When it comes to putting heavy metal into context, history will note that the 90s served the genre well. Yet no matter how much importance is laid at the feet of the grunge explosion spearheaded by Nirvana, equally important to the metal scene is the power groove metal of Pantera. The Dallas quartet proved, over the course of the second half of their career, that extreme forms of metal neither had to totally abandon such mediums as tunefulness, nor did they have to remain strangers to mainstream commercial success. Today the influence of Pantera hangs heavy over the metal world. Yet when it all began, back in 1982, it was a much different story. For starters the band formed by brothers Vinnie Paul and Darrell ‘Dimebag’ Abbott and bassist Rex Brown (originally Rocker) did not feature Phil Anselmo on vocals but rather Terrence Lee, renamed Terry Glaze. Likewise, the band’s sound was a far cry from the brutal approach of latter-day albums. Indeed, such is the vast chasm of difference between the two different line-ups that you will find little mention of Pantera’s first four albums on any Pantera website. Pantera have never quite got over the hilarity connected with their glam era, and for this feature this writer had to delve back to his days as a tape trader in the early 80s to recall quite what a different band Pantera were. Glaze was ousted prior to 1988’s Power Metal, when Kiss’s Gene Simmons, of all people, had tabled a record deal. Power Metal, featuring Phil Anselmo with bouffant hair, eventually appeared in 1988, but Pantera still did not make a name for themselves until the drastic stylistic shift of 1990’s Cowboys From Hell. By now Pantera were on their way, blending the metallic precision of thrash metal with more extreme sounds. 1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power took everything to a new level entirely and two years later, when Far Beyond Driven crashed into the Billboard album chart at Number One, they were arguably the most influential metal band on the planet, certainly snapping at the heels of Metallica and their position as the most commercially successful group of the form. Typically, it couldn’t last. And typically it didn’t. Drug abuse was highlighted when Anselmo famously OD’d on heroin, a fractious relationship with the press existed, not helped when Metal Hammer’s Ian Winwood questioned Anselmo’s sexuality, much to the band’s chagrin, and ultimately there was personal friction over Pantera’s musical direction. 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill showed some signs of the tension within the band, though a more experimental sound continued to highlight Pantera’s problems. It would be four years before another studio album, 2000’s Reinventing The Steel, saw the light of day, by which time Anselmo had tasted success with various side projects, including Down and Superjoint Ritual. Ultimately, following some disastrous live performances on the ...Trendkill tour – including an horrendous show at the Brixton Academy – the band acrimoniously split. Yet if that was bad enough for the world of metal, Dimebag Darrell was then senselessly shot by lunatic ‘fan’ Nathan Gale at a Damageplan gig in Columbus, Ohio in December 2004.
Metal Detector: Pantera
Ultimately it all ended under the most horrible of circumstances, yet in happier times Pantera were pure metal magic. We track the highs and the lows of this most brutal of bands.
[METAL MAGIC, 1983]
That’s not magic!
Woah, hold on there! Yes, this is the same Pantera we’re talking about – the ones who released A Vulgar Display Of Power – though the chances are that most Metal Hammer fans won’t be too aware of Pantera’s debut album, nor the following three or four Pantera releases. Metal Magic – housed in what must rate as one of the most cliched of metal album covers (painted by a friend of the band) – is pure glam metal, slightly rockier than that which stalked Sunset Boulevard, but not by much. The likes of Ride My Rocket (yes, really), Nothin’ On (But The Radio) and Rock Out will leave most Pantera fans open-mouthed in horror and confusion. Of course, in 1983 the band were still teenagers, and fronted by Terry Glaze, a rock singer in a far slicker vein than Phil Anselmo, all too young to know any better. More laughter inducing than vomit producing, it must be said.
IF YOU MUST
[METAL MAGIC, 1984]
A bit more meat.
While any of Pantera’s first three releases are mirth-inducing at best, much of that is to do with the band that they would become. For an album released on the group’s own label back in 1984, Projects In The Jungle might not sound too bad. Placed alongside Vulgar Display Of Power it’s like comparing Cannon & Ball with Monty Python. Heavier than the band’s debut, true, it still boasts a dire song called Heavy Metal Rules and much less besides. Still, actual tunes such as Out For Blood, Like Fire and Takin’ My Life do show a band maturing (slightly) into a more solid metal outfit. The album is also the favourite of original singer Terry Glaze, who says of Projects In The Jungle, “I just dig the tunes, especially All Over Tonight.” Yet placed alongside any Pantera album featuring Phil Anselmo, _Projects In The Jungl_e simply sounds like the very different band they then were.
[METAL MAGIC, 1985]
Defiantly old school
“We were into Iron Maiden,” is simply how original Pantera singer Terry Glaze refers to the inspiration behind Pantera’s early music. That’s as maybe, but given the way this band helped shape the metal landscape in the wake of albums like Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display Of Power, any Pantera fan thinking about trying to seek out any of the band’s first three albums (only available via the likes of eBay) should be warned. This is traditional heavy metal with a slight glam bent. Songs like Hot And Heavy, Onward We Rock and, ahem, Valhalla are a far cry from Cemetery Gates, Mouth For War or The Art Of Shredding. Pantera released and sold their early albums themselves – with sales eventually reaching the 1000 mark – but times were changing. Major labels would eventually show an interest, Glaze would be off to the likes of Lord Tracy and Crayfish, and there’d be a new singer in town.
A shot at former glories.
Almost as if the varied tempos and vocal effects of 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill had taken Pantera to areas not everyone in the band was comfortable with, the group’s final studio release tries very hard to keep things close to old-school ways. Given this, there is little doubt that Reinventing The Steel is up there with Vulgar Display Of Power as one of Pantera’s heaviest releases. Yet Reinventing... lacks the freshness of Pantera’s early 90s albums. Perhaps that’s because of the in-fighting in the band – Dimebag and Vinnie favoured experimentation, while the drink- and drug-addled Anselmo preferred the doom-laden brutal metal approach. Whatever, it didn’t really matter. The resultant live shows were so fraught – the band were falling apart at the seams all over Europe – that the end was obviously nigh.
Nothing cowboy about this one.
Breakthrough album or ‘real’ debut release, it depends on your point of view. Either way, there’s absolutely no doubt about the impact Cowboys From Hell had on Pantera and on heavy metal itself. In place of the traditional approach of Power Metal is an unbridled attack on the senses. Diamond Darrell (as he was still known) proves to be a hitherto unknown virtuoso, calling up the kind of blinding riffage and frenetic soloing he had never hinted at before. Elsewhere, Phil Anselmo, whose fondness for New Orleans’ thrash metal band Exhorder was a clear influence, adopts an even greater range than he had on his Power Metal debut. The highlight is without a doubt the seven-minute-plus Cemetery Gates, but it’s pushed all the way by the title track and Primal Concrete Sledge. A new dawn for extreme, and extremely good, heavy metal.
NOT FOR ALL
THINK ABOUT THESE
[METAL MAGIC, 1988]
Not that powerful
Although he claims today to have no recollection of a deal being on the table via Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, perceived wisdom is that singer Terry Glaze was involved in talks which ultimately led to his departure. Whatever, by the time of Power Metal, Glaze was gone and New Orleans native Phil Anselmo, complete with big hair, was the man with the mic. Of all of Pantera’s early works (ridiculed on the web on sites like the sadly defunct Panterrible!), Power Metal is the one that highlights the way forward to the band they would become. Dimebag’s (at this point still known as Diamond Darrell) riffing is more frenetic, and despite Anselmo’s high-end vocal performance and song titles like Rock The World, this is early Pantera at their heaviest. There are even slight traces of Anselmo’s fondness for the likes of Exhorder that would change the band beyond recognition in the space of two years.
Only official live document.
Recorded as the band toured 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill, Pantera were not perhaps in quite the best of health. Vocalist Phil Anselmo’s dalliances with hard drugs, notably heroin, had served to cause friction within the band, augmented by a deteriorating relationship with the press. Yet the awesome musical power conjured by the band is still more than evident on a set that relies predominantly on the two albums previous, Vulgar Display Of Power and Far Beyond Driven. True, they had begun to experiment with their sound on The Great Southern Trendkill, but here Pantera are all about unbridled aggression and anger, and an almost fanatical devotion to their brand of metal. The inclusion of two brand-new studio tracks, Where You Come From and I Can’t Hide, lend the album a feeling that things were better within the band than they actually were.
Is this where it all went wrong?
After three such groundbreaking and essential albums as Cowboys..., Vulgar... and Far Beyond... Pantera were faced with something of a quandary. Should they stick to their guns and deliver another high-octane set of brutal, headcrushing metal, or try to do something slightly different? Brothers Dimebag and Vinnie Paul were both keen on the latter, singer Anselmo favoured the former. Bassist Rex, never the most voluble member, probably kept his opinions to himself. The resulting album proved the brothers had won out, and The Great Southern Trendkill is easily the most diverse of the modern-day Pantera albums, even dipping into balladry on the likes of 10’s and Suicide Note Pt. 1. Lyrically, Anselmo’s normal poetic angst was replaced by drug-related diatribes and rants at the media, showing something, somewhere, was very wrong indeed.
Just far beyond their best.
It was Pantera’s third album in four years, it entered the Billboard chart at Number One, and rocketed the band’s seemingly never-ending touring schedule into the arenas. With Far Beyond Driven, Pantera had truly arrived. But yet it’s not Hammer’s essential recommendation. Why? Simply, the songs aren’t as good as those featured on Vulgar Display Of Power, and in the likes of Good Friends And A Bottle Of Pills and their inclusion of a cover of Black Sabbath’s Planet Caravan there are even hints Pantera might be running out of ideas. Not so, however, on the likes of Strength Beyond Strength, the Grammy-nominated I’m Broken and the quite malevolent Slaughtered, which prove that Pantera were still adept at creating near-lethal metal. Commercially they’d never be as big again, but the cracks would soon show.
MUST HAVE METAL
A brutal display of efficiency.
If Cowboys From Hell surprised anyone who had been aware of the hair metal line-up of Pantera, then the following Vulgar Display Of Power certainly laid to rest their 1980s ghosts. Diamond Darrell (it would be his last appearance as Diamond, opting for the decidedly less glam 'Dimebag' after this album) churns out an even heavier selection of downtuned riffs, while Phil Anselmo drops the more histrionic vocals in favour of an overall hardcore style. This proved to be a winning formula for the band.
Opening with the abrasively impressive Mouth For War, and delivering a second knock-out punch with Walk (the first metal single to debut at No.1 on the US charts), this is Pantera’s songwriting at its most impressive. There’s little to say about Fucking Hostile not relayed by the song’s title, and even when they drop the tempo, on the likes of Hollow and This Love, there’s an almost insidious heaviness to the band’s overall sound. Vulgar Display Of Power is very much, from start to finish, an unrelentingly heavy album.
This is, perhaps, why things took a while to take off for the band. Cowboys From Hell was closer in spirit to the thrash-metal sound which had slowly moved to the fore in metal. Yet in the early 90s, the big thrash pioneers like Metallica, Megadeth and even Slayer had become more mainstream in sound. For fans of heavier matter, the arrival of Pantera’s new, more brutal metallic approach couldn’t have come at a more apt time. Bearing this in mind, it was MTV’s acceptance of their videos that went a long way to breaking the band. This, you could say, is ironic.
BEST OF THE REST
Outside of Pantera’s official releases, all of which reside on our overall Top 10, there’s not a hell of a lot of material out there. As far as compilations go, the most thorough was 2003’s quite excellent The Best Of Pantera: Far Beyond The Greatest Southern Cowboys' Vulgar Hits! The title might be a mouthful, but the album features the finest from the band from Cowboys From Hell onwards. Singles 1991-1996 was released in Australia in 1998 and is available from various shop websites. On the DVD front, 1991’s Cowboys From Hell and 1999’s 3 Vulgar Videos From Hell can be tracked down on the Internet, as can 1997’s live performance Watch It Go. All of which can be recommended. If you’re so inclined, you should also be able to find any of the band’s first four albums on eBay. Be prepared to pay a hefty price, however. And be prepared to be underwhelmed as well...
METAL HAMMER’S BEST PANTERA ALBUM EVER!*
DOWNLOAD THIS FOR THE ULTIMATE PANTERA COMPILATION ALBUM...
COWBOYS FROM HELL from Cowboys From Hell (1990)
Cemetery Gates from Cowboys From Hell (1990)
PRIMAL CONCRETE SLEDGE (LIVE) from Cowboys From Hell (1990)
Mouth For War from Vulgar Display Of Power (1992)
WALK from Vulgar Display Of Power (1992)
FUCKING HOSTILE (LIVE AT DONINGTON '94) from Vulgar Display Of Power (1992)
HOLLOW from Vulgar Display Of Power (1992)
Strength Beyond Strength from Far Beyond Driven (1994)
*This album is unavailable from any good record shop. Make it yourself.
This feature was first published in Metal Hammer issue 148.