Becoming: My metal adventures…

Becoming: My metal adventures with Philip H. Anselmo

If I was asked to name my top 5 bands of all time I’d really struggle to make my picks, but if the list was the musicians who had the biggest impact on my formative years (I’m thinking teens to mid-twenties), my top 5 are pretty clear. Henry Rollins would be at the top without a doubt. It’s not just all the hours listening to his music, both Rollins Band and Black Flag, but all the spoken word albums, the interviews and the writings. After that, Phil Anselmo, Michael Gira, Nick Cave and Greg Dulli are the clear supporting cast.

It isn’t that these are the greatest role models, or that all my absolutely favourite music comes from them (although a lot of it does), but in all cases they’ve been with me through all kinds of important stages of my life, made music that’s delighted me, said things that have provoked me, seemed like gods at one moment and then all too human the next, basically real flawed people that I’ve related to and empathised with. Henry Rollins took me through self-discovery and loneliness; Greg Dulli was my psychosexual id; Nick Cave put everything into a grand, epic, mythological and biblical landscape, with the hope of love and redemption, then Michael Gira condensed it all down to an existential and visceral core. And what of Philip H. Anselmo? Well, he was my lighting rod for anger and angst and some kind of motivator to take that negativity and use it to be something more. Rollins gave me some of this too, but with Anselmo it was less uptight and more reckless. All these men have had a lot to say one way or another, they’re all performers, all writers, all vocalists, none of them are shining examples vocal virtuosity, but they’ve all got a ton of soul. Phil Anselmo stands out from this list because he gave me a route into metal (none of the others have ever really been a part of that world). So what follows is a little story of Philip H. Anselmo and his part in shaping my love of metal music.

I clearly remember the first time I heard Pantera. I was 15 years old and living in Aberdeen, Scotland. At the time I was all about the “indie” bands of the UK like The Manic Street Preachers and Radiohead and Suede. Sonic Youth were big for me too, but there was nothing I had time for that I’d consider to be “Metal”. In fact my whole idea of Metal music was aggressive men in leather jackets and long hair, making silly, brutish music. I remember seeing a review for The Great Southern Trendkill in a magazine (Pantera’s savage 1996 album), seeing a picture of Dimebag, with that pointy red beard and altogether cartoonish appearance and thinking “this looks ridiculous”, but I was still curious and when I found a copy in the local library, I took it home to try it out. First impressions? I remember sitting in front of my parents’ stereo in the living room and putting on the opening title track “AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHGGGGGGGGGGGGG DUGA-DUGA-DUGA-DUGA-DUGA-DUGA”. This was something I definitely wasn’t ready for. My ears couldn’t find the melodies, it was too heavy, it was too abrasive, it was too atonal, it was too NOISY!

Fast-forward six or seven years, I’d moved to Glasgow to study and I was now ready it seems. A good friend, who showed me the way into a lot of music, helped me to see the genius of Vulgar Display of Power and pretty soon I was totally obsessed with Pantera. Where at first the guitars had been too abrasive for my ears I came to appreciate the intricate riffing and fast, but bluesy solos; Vinnie Paul’s drumming was so heavy and full of fantastic fills; Rex’s bass cemented the slamming heaviness of the music and on top of all of this was Phil’s great vocal delivery. Although I consider Vulgar Display of Power to be a flawlessly sleek metal beast, my favourite period of Pantera has to be the double whammy of Far Beyond Driven and The Great Southern Trendkill, both hit me as more ragged, deranged and altogether fucked up then their recordings were both before and after. It’s often been the case with me that I discover a band or an artist and once I start to get into them I feel like I have to know everything about them and absorb all of their music. Often I overdo it, like overeating and then I make myself sick of that particular band. That never really happened with Pantera, and though I tend to just listen to the odd track here and there, they still remain an essential gym soundtrack.

Back when my feverish need for Pantera content was at its peak (and when VHS was still a thing) I bought all the Vulgar Videos and watched them over and over. It was unfortunate timing that my fandom began just a few months after the band came to Glasgow, touring their final album Reinventing the Steel. I knew who they were at that time and I knew they were playing, but I was still in my ‘ewwwwww metal’ phase (too vulgar for me for sure). So I never got to see Dimebag and Vinnie Paul in action, but at least there were those home recordings. Looking back now, those videos are full of some pretty puerile shenanigans, but for a young, impressionable lad seeking hedonistic fun, it all looked pretty damn cool.

Around the same time as I started coming round to Pantera, another band were worming their way into my heart from equally unlikely beginnings. In my first year at Glasgow University I was staying in student halls, with the room next to me being occupied by a nice, but moderately sweaty and very mumbly Scottish rocker called Ian. Ian, a perfect example of how I pictured metal fans at the time (long, black poodle-permed hair, ever leather-jacketed, bad skin, a room smelling of dirty clothes and dirty tissues), listened to all kinds of music I turned my nose up at in those days. Plenty of times I heard him blasting Slayer or Dream Theatre or Metallica. One night I was… errr… taking a bunch of ecstasy with a couple of friends in my room and no doubt making a right racket. One of my friends ended up passing out on my bed, which left me on the floor. I remember waking up in the morning to this horrible, horrible, droning, dirge coming through the wall: DUUU-DU-DEEE-DUU-OOOO-WAAAEOEOEO. What fresh horror is this? I thought. As I discovered later it was the latest Type O Negative album: World Coming Down. Props to Ian, I think he had a sense of humour.

How I got from this moment to Type O becoming one of my most beloved bands, I don’t remember, but beloved they certainly become and there they were too in those Vulgar Home Videos: a popular opening act and touring buddies for Pantera I was soon to discover. Nothing else sounds like Type O, the guitars are down-tuned and dripping with effects, it’s all soaked with synths, although the band can go fast and thrashy, they also have an ear for melody and some of their stuff is extremely catchy. Some of the lyricism and the atmosphere is so morose it’s verging on the ridiculous and I think one of the reasons why I love the band so much is that there’s always a black sense of humour running through what they do, however depressing the songs might be. Add to all this Peter Steel’s deep, booming vocal delivery, if you can appreciate the weird blend it’s easy to see why the band has such revered cult status. I was lucky enough to get to see them play before Peter Steel died and their 1996 album October Rust would go on to be one of those albums that I played over and over to the point of absurdity, a major part of the soundtrack to my first, life defining, failed love affair and the two remain in some way fused together in my heart. Maybe forever.

Back to those Pantera home vids, another soon-to-be-favourite band made themselves known to me, although at first my reaction was “who are these fat guys??” so no, it wasn’t White Zombie, it was Crowbar. Through an almost 30 year career and 11 albums (so far) Crowbar have remained impressively consistent. Setting aside their debut Obedience Through Suffering – where frontman Kirk Windstein hadn’t quite got his trademark, grizzled, animalistic bellowing honed – you could pick up any of their albums and be assured to find yourself with some of the sludgiest, dirty, tormented, down-tuned, heeeeeeeaaaaaaaavy metal to feed your haunted soul. When Kirk had a religious awakening and gave up the demon drink prior to their 2011 album Sever the Wicked Hand, I though “uh oh, the spark’ll be gone now”, but not a bit of it. Now rather than wallowing in torment, Kirk’s lyrics take on more of a Rollins-style overcoming-yourself spirit. They were great before and they’re great still. Many will head straight for the eponymous second album (produced, incidentally, by one Phil Anselmo), but Odd Fellows Rest must also not be overlooked and if you want a quick taste of what the band is all about check out Like Broken Glass from their 1996 album Broken Glass.

When I first heard of Down, Pantera was still a distant metal cliché to me. Once the latter had risen to godlike status in my eyes, I saw Down as a decent side-project, but surely never to be held in the same esteem as those gods of metal. After some time though (maybe when guitar solos stopped being the be all and end all for me in rock and metal music) I came to appreciate Down as a great band in their own right. At one stage also featuring Pantera’s Rex Brown and Kirk from Crowbar (as well as members of Eyehategod and Corrosion of Conformity), Down’s 70s rock tinged, down-tuned chugging, is closer in spirit to Crowbar than the more flashy showmanship of Pantera, and while Crowbar have their moments of revved up, amphetamine charged stampeding, Down keep it almost exclusively mid-tempo. And while Crowbar are always unmistakably Metal, there’s a case for saying that much of Down’s music is more Hard Rock. I maintain happy memories of an otherwise fairly torturous bus journey from London to Glasgow with one of my best friends, listening to their second album Down II: A Bustle In Your Hedgerow together on repeat. Both times I got to see them play live they put on a good show, although I remember the crowd at the second show was a bit wet. I did get some strange looks in between songs shouting out song requests at the top of my lungs. I guess NEW ORLEANS IS A DYING WHORE!!!!!!!! might sound a bit strange out of context, look who’s vulgar now.

For several years my love affair with the bleak majesty of Swans had absolutely no connection to Pantera or Phil Anselmo (I don’t think anyone would call Swans “Metal”, although they can be one of the most brutal and savage bands in their way), and yet as I so often find with music I love, those worlds would in the end prove to be very few degrees of separation apart. The binding thread in this case? A woman named Jarboe. On top of being in Swans through some of their most awesome years, Jarboe has a rich and varied history of collaborations. As well as having recorded a whole album with Neurosis and an EP with Justin Broadrick (of Godflesh and Jesu), she collaborated with Einsturzende Neubauten frontman Blixa Bargeld (as well as way too many others to mention) on her 2005 release The Men Album; In 2008 she released what’s far and away her most metal sounding album (Neurosis collaboration aside) Mahakali, where collaborations this time included Csihar from Mayhem as well as…. yes, Mr. Philip H. Anselmo.

I’ve seen a lot of my musical heroes perform live and from time to time I’ve witnessed people on stage who had some kind of irresistible magnetism, people who radiated an energy where you think “if they were the leader of a suicide cult I could understand how I might get sucked into that despite my best intentions”. Lemmy had it, Ian Brown had it, I’d later discover that Michael Gira had it when Swans reformed (minus Jarboe), and when I saw Jarboe perform with her band she had it for sure. Like a pale, goddess of the netherworld, she floated across the stage and I was in awe from start to finish. Somehow in recorded form the album itself doesn’t quite match that experience (maybe it’s the production job, which is kind of murky), but it’s still an interesting record and another side to Anselmo when he makes his appearance on the sparse and gloomy track Overthrown. Jarboe also happens to be one of the nicest, most generous musicians I’ve ever come into contact with. I’ve emailed her more than once (being a babbling fan) and every time she writes back to me. A really lovely human being and a great artist.

And so finally back to the man Anselmo: a living-legend to countless fans around the world, but also a reviled and discredited punching bag of the social media age. One of the incidents that turned a lot people off Phil occurred in early 2016 at the Dimebash event honouring Pantera guitarist Dimebag. If you don’t know the story, you will easily find many an online source to read about it. There’s also a video clip that definitely doesn’t paint Phil in a good light. Plenty of people in the music world came out afterwards to say their bit, with perhaps none of them throwing Phil under the bus quite so enthusiastically as professional virtue signaller (and Machine Head frontman) Rob Flynn. However it looks and whatever commentary you’ve read it’s worth hearing Anselmo’s take in his interview with Eddie Trunk from December 15th that year. Whatever your take, it definitely wasn’t a good look for Phil up there on stage in that moment, but for me if I weigh up all I’ve seen and heard from him, I’m inclined to lean more towards accepting his version of events.

Setting that incident aside, there’s no doubt that Phil has been a controversial figure through the years – as divisive as much as he’s been an inspiration – a lot of the time definitely not helped by a public life often spent heavily under the influence of alcohol and other substances (often including on stage where a lot of the later recordings of Pantera shows feature extended, drunken rants by Phil). It used to bother me that Phil seemed cagey about the extent of his heroin use (aside from the post-gig OD that was well documented), so one of the things that really increased my empathy for him was when he spoke openly and candidly in an on-stage interview in 2009 about his drug issues. If being in the public eye and carrying some level of fame imposes a degree of social responsibility, then to me this video is one of the best contributions I’ve seen from Anselmo to present his life experience in a way that can benefit and inform others:

But what about the music? It seems like every few months Anselmo is involved in some new musical project, or returning to one of his past projects like Down or Superjoint (not to mention running his label Housecore Records – who you should go buy something from today). Of all of his more recent musical ventures the one that impressed me the most was actually one I didn’t really pay attention to at first – partly through reading some mixed reviews. I’m talking about the Philip H. Anselmo & The Illegals project. Now with two records under their belts, it was only earlier this year that I finally tried out their 2013 debut Walk Through Exits Only. In some way like my first taste of Pantera, all those years ago in Scotland, my initial impression was “oh this is just a noisy mess”, but two or three listens in and I was well on the way to loving it. Anyone coming to this release expecting Pantera is going to be disappointed. This music is way more all over the place, but what seems chaotic at first is really very well organised chaos. It’s is a brutally heavy assault of crazed, careering Death Metal. If Phil Anselmo came out in 2019 with a band making Far Beyond Driven Mk. II I guess a lot of people would lap it up, but would it really be in the spirit of pushing boundaries, with fucked up, intense music to scare your neighbours? Or would it just be a victory lap, feeding on past glories? At the end of the first Vulgar Video, just as the credits start rolling, there’s a clip of the band on stage and Phil saying to the crowd “The new Pantera album, ain’t gonna be no fuckin’ happy goddamn heavy metal record that’s just cool to listen to. It’s gonna be abrasive, it’s gonna be sickening, it’s gonna be hard to listen to, it’s gonna be aggressive and it’s gonna fuckin’ kick you in the fuckin’ balls or the pussy. We ain’t gonna write a good album, we’re gonna write something that makes you go what is wrong with them?” That was 1993 and thirty-something -years later, Phil Anselmo is still keeping that spirit alive. When I saw him and The Illegals perform in Prague earlier this year, it was one of the best gigs I’ve been to in years. Yeah they finished with a handful of Pantera songs and it was great and we all sang along, but the new music was just as energising and exciting. This has been Tom Boatman for Blessed Alter Zine and I’ll leave the last words to Phil, from the great title track of Walk Through Exits Only, which still gives me chills when I listen to it:

A comeback doesn’t come gently…
it’s as ugly, as ugly is…
made of hedonist handcuffs…
crushing weights…
neurotic accuracy…
and kills love outright…
So burn it one precious chunk at a time…
There’s no reading between the lines.
Like fire that falls from the sky…
Like fleeing a monster of nature…
Like a bullet born of a madman…
There’s no reading between the lines.
Like disappearing from the face of the planet…
Like being cut in half…
Like having everything and burning it…
There’s no reading between the lines.

Article by #Tom

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