LIVE: Phil Anselmo & the Illegals, Hawthorne Theater, Portland, OR

By Yousef Hatlani

Nostalgia is a many-faceted phenomenon; it is a place we sometimes visit as a means of inhabiting a certain headspace we may have lived in once, free of complications that both dampen spirits and highlight hardships in comparison. It can also serve as the very best reminder of how far we’ve come and what we’ve gleaned from the knowledge that we’ve inherited. In the case of Phil Anselmo, iconic frontman for Pantera – inarguably the greatest heavy metal band of the 90’s, and one of the most influential groups for the genre of all time, crossover champions Superjoint Ritual and Southern Sludge metal supergroup Down, the sheer power of this notion at the Hawthorne Theater last Saturday was as much a reminder of his timelessness as it was a prime showcase of Phil never standing in his own steam and constantly pushing his music in new, extreme directions.

Like many, I grew up listening to Pantera—although I never got the chance to see them, having spent my formative years in the Middle East (as such, I never really got to see any of my heavy metal heroes until I moved to Portland in 2006). Nonetheless, the amount of songs, videos, pictures, documentaries and tablature that I ingested made me feel close to it, not to mention the band’s devoted following that literally extends the world over; it wasn’t difficult finding friends in Bahrain who took to the Arlington, TX group’s singular humor, energy, musicianship and passion. My own band even included at least one of their songs in every setlist we came up with.

The band’s figurehead to many, of course, was vocalist Philip Hansen Anselmo (unless you were a guitar player, like myself, who looked up to dearly departed guitar hero Dimebag Darrell just as much). Throughout his career, Philip has constantly ventured into uncharted territories—putting his name and gruff nature to projects that have included Black Metal, Death Metal,  Spoken Word and a smorgasbord of other Metal sub-genres spawning from a myriad of collaborations. For his first ever solo album, Walk Through Exits Only, Anselmo brings this energy that we’ve come to know and draw from and has applied it to yet another new sound—an austere combination of odd time signatures, grindcore-infused riffing and guitar solos that Dime would surely approve of, delivered courtesy of class-act guitarist Marzi Montarezi. In the live setting, this approach is amplified and experienced in such a way that can only restore your faith in heavy metal once more (if you didn’t already). And so it was on January 18th at the Hawthorne Theater.

The first band on the bill that night was local Hardcore act Proven, who were completely indistinguishable from the audience members at the time in both appearance and musicianship. They were pretty forgettable, to say the least, as their music presented no unique touches and appeared to have consisted mostly of reworked Hatebreed riffs that the band has probably known for about ten years. Their singer also made sure to wear his Pantera cap and shirt for this occasion, reminding us rather obnoxiously between every single fucking song that Pantera is the greatest band of all time. Yeah. Okay. We get it. Moving on.

Hymns. Photo by Yousef Hatlani.Hymns // Photo: Yousef Hatlani

The next band up was Housecore Records’ own Hymns, an Avant-Garde metal group hailing from Fayetteville, AR. Their styling veered into Black Metal territory, but with plenty of Death Metal-y crunch to present what is ultimately a unique dynamic for a band that has only been around for a couple years. The band sounds fantastic on record, and their material was even more engaging live. Highly recommended.

Author & Punisher. Photo by Yousef Hatlani.Author & Punisher // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

Author & Punisher, the third band on the bill, was another one of the reasons I was pushing to go to this event; the one man act of Tristan Shone, A&P are one of the most visually and sonically unique ventures I’ve ever seen in my time with Faces On the Radio—and almost ever, for that matter. A mechanical engineer by day, Shone has built his instruments literally from the ground up by himself—inventing what I can best describe as a synth-drum-breathing-torture machine. His music blends an Industrial edge with processed vocals and claustrophobic atmospheres to create a sound that is distinctly inhuman but overwhelmingly powerful. This was the second time I’ve seen A&P, but it may as well have been the first—Shone’s music and stage show gets better every single time I see him, and Author & Punisher is an act you must see at least once before you die.

Finally, with anticipation built to the hilt, Phil Anselmo takes the stage with the rest of his bandmates—a group newly christened as “the Illegals,” donning a hoodie and that same unmistakable posture I’ve never forgotten from many hours of watching Pantera and Down videos growing up. After a brief intro, the band very unpredictably launched into the song “Hellbound”, the opening track from Pantera’s final studio album, Reinventing the Steel. Suffice it to say, this is kind of a deep cut, and I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been performed live in a very long time (and by the looks of it, rarely even on this tour). Needless to say, I am freaking out in the photo pit, jumping and singing along while still trying to maintain enough stability to get the right shot of one of my high school heroes.

Phil Anselmo. Photo by Yousef Hatlani.Phil Anselmo // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

From this point, the band plays a number of songs from the new album—the title track, “Betrayed”, “Usurper Bastard’s Rant”, “Irrelevant Walls and Computer Screens”, and “Bedridden” to name a few—and a few surprises peppered in, including Pantera’s Death Rattle (another cut from Reinventing the Steel), Superjoint Ritual’s “Fuck Your Enemy” and even an Arson Anthem tune, “Wrecked Like Clockwork.” Although I wasn’t very familiar with the majority of Phil’s new material prior to this show, any worries or concerns I had were immediately pummeled to the floor by the song’s abilities to fill the room with vigor and vitality. This is the kind of album that sounds even better live, for sure.

The climax of the show for many was the group’s encore, which began with a guitar solo by Montarezi backed by a slow, chugging rhythm that slowly evolved into the unforgettable outro to Pantera’s Domination and also transitioned into the aggressive, closing portion of their song Hollow, launching the crowd into a frenzy. Of course, the highlight for me (aside from ‘Hellbound’) was finally getting to hear Pantera’s classic track, “A New Level”, performed live—which the band closed with. Although the chaos ensuing in the audience was already out of control, this moment tipped the collective energy in the room overboard to a peak that had been previously unseen up until that point. And although I never got to see the classic four-piece play this song, it had to be close to what it felt like to actually do so.

Phil Anselmo. Photo by Yousef Hatlani.

Phil Anselmo // Photo Credit: Yousef Hatlani

When all was said and done, Phil came up and shook hands with fans (an imposing man at 6’1”, I had to reach pretty high to get his attention), happily accepting weed, CD’s and other merchandise from fans at every corner of the stage. I tried shouting as loudly as I could, “I’VE BEEN WAITING OVER TEN YEARS TO SEE YOU”—which is partially true, since although I have actually seen Phil twice before with Down, it’s been never this close and in such a small venue. Of course, he couldn’t hear me on top of the other screaming fans. And I didn’t fight it; this person I was literally looking up at hadn’t changed much in stature or influence to me since I discovered his music as an impressionable 15 year old. In that moment, I wanted to keep it that way—sort of like a perfectly lit picture that you keep forever, sometimes revisiting it to remind you of that headspace when you really need it.

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