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.
People who know you primarily from Down—your most active band of the last five or six years—are going to be really surprised by the sound of Walk Through Exits Only.
As they should be. As they should be. It’s a completely different fucking thing and—once again, music is like food; either you love it or you hate it, or you’re indifferent to it. I understand this as well, so…fuck, man, it’s just one record, and it’s definitely in my opinion a good springboard into what I could do in the future as well, with this lineup and also with this manic existence of songwriting. Because if you look at a song like “Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens,” it really is, I guess, three or four different time signatures wrapped into one, but it repeats three times. So there, case in point, there lies traditional songwriting, but just done in such a way to where, you know, upon first, second, third listen it might be confusing, but still, it’s something for people to explore, it’s something for people to step out of tradition, so to speak, a little bit, and perhaps, I don’t know, broaden their horizons.
How many of the musicians who are in your live band are on the album?
Just the drummer. Jose Manuel Gonzales, everybody calls him Blue, and he’s the drummer for Warbeast. He was 19 when he started working with me, and I’ll say this, for his age he’s an extremely excellent drummer. I don’t think he’s the finished product yet, because he’s, what, 23 now, but by the time he’s 33, I think he’ll be one of the better extreme drummers in the game. He’s a very ambidextrous kind of player, meaning his feet can do pretty much what his hands can do, and that’s an amazing thing. I just needed to break him out of the mold of 4/4 time—4/4 thrash, 4/4 death metal, stuff like that. Believe me, I wanted his extremity, I needed his footwork, I needed his quickness of hands, but I wanted him to express himself in a different way, in different time signatures. So Blue is a valuable player to a great degree, because he does bring his own originality to a lot of these tracks. I’ll sit back and give him the long, cold gaze, and be like, “Blue, you just kicked my ass with that, we’re gonna keep that, that’s fucking incredible, thank you.” But still, we do have a different live bass player by the name of Steve Taylor. The guy we used on the record is Bennett Bartley, and he’s a New Orleans cat who’s very, very talented, but he’s the type of guy who’s a jack of all trades—has a real job, plays in like 10 different local bands and really just my need for time to utilize his talents just wasn’t hitting on all cylinders. But he did kick ass on the record. But I gotta say that Steve Taylor, who will be joining us live, is very solid, dependable and a super cool cat, and I can’t wait to jam with him.
Were these songs recorded in a single set of sessions, or did you track them piece by piece as you wrote them?
It was absolutely piece by piece. It started here in my friggin’ bedroom, man, just me and a guitar and an amp, getting all the riffs in my head on a goddamn recording and then teaching from the ground up. And at the time, I was—Jesus, I was producing two other bands, and also recording the last Down EP. So, man, five, six different teaching sessions and then obviously the recording session, take a break, and then tracking is a whole different thing, several months down the line and then obviously mixing and stuff like that is a whole different animal…it came together very modulistically, it was definitely not just one sitting.
The style of these lyrics remind me of Eyehategod’s Mike Williams in some ways. How do you think your writing style has changed over the years, from Pantera to Down to Superjoint Ritual to this record?
Well, I don’t think it’s really changed—I think it’s a different expression. And it’s funny you bring up Mike Williams, because we just got through tracking the new Eyehategod together, lyrically and vocally and whatnot. Mike and I work closely together a lot, but I don’t really think my lyrics are very similar to Mike’s. He’s definitely got his own thing going on. I’m not sure Mike would have the same messages that I have. Either way, I did something a little different on this record than I normally would do—I would take certain sentences…within the flow of any language, there is, within a sentence, a certain rhythm. And if you take a jumble of words and you lay ’em out on paper and you hammer out a rhythm to ’em, that’s something I explored on this record, where normally it’s always music first, lyrics later. A lot of times on this record, I would take the structure of a sentence and then apply a riff around it. So to that degree, there’s a definite difference from how I’ve been in the past. But lyrically, I’ve always been sarcastic, to a certain degree, and maybe the older I get, the more sarcastic and ridiculous I get, and there is a whole lot of me laughing at me on this fucking record. Especially when it comes to “Bedroom Destroyer,” “Bedridden,” and shit like that. It’s all odes to my own goddamn fucking laziness, when I have thousands of things to do and just don’t know where to begin. For me, lyrically, each record I try and apply a different personality to, so maybe that’s what you’re picking up on on this record. And maybe down the line, you’ll hear it on the next Down record. I’m going for a different lyrical approach on the next Down EP, and even some of the new solo stuff—I have an EP coming out in October, and you’ll be familiar with the first song you hear because it’s the last thing you hear from Walk Through Exits Only. And believe me, those songs, musically and stylistically are very different from Walk Through Exits Only, and they’re supposed to be. But lyrically, I still have that sarcastic edge, so to speak. Tongue in cheek, if you will.
When I first heard that Author & Punisher would be opening your tour, it seemed like a weird choice, but when I heard the record, it made a lot more sense. How did you become aware of his work?
Well, believe it or not, my monitor man is a young British guy named Robert Helig, and he forwarded to me out of nowhere and I was blown away. Because at first, it was a YouTube special on Tristan Schone, who is Author & Punisher—and I was absolutely blown away. For me, these days, don’t get me wrong, a full-blown hardcore/heavy metal bill, that’s fantastic, it’s great. But for me to create a variety of different types of talent, and put em on the same show, to me that’s a lot more interesting. Honestly, I wanted to take some even more, I guess, non-metal bands on the tour. We have the Housecore Horrorfest coming up in October, and we’re bringing Goblin in, the classic Italian band, for their first North American visit. And I wanted to bring Goblin on the tour, because I thought that would be a real fuckin’ trip. But I guess they have other offers or whatever the heck they’re gonna do. It’s their decision to do whatever they want with their careers, but I did give them the opportunity to take the tour. No bad vibes at all; they’re coming down to do Horrorfest and I’m fine with that. But for me, the more variety at a show, the better. It brings in different fans, different kinds of people, and your regular metalhead guy, it would be—let me re-word that, I would say your average heavy metal fan, I think it’s good to broaden their horizons somewhat. Because music is vast and it’s a fantastic experience if you’re not too uptight to open your mind to different styles. I love turning people on to tripped-out music; it’s just part of my character, man.