In the world of heavy metal, especially since the 90's, few bands have become more recognized and revered than the “Cowboys from Hell,” Pantera. Over the course of five major label studio albums, they redefined the sound, and brought millions of people on a trip that no band today can even come close to.
Now, by the late 80's, Pantera was already gearing up, but things took a major change when the core of the group, the Abbott Brothers, decided to go for a heavier, more abrasive route. Not only did the sound change, but other obvious things changed also. Guitarist “Diamond” Darrell become “Dimebag” Darrell,and a new vocalist, in the way of New Orleans native Philip Anselmo entered the fold. Anselmo's voice even today still has the fire and wrath it did when they emerged with the first record, “Cowboys from Hell.”
The album itself is pretty decent,but not amazing( I'm in the minority here), but you get the idea of where they're heading as a band. From the opening chords of the title track, they have a distinct bounce that few bands of the genre had at the time. They'd become to be known as the pioneers of the “power groove.” It almost perfectly describes their sound. With an otherworldly rhythm section, and perfect guitar player, all the pieces were there. Some of the record is super heavy, while other parts are a little more glossy and clean than you might expect. Subsequent albums are dirtier, and thus help to move the sound in a different direction. “Primal Concrete Sledge” is one of the better tracks on the record, but for me it all points to a sign of things to come. News of the bands emergence and new sound bleed out, and before long they were up and coming.
The next album,released in 1992, “Vulgar Display of Power,” is a huge leap for the band. It stormed the billboard charts, and they had officially arrived. Everything about this record goes perfectly with the the title. Even the album cover is intense. Apparently they paid a guy money for every punch in the face until they found the desired look. That's commitment. This album is pure power and aggression, and it sees them embrace the sound they were veering towards on the previous album. Songs like “A New Level,” showcase just how tight they had gotten as a band, and everything turned up to eleven. The drumming on this record is just insane, and the complimentary guitar goes exactly where you want heavy metal guitar to go. Some of the most well known songs in the bands history also emerge. “Walk” is a warning to everyone not to encroach on the bands foundation, unless they want to get stepped upon. The opening of that song is so insanely powerful that you get sucked in. The Abbotts had a way to do that with their instruments. Add in the loaded lyrics Anselmo brings to the table, and you have a song thats worth chanting loud and strong after a frustrating day. “Re-spect, Walk,” is a mantra among the metal community at this point, and it shows the strength of the band, even more than a decade after their dissolution.
The real gem of the record though is the appropriately titled “Fucking Hostile.” From the onset this track is very intense, and it's take no prisoners attitude is what makes the song memorable. The guitars, drums, and vocals are all going at a quick pace that lends itself to the immediate nature of the track. You feel the hostility brewing from their recording, and it's not only a highlight on the record, but a highlight of the whole bands history. The guitar solo itself is worth just talking about. It's searing in it's awesomeness, and essentially brings the song to a place it wasn't before it began. This is also the record where they mastered the balance of a slower song with the power of the band. It takes a certain kind of talent to be able to meld a more melodic track and intertwine it with moments of power and speed. The track I'm referencing here is “This Love.” It's a dark song about all the bad aspects of love, but the real star here is Anselmo's voice. The depth and gravitas he brings in his vocals show true potential and a range that you don't really see from him too often, I wish he would show it more to be honest, but you kind of just have to go for the ride.
So how do you follow up your major arrival into the world of metal? Quite simply, you go stronger, faster, tighter and more driven. The result, once you mix all those ingredients is the genre defining “Far Beyond Driven.” This album is probably their most popular record, and while it's not my favorite, the admiration is well deserved.
Take a song like “Becoming,” with it's incredible opening drum beat, and thumping arrangements. I still don't know how Darrel got that mechanical sounding hook in the guitar part, but it's masterfully done, and with all the other elements, it makes the song potent. While Pantera had always been a more anger driven band, this song is more in line with religious undertones that you don't see the band use to often. This song is all about strength and victory, and to do this, the “Becoming” of the title has to be realized. And if that guitar doesn't do it for you, the double bass kick drum undoubtedly will. Simply put, Vinnie Paul is the man.
Pantera was becoming a major force not only in metal, but music overall. Not since Metallica had a extreme band become so popular, and while Metallica is more well known, Pantera was roaming the world and slowly taking over. The band does this by relentless touring and the energy of their live show were main reasons they continued to soar. However, around this time is when things start to get a lot darker within the confines of the band.
For years Anselmo had been going hard, both onstage and off. This eventually took a major toll on his body. His back and neck were completely broken, and surgery was required. However Anselmo feared the length recovery time would derail the bands progress, and once painkillers stopped working, the next “logical” step was taken. That step was Heroin.
More than likely the band should of taken a hiatus and regrouped at 100%,but after the highs of the last few years, they had hit a creative stride and wanted to continue. By the time the criminally underrated “The Great Southern Trendkill” was released in 1996, the band was on different pages. Anselmo overdosed, nearly died, and that was the point that his addiction had finally come to be known by the rest of the band. That's what it took.
Sadly though it didn't bring the band closer, but further instead apart. For my money “Trendkill” is the definitive metal albums of the 90's, but it's a very dark album. Hatred, contempt for the scene, and oneself inundates the albums core, and you are given a pretty frail picture of the struggles Anselmo was dealing with at the time. From the opening song, it's full blown metal, and while the lyrics are dark and reflective, the music is arguably the best the band had done. The band toured the world over again, and the show was as insane as ever. If you've ever seen the Pantera 3 home video, you get the idea. If you haven't, you need to. It's long, and extensive, but it's probably one of the best band tour videos I've ever seen, and although I know now the struggles the band was going through, it's a great insight into the band itself.
Song after song on “TGSTK” are very strong, and Anselmo manages to give his all on both the vocals and lyrics. It's a very introspective record, and you feel the pain and frustration present in the band throughout. It got so bad in fact, that Anselmo's vocals parts had to be recorded away from the band, in Trent Reznor's Nothing Studios in Anselmo's hometown of New Orleans. Things weren't great.
But often times the best art comes from pain and tension, and this record is no different.
Among the highlights of the album include the one two punch of the “Suicide Note” tracks. “Suicide note Pt. I” is song that's slow and steady, but full of purpose and build up. The instrumentation is actually quite pretty, and it's a very open and brutally honest song about the despair one must be feeling while in the throes of a major addiction. The song discusses “taking the pain away,” and about the mistakes one has made. It's one of the darkest songs in the bands cannon, but also one of the most sincere and unapologetic.
Before long though, the song begins to fade out and “Part II' finds us, and this song is full of the intent that is only referenced in the previous song. It's fully on during this track, and it takes no prisoners or sanctuary from anyone. It might even be the most intense track on the record. The scorching guitar part, on top of the brutal screams of Philip, makes the song a combustible inclusion on this album.
The real high note of the record though, is track nine, titled “Floods.” at seven minutes, it’s murky, dark, and beautifully orchestrated. Rarely do songs hit you so hard initially, but “Floods” is one of them for me. I wasn’t even a fan of the band when this song entered my brain. That’s power and soul you don’t see too often. It’s a slow burn of a track, but Anselmo’s smoky vocals, and the western style guitars are incredible. Seeing this song live, it changes you. One of the best parts is the massive guitar infused lightning and thunder segment. It’s empowering, and mighty.
After another round of massive touring(with White Zombie, EyeHateGod and others) the band reconvened to record “Reinventing the Steel.” While a decent record all around, it’s missing something, at least in my opinion. “Hellbound,” which opens the record, is a good opener, and upon first listen, it’s good ole Pantera, but something had changed. Honestly there’s no need to go into much detail here, other to say the band had turned into something uglier.
One good thing that came from the record, at least for me, was finally being able to see the band live. Truthfully it was one of the best metal shows I’ve ever been to. Supported by Soulfly, Morbid Angel, and Nothingface, Pantera played well over two hours. and as it was held in Houston, was essentially a homecoming show. One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in my life though, was a moment where a wheelchair bound man was crowd surfed from the floor to the stage. To this day it was one of the top five most memorable things I’ve ever seen.
Following the “Steel” tour, the band was supposedly going to release Home Video Four, as well as a new album. That clearly never happened. This is where it gets even messy though. The Abbotts claim they were told Anselmo was taking a year off to refocus, only to record new albums with Down and Superjoint Ritual. Anselmo says that never happened and the brothers simply disbanded the band prematurely. We’ll never know for sure. A war of words escalated between both sides, and in my opinion all parties made mistakes. Sadly in December 2004, all hope of an eventual reunion were dashed when “Dimebag” Darrell was murdered by a fan during a Damageplan show. The reason was never stated, as the coward and bastard who killed Darrell was shot only after taking four lives.
Pantera though, will continue to have a legacy forever in the metal genre, and hopefully new fans will be getting hooked on the awesome power of the band for a long long time. The sound itself is still untouchable, and in my honest opinion we won’t ever get anything like what we got with Vinnie, Darrell, Phil and Rex again. RIP Darrell Abbott. Thanks for reading, see you Friday.
Landon Murray is a published writer and an avid lover of music, books and films. He's also a lover of the New Orleans Saints. He was born in 1982 and has a chainsaw tattoo on his arm.
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