Whatever you think of Phil Anselmo, his importance to the modern metal scene is undeniable. He first came to fame as the frontman of the Texas-based band Pantera, singing with them from 1986 to 2003 and appearing on a total of six studio albums and one live disc. Pantera was shockingly successful in the mid-1990s; their 1994 album Far Beyond Driven was the first extreme metal release to hit #1 on the Billboard album chart.
Somewhat concurrently, Anselmo formed the sludgy, psychedelic Southern doom metal group Down, which has released three full-length studio albums, a 2CD/1DVD live set and an EP since 1995. Immediately following Pantera‘s dissolution, he also recorded two albums with a thrashier, noisier band he’d formed in the early 1990s, Superjoint Ritual. But after putting out 2002’s Use Once and Destroy and 2003’s angrier, more politically engaged A Lethal Dose of American Hatred, and performing on the 2004 Ozzfest tour, the group split up.
That’s far from all; Anselmo is a workaholic. He’s also formed or joined the bands Arson Anthem, Necrophagia, Viking Crown, and Southern Isolation, among others, and runs the independent label Housecore Records, on which much of this work has been released. Housecore is also the home of his first solo album, Walk Through Exits Only, which is being released this week.
Walk Through Exits Only, which is credited to Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals, is a hard album to love, at least on first listen. It’s short—eight tracks, 40 minutes—and/but it’s extremely noisy, a blend of punk, thrash, death metal and industrial that concedes nothing to melody. There are hooks, but they’re of the most primitive, head-bashing kind. Choruses are virtually nonexistent, as are solos. The band—Marzi Montazeri on guitar, Bennett Bartley on bass, Jose Manuel Gonzalez on drums—batters you relentlessly, all the more so because the tracks flow seamlessly together, with no breaks and relatively little change in tempo. Anselmo’s vocals are some of the harshest and most abrasive he’s ever recorded; at times, he sounds like Henry Rollins circa Life Time. Then, just when you’ve resigned yourself to unending punishment, the 12-minute final track, “Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens,” switches without warning, after five minutes, from a doom-thrash roar to an atmospheric (if still noisy and harsh) instrumental that layers remarkably clean guitar soloing over a slow, rhythmic crunching sound. It’s like a combination of a Buckethead solo track and the final minutes of Ministry‘s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” single. And there’s a further surprise at the very, very end—more about that below.
Here’s the first video from the album, for “Bedridden”:
This is the first half of an interview with Phil Anselmo. (Click here to read the second installment.)
The sound of this album really interests me; it’s almost industrial, but when I say that, I don’t mean Ministry or Nine Inch Nails, I mean the ultra-heavy stuff that’s almost noise. How did you arrive at that sound?
You know, I went into this thing with the idea that I really wanted the final product to be very percussively impactful. And on top of that, I did not want what I guess you would call modern-day, glossy, super overdone guitar sound or anything like that. I just wanted it to be, once again, rhythmically impactful. There’s a talent that my guitar player Marzi brings to the table. He layers things very intricately and very, very uniquely to a certain degree, and I’ve known this about him since the late ’80s, when we were first introduced. It was always one of his bigger assets to his guitar playing, that made him unique. I really wanted him to exploit that and to show that stuff off. Because he’s fantastic at making soundscapes with his guitar. I love atmospheric music, actually I love older industrial music to a certain degree, bands like SPK and stuff like that, because it’s hideous. Foetus productions and stuff like that. So I know the power of noise, and in a weird way I wish I would have incorporated even more, but that’s why they make next records and stuff like that. But anyway, I get what you’re saying completely, and I’m glad you hear it.
The songs don’t really have conventional verse-chorus structure, either, and they all slam into each other with no breaks—it’s really like they’re facets of a single gigantic song. Was that your intention, and if so, why?
I think the more you listen to it, the more you will see that it actually does have what I would call very close to basic songwriting structure. There’s verse, chorus—hook, hook, hook, hook, hook is what I was after. Whether it be a singular line, or—you know, the easiest way for me to explain is, really I took my influences from hardcore bands that didn’t waste time with a lot of buildup to the song. They slammed directly into the song, either with a chorus right off the bat, or a very minimal amount of words. Like Discharge might use a very minimal amount of words and then bingo, there’s your verse, and then a couple of lines will be used for another hook or a chorus. So there is a method to the madness there, it is absolutely in my opinion, at certain points, if you look at a song like “Betrayed,” it’s one gigantic hook all the way through the fucking song. And it carries over. Even the more involved songs, like “Walk Through Exits Only.” When you hear a line like “It’s ruined, it’s ruined, it’s ruined/Everybody ruins music, not just me,” that’s one giant hook, because it’s repeated twice through the song and there’s a variation on it in the third verse. So to me, I was searching for a different way to be—let me put it like this, I was trying to, I guess, change up the rules as to what tradition is supposed to be within songwriting, but without absolutely forgoing the song. Because to me, there are still verses and choruses and hooks. It’s one of those records you can’t just listen to once or twice and have a knee-jerk reaction and say, “OK, this is exactly what it is.” Because I’ll tell you that’s fucking impossible right now. It’s the type of record you have to listen to 10, 20 times and then you go, “Oh. I get it. I see what the fuck he was going for.” And it might be a whole different take on what people are used to, but if that’s the case, then on my end, mission accomplished.
The last six minutes of this feel like they come from a completely different album, especially when you get to the last 45 seconds or so, which are maybe the most conventionally metal part of the entire record…talk to me about that coda.
If you’re talking about the last part of it, where there is, I guess, a completely different song that kind of fades up, that is a song that is going to be the next song that I release, except a very stripped-down version. There’s no rhythm guitar on there, there’s no bass on there, no true lead guitar and no vocals. So it’s really a foreshadowing of what’s to come. And as far as the outro, which is a huge rhythmic soundscape basically underneath what would be atmospheric lead-type guitar playing, that is something Marzi has had in his repertoire for a long time, and I’ve always wanted to use it in a song, somewhere in our music. So as manic as the record is, it’s kinda like, for me, the chill pill at the very end of the record, for people to slow down and say “Wow, what the fuck is this?” So once again, mission accomplished.
There are a couple of musical moments in “Battalion of Zero” and “Usurper’s Bastard Rant” that almost sound like Pantera riffs, but they’re deep underneath all this noise and ultra-harsh metal—was that a deliberate nod to the past, buried in the present?
I think there was some deliberateness for sure. Put it this way, I realized that the record is as manic as it is, and for me, some of those riffs I’ve had for such a long time, it’s like, you know what? It might not be the worst thing in the world to touch upon a little bit of my past, just for the general listener. To me there’s no shame in that, because that was a very big part of my life and a lot of people’s lives, but to revisit something like that, I don’t have a problem with that at all, and to say it’s maybe a little Pantera-like, I agree with you. And did I know this ahead of time? Of course I did. I don’t mind that at all.