Although it seemed at the time that Pantera (Spanish for "panther") became an "overnight success" with the release of this album, they had actually spent several years (and made three skippable albums) making the rounds as glam rockers with Terry Glaze as their lead singer. The fortunes of this Texas band started to change after the arrival of tough guy Phil Anselmo, who totally changed the band, so much so that Pantera has practically disowned their earlier albums (including Power Metal with Anselmo in 1988). Well, like most people this album and Vulgar Display Of Power are where I got to know the band, and I'd recommend starting with either one of those twin pillars of the band's catalogue as well if you haven't already. I actually came to this album after Vulgar so I can’t help but compare the two, noting that while this one isn’t quite as brutally focused or heavy it’s more varied and melodic (and still plenty heavy). The biggest difference is that Anselmo actually tries to sing more often on this album; his surprisingly strong Rob Halford-like histrionics would be completely abandoned after this album as Anselmo focused more on being a tough guy grunter than on being a great singer (which he is capable of being). Bassist Rex Brown and drummer Vinny Paul give the band an incredibly forceful bottom heavy sound, while "Diamond" (now known as "Dimebag") Darrell (Vinny’s younger brother) supplies the visceral, machine gun riffs and some impressive solos (with many a squealing "pinched harmonic," which became a trademark of both him and his good buddy Zakk Wilde), becoming a much admired guitar hero in the process (alas, this album's extensive guitar soloing would be abridged on future endeavors). Authoritatively produced by Terry Date, who expertly highlights the band's cold, steely precision and brutal aggressiveness, Cowboys From Hell announced the emergence of one of the ‘90s most influential (they helped pioneer groove metal) and successful heavy metal bands. Helped along by powerful videos of arguably the album's three best songs, "Cowboys From Hell," "Psycho Holiday," and "Cemetery Gates," and already semi-legendary for being one of the most ferocious, energizing live bands ever, this album deservedly brought the band into the big time after years of struggle. The title track starts the album with an instant classic that introduces the band's mission statement with regards to live performances ("we're taking over this town") and features great riffs and soloing from Dimebag in a vintage performance. "Primal Concrete Sludge" is a short but impressive drum showcase for one of the best in the business, before "Psycho Holiday" provides great groovy metal with actual vocal hooks and another choice solo from Dimebag. The impressive quality on the album's first half continues with the thrashy "Heresy" before the album's absolute highlight commences with the monumental "Cemetery Gates." An exhausting mid-tempo epic, this mournful yet rocking gothic "power ballad" features incredibly atmospheric and emotional guitars, as the band ambitiously pursues light/shade dynamics in a way I wish they had more often later on. Featuring a classic Dimebag guitar solo, and with Phil being at his absolute best in delivering a nuanced vocal with chops to spare (again the debt to Halford is obvious), this song is simply one of the all-time great heavy metal power ballads, right up there with the illustrious likes of "Fade To Black" and "Beyond The Realms Of Death." "Domination" sees the band relentlessly back in ferocious assault mode, delivering flat out ass kicking metal with yet more great guitar riffs and soloing, and the explosive "Shattered" is another highlight, with fast, rapid-fire riffs, and impressive vocals that include Phil's aggro bark as well as glass breaking screams. Alas, as was inevitable I suppose, most of the second half of the album can't keep pace, but even though it's considerably less memorable it is still plenty ass kicking, and slower numbers like "Message In Blood" (whose at times cheesy vocals are regrettable) and "The Sleep" (another album highlight, actually) add some needed variety. Also, the aptly titled "The Art Of Shredding" provides a fine finale; I just knew that a song with such a title was going to be good! Anyway, despite some songwriting lapses, this is a great album that effectively merges Anselmo's Hetfield bark and Halford operatics with Dimebag's almost Eddie Van Halen-ish chops and a crushingly powerful rhythm section, all brought into sharp focus by Terry Date's state of the art production.
Vulgar Display Of Power (East West ’92) Rating: A
The album cover says it all, a fist rearranging somebody’s face, and Pantera’s third album with lead screamer Phil Anselmo is considered their best by most, yours truly included. For if the band found their niche on Cowboys, surely they perfected their steely craft on the aptly titled Vulgar, the album that crystallized what the band was all about. Few if any bands can match the pure power and unremitting intensity of these guys, highlighted by Darrell’s brutal hyper-riffing guitar, Paul’s torrential downpour drumming, and Anselmo, an unleashed animal determined to shred his vocal chords on every song (Rex is good too). Truthfully, I wish that Anselmo would try to actually sing more, like on parts of “This Love” and “Hollow,” since he again proves that he indeed can. That said, by shedding his Halford-isms (which I generally enjoyed) he found his own unique voice, even if his one-dimensional vocals somewhat limit the band and makes listening to them draining over the long haul. His psychopathic bark certainly fits the material, though, as just about every song here is an angry rant that's all but bursting with rage; whether detailing why they’re “Fucking Hostile” or kissing off some girl on “This Love,” these guys are REALLY pissed off. The music plays off that, going full throttle most of the time with a massively muscular attack, though there are also some striking tempo changes that reveal an impressive musicality. The classic tracks are "Mouth For War," with its chugging groove, tough guy shouts, and even a hooky chorus (plus a prime Dime solo), "Walk," the quintessential Pantera song whose fist pumping chorus provided a mandatory mosh pit highlight to many a Pantera concert, "Fucking Hostile" and the Helmet-esque "Rise," the two thrashiest tracks which provide antisocial statements of purpose and blistering solo sections, "This Love," which as previously mentioned is mellower, until the sledgehammer chorus punches you right in the gut, that is, and "Hollow," which is really mellower, with pretty harmonized guitars a la Iron Maiden and tender crooning from Phil before the song explodes halfway through, after which it rocks hard to the finish. As with Cowboys, the second half of the album can't quite keep pace after an awesome start, but the less memorable songs (tracks 7 through 10) are still relentlessly pummeling and impressive. The sheer weightiness and intensity of this album's unmerciful yet often-anthemic songs pumps me up, though due to my advancing age I'm not always in the mood for such extreme stuff. When that mood does strike, however, these guys are the real deal and then some, and at their best (i.e. most of this album) in the '90s Pantera was taking the "heavy" in heavy metal to “A New Level.”
Far Beyond Driven (East West ’94) Rating: B+
Many people were shocked when this album immediately shot up to #1 on the Billboard charts (the most extreme album to ever do so), but they obviously weren’t paying attention to this untamed beast or their rabid fan base. Another perfectly titled album, Far Beyond Driven took Pantera to ludicrously extreme levels of ugly overdrive. Though little advancement in the way of “artistic growth” is evident (except for more industrial touches, including an abundance of strange “guitar as drill” effects by the newly christened “Dimebag” Darrell), most fans of the band were quite pleased anyway. Me, I find listening to this thing to be an exhausting experience, as the band’s relentlessly restraint-free and one-dimensional intensity excites me less the more I’m subjected to it, especially since I feel that Anselmo’s guttural grindcore growling sells himself short. Oh, the band has clearly not “sold out” here, as they’re more brutal than ever, obviously trying to take the opposite tact of Metallica but sacrificing melody and dynamics as a result. Plus, disturbing macho lyrics like “I fucked your girlfriend last night while you snored and drooled, I fucked your love...your girlfriend could have been a burn-victim, an amputee, a dead body, but God damn I wanted to fuck!” don't help matters much (let's hope Phil got the counseling he needed!). However, for pure pulverizing metallic might Pantera again gives the people what they want (secret weapon Terry Date is again peerless behind the production board; the album sounds good even when the songs aren't), and there are some standout songs, particularly towards the beginning as per usual such as "Becoming," "5 Minutes Alone," and "I'm Broken." Still, the band seems less and less about memorable individual songs and more about building up to an overwhelming overall onslaught. Mission accomplished, but heavier isn’t necessarily better, and this stuff has it limits, leaving me thinking that unless they somewhat change their course the band seems headed toward a stylistic dead end. Surprising plus: a spot on cover of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan.” Note: Subsequent albums such as 1996's The Great Southern Trendkill had its moments as well, such as "10’s," "Drag The Waters," and especially "Floods" (generally acknowledged to contain Dimebag’s single greatest guitar solo), and 1997's Official Live: 101 Proof was a strong live album, but by and large it soon became a case of diminishing returns, in large part due to Phil's drug problem and Dimebag's alcoholism (his playing on 2000's Reinventing The Steel is noticeably substandard). As such, Pantera's reputation primarily rests on the three albums reviewed on this page, when the band pioneered a new brand of ultra-heavy metal that influenced many subsequent bands, even though let's face it many (hell, most) of their imitators sucked. As most people know, the band experienced an ugly breakup in the early '00s as Anselmo's numerous side projects (Down, Superjoint Ritual) took precedence over Pantera. Vinny and Dimebag formed Damageplan and were back to playing small clubs again when Dimebag's shocking onstage murder at the hands of a psychopath ended any possibility of a triumphant comeback.
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