When you think of “angry” music, what comes to mind? I have a few ideas – maybe some of mine are even the same as yours. Regardless of what you might be thinking “angry” music sounds like, this album will undoubtedly force you to rethink your definition. Philip H. Anselmo and the Illegals – ‘Choosing Mental Illness as a Virtue’ is, unquestionably, some angry fucking music.
Philip H. Anselmo is a name that might seem familiar – you can remove the “H” if it’s throwing you off. If you’re reading this review, you’re more than likely aware of a band called Down. You may even have heard of another band called Superjoint. You also might know that, in addition to fronting both of these great bands, Anselmo may very well be one of the most prolific names in metal today – as well as the most headlined recently. In between also being one of the most entertaining interviews in the biz, Phil has consistently been working on multiple side project bands including Arson Anthem, Christ Inversion, Southern Isolation, Viking Crown, Eibon, Scour, and En Minor; and running his own label, Housecore Records. On top of all this, his resume includes being the former lead singer of, arguably one of the most influential metal bands of all time – Pantera.
As a pioneer and elder statesman of all things heavy that he clearly is, what can one expect today from what is essentially a Phil Anselmo solo project with a backing band? The answer is tremendously pissed off extreme metal, with influences ranging from hardcore punk and multiple metal subgenres – or as Anselmo himself describes, “This is my contribution to ugly music right this second in a heavy metal vein.”
Following up their 2013 release, ‘Walk Through Exits Only’ the band recorded ‘Choosing Mental Illness as a Virtue’ out of Anselmo’s Louisiana home studio between 2015 and 2016. The album is released by Philip’s own Housecore records and produced by Stephen “The Big Fella” Berrigan. The current lineup now consists of Stephen Taylor, transitioning from playing bass in Superjoint to guitar here; Mike DeLeon joining the band on guitar; Walter Howard on bass; and Jose Manuel “Blue” Gonzalez, also of Superjoint, on the drumkit.
Starting off the record is the standout track, “Little Fucking Heroes.” It comes in like a war machine with aggressively fast tremolo riffing and blast beats to set the tone. Phil joins the mix, barking, growling, and spewing out his brash lyrics with the intensity of a demon in a really bad mood. The drumming on this song is satisfyingly violent and relentless as Gonzalez seamlessly alternates between numerous time changes with ferocity and skill. The melodies are dissonant, yet still maintain groove, especially during the slower breakdown sections of the song.
On this record as a whole, the vocals are nothing short of amazing. Throughout the album’s just over forty-six-minute runtime, Anselmo is able to shift between a few different styles and will often switch between them multiple times within each song. His mainstay is his abrasive, raspy, hardcore punk scream; while also incorporating a guttural, death growl for emphasis at times; and a voice that I can best describe as sort of a black metal, Gollum-esque retching that is truly “ugly” yet effective when delivering the brutally honest and abrasive lyrical content presented here.
Next up is “Utopian.” This track begins with a quick, church-like intro before bursting into a chaotic, grindfest. The breakdown comes in the form of a doomy, sludge metal groove with Phil spouting some wickedly sinister lyrics, “Fear… Maligned vengeful obnoxious projections… And believe… The vintage enemy checklist exists…”
Production-wise, this album feels very claustrophobic – perhaps intentionally so – as opposed to a lot of records today going for the big, heavily-compressed, “wall of sound.” By comparison, this sounds much more stripped-down, cold, and raw. The guitars have a muddiness and grit to them, more akin to something like the Melvins. Rather than being clean and polished, there’s a layer of filth and grime that oozes into its sound. It should be noted that none of this takes anything away from the music, however, but rather enjoyably adds to its overall ruthlessness.
“Choosing Mental Illness” is another bludgeoning, heavy tune. It features some excellent grindcore riffage and blast beats, somewhat reminiscent of Napalm Death, while Anselmo goes extra guttural as he brutally growls the warning, “Mark my words…” On “The Ignorant Point,” things shift into frenzied insanity with absurdly dissonant riffing and jarringly chaotic time signatures. Definitely a unique and delightfully unsettling track. “Individual,” one of the longest tracks on the album, clocking in at just under seven minutes, is an all-around badass metal song for several reasons. The crushingly heavy groove/thrash riffs; the chaotic guitar solo from DeLeon; the drumming, featuring some amazing double-bass moments; and the unapologetically blunt lyrics, “Shut the fuck up… And don’t even listen.” It’s unquestionably one of the high points of the album. “Finger Me” is another standout track. It alternates between black metal-style tremolo picking and blast beats, to mid-tempo hardcore riffs, then back again, making for an enjoyably intense listen.
Overall, this record has everything one would want from a Philip H. Anselmo project – testosterone-filled, aggressive, no-nonsense metal with attitude. His decades of experience creating, performing, and recording heavy music is showcased exceptionally here. Over the years, Anselmo has not only consistently surrounded himself with great talent, this project being no exception, but has also thankfully shown no signs of slowing down or going soft. Anselmo himself classifies ‘Choosing Mental Illness as a Virtue’ as “Truths, bizarrities, and absurdities.” It’s a fitting description for what may very well be some of the heaviest, most brutal metal he has created to date – something that any fans of extreme music should give a listen to and experience for themselves.