About five weeks ago, we published the first part of an interview with former Pantera and Superjoint Ritual singer (and current Down frontman) Phil Anselmo, who’s recently released his first album under his own name, Walk Through Exits Only (buy it from Amazon).
Originally from New Orleans, Anselmo came to international fame as the singer for the Texas-based band Pantera, which he joined as a teenager. He made six albums with the group: 1988’s Power Metal, 1990’s Cowboys from Hell, 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power, 1994’s Far Beyond Driven, 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill, and 2000’s Reinventing the Steel. (They also released Official Live: 101 Proof in 1997.)
I saw Pantera live twice. The first time, in 1990, they were largely unknown, a regional phenomenon on their first national tour. They were opening for Exodus and headliners Suicidal Tendencies, and supporting Cowboys from Hell. They impressed me as a band doing something unique within a scene that was beginning to stagnate. Their songs mixed the staccato riffing of thrash with a pulsing groove that irrevocably altered the motion patterns of the moshpit. Plus, they had choruses.
I saw them again in 1997. That time, they were the headliners. Over the course of three studio albums, they’d gotten faster, more aggressive, and noisier. Vulgar Display of Power had retained the groove of Cowboys, but added a level of sonic hostility made visual by its cover art, which depicted a man being punched in the face. Far Beyond Driven was the next step. Guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott, a ferociously talented player, made his instrument sound like a jigsaw cutting through sheet metal, and his brother Vinnie Paul Abbott’s drums clattered and banged like he was beating on the walls of a Dumpster with metal rods. Some of the songs were still catchy, but Anselmo’s vocals had gotten rougher, the soaring choruses of the past gone now. The Great Southern Trendkill—the album they were promoting the second time I saw them play—was the band’s creative nadir. The songs were weak, dependent more on downtuned guitar and fast tempos (in some cases, the fastest they ever recorded) to get over in the absence of melody and memorability. And onstage, their sound, once so crisp and cutting, was a wall of blare. The Anselmo of 1997 was a far cry from the Anselmo of 1990; that young man had strutted across the stage like a warrior, shirtless with his head half-shaved. Seven years later, he was bearded and surly, like a cross between final-days Jim Morrison and a half-tame bear.
Pantera underwent something of an artistic resurgence on their final studio album, 2000’s Reinventing the Steel. The music was anthemic once again, Dimebag’s leads searing the sky as Anselmo howled like he hadn’t since 1994. But internal dissension was already bringing the band’s career to an end. Anselmo left in 2001, and the group officially made their dissolution public in 2003; the Abbott brothers formed a new band, Damageplan, while bassist Rex Brown joined Anselmo in Down, a group he’d originally formed for fun with friends from Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar and Eyehategod. Much slower and more psychedelic than Pantera, Down was heavily indebted to Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus, as well as Southern rock. Four years after their initial jam sessions and demos, they released their debut, NOLA, in 1995; seven years later, they put out Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow…, the first of their releases on which Brown played bass. They’ve since released another full-length, Down III: Over the Under, the two-CDs-and-a-DVD live set Diary of a Mad Band, and Down IV Part I: The Purple EP, a six-song slab that’s some of their strongest work.
Anselmo had other projects going throughout the 1990s and 2000s. He formed the thrash/hardcore group Superjoint Ritual with Eyehategod’s Jimmy Bower—also a member of Down—and Joe Fazzio, and made two albums jammed with two-minute sonic outbursts; explored black metal with Christ Inversion; and formed another hardcore-influenced group, Arson Anthem, for which he was the guitarist; Mike Williams of Eyehategod handled vocals, Hank Williams III (who’d also been a member of Superjoint Ritual) played bass, and Collin Edgar Yeo of the band Ponykiller was the drummer.
Now, after 25 years in one band or another, Anselmo’s making his solo debut, fronting a band called the Illegals. The first two tracks by the group showed up on War of the Gargantuas, a split with the Texas-based thrash act Warbeast. Those songs were more derived from hardcore and thrash metal than the material on Walk Through Exits Only, which has one of the most unique sounds of any metal album released in 2013. Its combination of death metal, industrial, and noise—and Anselmo’s ranting, at times electronically processed vocal delivery—make it a difficult record to listen to from beginning to end. But if you make it all the way to the end of the closing track, “Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens,” you’ll be rewarded with a few minutes of atmospheric instrumental music that’s close to beautiful.
Listen to “Walk Through Exits Only”:
After the jump, the second half of the Burning Ambulance interview with Phil Anselmo.