“We’re taking over this town.”
I don’t think there is a better way to sum up what Pantera did in the 90s with Metal. It’s just listening to the first opening riffs of Cowboys From Hell to know that we’re dealing with something fresh. Something different.
One cannot comprehend how Metal was shaped during the 90s without considering Pantera’s influence: they defined how a Metal band should sound during that decade and there are millions of musicians that became what they are due to the influence of these four musicians. And it all started with 1990’s Cowboys From Hell: an all-time classic and Pantera’s finest, in my personal opinion.
Most people think of the 1990 release as Pantera’s first official studio album and even the guys in the band have come to see it that way themselves, but the reality is that the group had been around since the mid-80s and they were playing Hard Rock music reminiscent to what Van Halen (one of Vinnie Paul and Dimebag Darrell’s biggest influences) and Quiet Riot were doing at the time.
Pantera’s “glam” days are often the subject of ridicule by some of their detractors and it’s often used as an excuse to point them out as “sell-outs” because they made major changes in their image and their sound when Cowboys From Hell came out. It’s important to discuss this for a moment because it helps to understand Pantera’s fifth album in a much more complete manner.
Both brothers, Vinnie Paul and Dimebag, were heavily influenced by Hard Rock music, especially Van Halen and Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy, so it’s understandable that the band had a Hard Rock-based approach in their music. It’s also worth pointing out that the band started pretty young, even as far as playing in clubs and bars while being underage, so they were still learning, absorbing influences and beginning to know themselves in a deeper level.
Besides, what is wrong with shifting from lighter music to a heavier approach? After all, there are bands that become more experimental, lighter and whatnot as they progress, so it’s not surprising that these guys could do the same thing. Even Alice in Chains, a group synonymous with the Grunge movement, had “glam” aesthetics before changing their name and releasing Facelift and they are also a fantastic band in their own right.
The second factor to take into account was Phil Anselmo’s input. When Phil joined the band to make their fourth album, 1988’s Power Metal, Pantera started to move towards a heavier direction because the vocalist was a fan of heavier groups such as Slayer or Celtic Frost. Power Metal is, sadly, a forgotten jewel in Pantera’s catalog where we can hear the band in a mix between classic Heavy Metal and Speed Metal, slowing gaining heaviness and getting sharper as song writers.
The best punch would be the following album.
The 90s were raising new questions for the Metal genre: all leading Heavy and Thrash Metal bands were already veterans in their own right and there was this notion that the genre was perhaps in need of a bit of rejuvenation. Pantera was a pivotal example of being at the right moment in the right time: Cowboys From Hell was a musical effort that injected new life to the scene and showed what you could with the several influences that you now had in store without sounding like someone else’s copy.
Almost thirty years later, this album sounds as fresh and menacing as its first days. The title track is a beast of an opener and it shows the band at the height of their powers. Anselmo delivers the kind of attitude in his vocal performance that would make him a legend in the genre and Dimebag’s riffs are of a monumental quality. There are only a handful of tracks more meaningful and influential in the 90s than this title track and for good reason!
The production is crystal clear and there is much to love about this album: tracks like Message in Blood or Primal Concrete Sledge may not be as well-known as other Pantera songs, but their combination of power, shrieking vocals and a pounding rhythm makes you forget about it and headbang all the way.
For those more familiar with Phil Anselmo’s more classical style that he would develop in Vulgar Display of Power, it has to be said that Phil was a more conventional Heavy Metal singer in the late 80s and early 90s, drawing a lot of influence from Rob Halford himself –this is very well shown in Shattered, a fast song with a lot of Speed Metal influences and Phil reaching a lot of high notes that would have you doubt that he is the same guy that sang Revolution is my Name.
Psycho Holiday (perhaps of the best titles for a song of all time) and The Art of Shredding are also two fantastic tracks and two personal favorites of mine, often showing a superb guitar work by Dimebag, who was slowly cementing his own legacy as one of Metal’s finest and more influential guitar players in the modern era.
Compared to future Pantera albums, there is a lot more room for rhythm changes, different vocal styles and going for a bit more melodic approach in certain areas. This is more than evident with the album’s epic: Cemetery Gates.
Perhaps Pantera’s best song, this power ballad goes to show a side of the man that is not so well-known and also shows that they are capable of being more intricate, meticulous and melodic musicians than what they are usually credited for. Phil’s vocal performance might be the best of his entire career, doing different styles in just one song and delivering with the kind of spirit, conviction and gusto that only someone who wants to give his all can do.
It’s the type of song that you need to listen to understand its emotional substance and to comprehend just how good it truly is.
Cowboys From Hell prepared Metal for the 90s by offering a different way to play the genre and doing so with the same raw attitude that Thrash bands had in the 80s (Pantera is, of course, a child of the Thrash era). Pantera would go on strength after strength, releasing albums that will test their mettle and their fans’ and at the same time contributing to create new scenes in the decade.
It all started here. With this Metal masterpiece.