THE ILLEGALS‘ sophomore effort is nothing short of maniacal, a schizophrenia musical expression that’s as insane as it is enjoyable. “Choosing Mental Illness As A Virtue” is a street fight thinly veiled as music. While the ensemble doesn’t sound like genre defiers SOILENT GREEN, there is a commonality in approach and appeal. Phil and crew are filling the void in extreme music that’s been left since that NOLA band’s creative hiatus. Like SOILENT GREEN, PHILIP H. ANSELMO & THE ILLEGALS are an extreme metal version of MR. BUNGLE or FRANK ZAPPA in that the group disregards strict metal conventions and boundaries as it playfully bounces across a plethora of heavy music styles. The songs assume an avant-garde quality that might not be immediately obvious because the quintet rocks out in a way that renders the music more befitting for a jukebox at a dive bar than a pretentious art gallery.
The debut, “Walk Through Exits Only”, was written entirely by Anselmo, and satisfied extreme music fans who wanted to hear him fronting a band with the appropriate guitar assault and blast beats. This time around, the writing process was a group effort, and the music oozes with a greater sense of diversity and personality. “Choosing Mental Illness As A Virtue” isn’t simply a buffet. The multiple cooks in the kitchen took their time to prepare fusion cuisine with ingredients from grindcore, death, black metal, doom, thrash, hardcore punk and more, and the album is worth digging into repeatedly. That might be inevitable for some.
There should be little surprise that the music sounds reminiscent of SUPERJOINT at times since ANSELMO‘s joined by drummer Jose “Blue” Gonzalez and Stephen ““Schteve” Taylor, who switched over to guitars making room for newcomer Walter Howard IV to play bass. In spite of the band’s moniker highlighting the infamous frontman’s presence, his bandmates are just as responsible for the album’s impressive qualities. Taylor and FLESH HOARDER‘s Mike DeLeon actually steal the show with their boundless and playfully ambitious six-string wizardry.
A few anxiety-inducing riffs on the first half of “Invalid Colubrine Frauds” are somehow simultaneously just as discombobulating as they are pleasing in the way they strike rhythmically. One should be forgiven for submitting to bouts of headbanging and missing out of fully appreciating the intricate guitar work’s details and rhythmic interplay. But it’s more worthwhile to properly soak in all the nuances behind the undeniable sense of groove and catchiness. Whether it’s the hell-raising horror movie-like riff around the chorus of “Utopian”, or the unnerving, off-kilter riff that weaves in and out of the breakdown on “Finger Me”, the guitar melodies are dissonant and instantly captivating. The stringed instrument arsenal jabs and stabs with a start-stop effect between sound and negative space regularly while being anchored by Blue‘s precise drum work. Blue embellishes with tasteful fills, rich with finesse and movement around the kit.
Ringleader Anselmo doesn’t sing so much as he negotiates the spaces between the notes. His gravelly timbre caps off the already distinct sense of overflowing filth. He screams with his characteristic voice one moment, squeezes out black metal screeches at others, and drops his vocal cords for a death metal bellow during more discernibly death metal sounding parts. Sometimes he does all of the above within a single song: “Choosing Mental Illness”. When he employs a natural speaking and yelling voice with matching speech patterns, it comes across more like the Everyman in a state of anger than a polished metal screamer. That kind of authenticity is something that most people—angry people, anyway—can connect with immediately. The conviction with which he screeches, “I don’t want to be part of your pack,” in “Individual” is biting. We can infer that it may be related to some of his detractors, including the ubiquitous, contemporary SJW movement within metal. The divisive, iconic frontman is undeniably one of metal’s most known and notorious figures. He has truly come back to life, literally in the sense that he has been clinically dead before, and figuratively in terms of his revitalized music career. Judging by “Choosing Mental Illness As A Virtue” and his prolific and vibrant creative streak as of late, he isn’t ready to throw the towel in any time soon.