient history and via Walk Through Exits Only Anselmo now owns his past.

For a man synonymous with extremity of all kinds, Walk Through Exits is certainly that. There's also an underlying, off-kilter edginess to all the material that makes it really difficult to pin down melodies or the lack thereof. Compare it (and he'll love that I did) to the camera work in the movie of Stephen King's The Shining. It tells the story, sure, it does what horror movies do but there's something constantly – and intentionally – unsettling about the manner in which images are presented and scenes captured. This music feels like The Shining looks and therein lays true depth –particularly for those that are willing to notice.

Take opening track 'Music Media Is My Whore' for example. On the surface, it's a short, heavy piece with more in common with Arson Anthem than any of the other bands Anselmo's performed with, but what's odd is that there's an unusual – jaunty, military almost – vibe there that's in direct conflict with the angst of the song otherwise. Weird. In a way you can't quite put your finger on.

'Bedroom Destroyer' and 'Usurper's Bastard Rant-1' are equally unusual. The former – in theory – wouldn't be out of place on Pantera's Great Southern Trendkill if it wasn't for the absolutely bewildering chorus section and wildly atonal guitar howls, whereas the latter is just the most bizarre amalgam of extreme sounds you can possibly imagine. Think extreme music's answer to Trout Mask Replica… seriously. Hardcore, thrash and black metal influences all pounding away in unison like a Steely Dan (Google it) on 'crush' setting.

But hold on, the title track is the piece de resistance and if we're maintaining the movie comparisons, I proffer David Lynch's Mullholland Drive as the blueprint–the similarity being that's when it's over, the only words that can possibly be formed are “What…was… THAT?” You like it but you have no idea why you do. It's metal in the vain of difficult, experimental jazz.

If there's a criticism it's that there's just no let-up. Walk Through Exits Only is utterly relentless in it's progress. There's little in the way of light and shade –certainly nowhere to relax – and that's probably the intention, but as a piece of heavy music –in a music industry where it would be very easy for Anselmo to play it a little safe – it's as daring and as experimental an album as you're likely to hear all year. The 2013 version of Philip Anselmo calls his own shots and takes the resulting feedback –good or bad – squarely on the chin. He's earned that right. And for someone who's as one with his fans and as invigorated by his day job as he's ever been, you just have to respect what he's becoming.

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