#9: Phil Anselmo
MetalSucks recently polled its staff to determine who are The Top 25 Modern Metal Frontmen, and after an incredible amount of arguing, name calling, and physical violence, we have finalized that list! Writers were asked to consider vocal ability, lyrics, and live presence when casting their votes; the only requirements to be eligible for the list were that the musician in question had to a) play metal (duh), b) be a frontman or woman (double-duh), and c) have recorded something AND performed live in the past five years. Today we continue our countdown with the legendary Phil Anselmo…
Phil Anselmo is the archetype of the modern metal frontman. On one hand, in a post-Dickinson/Halford vacuum (though Phil’s pretty fond of Halford), he borrowed liberally from the confrontational world of punk and hardcore to build an earnestly pissed off link between it and metal. Part verbally abusive carnival barker, part aggro-David Lee Roth, he was just as an integral a part of Pantera as the Crown-Royal-and-northern-lights-soaked riffing of Dimebag. However, he also epitomized the flipside of that as well: his stage banter ranged from serrated and refreshingly unfiltered to boorish and ignorant. He appealed to the lifers just as much as the scumbags who just showed up to break shit. His reaction to the never-ending party that surrounded Pantera was to tumble into substance abuse and eventually turn on the people who helped get him where he was. Couple that with chronic and serious back problems and he looked more like the living husk of GG Allin or Darby Crash than a premier frontman by the time the band broke up a decade or so ago. The difference was that Allin and Crash weren’t around long enough to see their bodies and lives decay and crumble (not that GG Allin was a specimen of health, of course). For every Randy Blythe, a Phil LaBonte can be traced back to the seeds Phil planted. Anselmo was a big part of defining that spectrum, and in 2003, it looked like he was settling in to take up residence at the wrong end of it.
However, no proper frontman story is complete without a second act: dabbling in all the extreme metal asides he’d been keen on while he was in Pantera—from black metal to vitriolic hardcore—he was productive in decidedly non-commercial ways (unlike the other half of the band). He got back with Down to put out their best album thus far. He cleaned up. He got invasive back surgery. He got a bit of perspective and self-awareness. He became a metal elder statesman and, um, a sought-after boxing expert. There’s little more rock ‘n’ roll or American about his second chance. Of course, since it involved Phil Anselmo, it was a little darker, grittier, and uncomfortably authentic than most similar stories.
Theoretically, Anselmo’s turnaround was miraculous. But while the things he had to overcome were considerable, it wasn’t miraculous at all. Pantera’s lyrics are deeply rooted in self-empowerment and conquering adversity (though usually by caving in someone’s skull); Down’s lyrics center around overcoming or bluesily relating hardship as comfort for others instead of bellyaching. He wanted us to count him out so he could prove us wrong, thus becoming the embodiment of his lyrical obsessions. 2013 Phil seems like a man of clarity of thought , but that clarity was present even in his darkest hours (hell, The Great Southern Trendkill came out during one). Because at the core of the man—whether strung out swampbeast or label owner—is surprisingly smart and perceptive.
That intelligence is what gives his overall presence heft. But the intelligence wouldn’t be worth noting if the rest weren’t there. Phil’s voice—though it certainly has some miles on it—is instantly recognizable. From the snarl and acrobatic vocals of the “first” two Pantera records to the weathered, inverted croon of the band’s later years and Down, like Phil himself, his voice may be battered, but the heart of it remains. He sounds different, but great. While it would be hard to argue that his best work may be ahead of him (seeing as he’s got at least two or three all-time best metal records under his belt), it’s not out of the question. While there’s something to be said for guys who run themselves into a wall before they turn 30, there’s more to those who burn brightly, bottom out, and evolve into something different but still just as familiar and vital. The mind of Phil Anselmo is an odd, angry, busy place, but it’s one we’re increasingly lucky to have around.
The List So Far:
#10: Grace Perry (ex-Landmine Marathon)
#11: Guy Kozowyk (The Red Chord)
#12: Trevor Strnad (The Black Dahlia Murder)
#13: George “Corspegrinder” Fisher (Cannibal Corpse)
#14: Chance Garnette (Skeletonwitch)
#15: Vincent Bennet (The Acacia Strain)
#16: Mike Patton
#17: Tony Foresta (Municipal Waste)
#18: Joe Duplantier (Gojira)
#19: Oderus Urungus (Gwar)
#20: Nergal (Behemoth)
#21: Jens Kidman (Meshuggah)
#22: J.R. Hayes (Pig Destroyer)
#23: Jamey Jasta (Hatebreed)
#24: Travis Ryan (Cattle Decapitation, Murder Construct)
#25: Chino Moreno (Deftones)