Pantera – clearly one of the heaviest of Classic Heavy Metal bands, right? Through the 1990s, they released a succession of ground-breaking albums, each heavier than the last, and Classic Metal Hawk is proud owner of all of them. ‘Cowboys from Hell’. ‘Vulgar Display of Power’. ‘Far Beyond Driven’. ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’. All these names trip off the tongue. (For The Hawk’s money, Far Beyond Driven is the best of these, but he’ll accept that it’s not a clear-cut case.)
So, it may surprise you to learn (as it did The Hawk) that Pantera actually started out in the 80s as a full on, Hair Metal, Glam band. Find out more here.
Big Hair Beginnings
Don’t believe me about the glam? Then check out their 1983 debut album, ‘Metal Magic.’ Classic Metal Hawk defies any 90s fans to listen to this and say, with a straight face, that it sounds like a Pantera album. But that was, indeed, their early sound. The band started out in Texas, so were far removed (at least geographically) from that massive glam scene in places like LA. But plainly it was a substantial influence on their early work.
Take the song ‘Widowmaker’ – actually one of the better offerings on the ‘Metal Magic’ album – musically tight enough but unmistakeably glammy and not even in a very memorable way. The band had to release the album on their own family label, as no mainstream record companies were interested at the time, and it sank without a trace commercially.
Also, someone must have signed off on the above artwork for the album sleeve – a weird manbeast with the body of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the head of a cute little kitty cat. Presumably the artist had ‘lion’ in mind for the head part, but Classic Metal Hawk doesn’t buy that for a second.
But we should cut them some slack. Founder members / brothers Dimebag Darrel (Diamond Darrel at the time) and Vinnie Paul were only 16 and 19 years old, and had managed to already write and release an album, which is more than most of us have ever managed. It’s also worth remembering that this is the distinctly pre-Phil-Anselmo era of the band. Terry Glaze was the vocalist at the time, a Dave Lee Roth-type singer well suited to a glam metal style, not at all so to the later heavier sound of the 90s. This was something the band clearly recognized – when they did the odd Metallica cover in early shows, Glaze wouldn’t sing them, and Dimebag had to come in on vocals.
Ambition and Devotion
In the beginning, Pantera were a school band plus Glaze, playing rock and heavy metal covers in Texas clubs to a decent standard. But as with so many acts starting out, they realized they would have to come up with original material to make it to any kind of decent level in the music business, and they started writing. It led to songs with many of the Glam cliches that critics would hate when they finally got around to reviewing the early Pantera albums in retrospect, but it was all a part of the teeth-cutting process. Main point is, they knew they wanted to move on, to bigger and heavier things, but weren’t exactly sure what the ultimate destination Pantera sound like. In the meantime, they just cracked on.
They had ambition to make it big, and just wanted to put themselves out there. Even as a kid, Dimebag Darrell would practise putting on Ace Frehley makeup, picturing himself in the heavy metal big-leagues. Or he’d spend a whole summer learning the songs from Ozzy’s ‘Diary of a Madman’. They wanted it bad. And they had a work ethic to match.
In that sense, their Texas roots may have helped them. Bands growing up in LA at the time would often struggle to get a 15-minute set in some dingy club, and the competition to be noticed was intense. Young Pantera had no problem getting gigs, and were happy to play as many as it took, which of course is the way a band hones its craft.
The first 3 albums, ‘Metal Magic’ (1983), ‘Projects in the jungle’ (1984) and ‘I am night’ (1985) all feature Glaze on vocals and are therefore all distinctly Glam sounding – though there is a trend of ever increasing heaviness as we go. The direction of travel was set, even of the destination wasn’t yet locked in.
For instance, check out ‘All Over Tonight’, one of the stronger tracks from ‘Projects in the Jungle’.
There’s better production clarity compared to the first album, obviously accomplished musicianship, and just occasionally, there’s a hint of a heavier guitar and drum sound trying to break out. But then they add in the arpeggiated guitars and some higher-register riffs and it all starts to sound more like a Def Leppard tribute than 90’s Pantera.
Or moving on to ‘Hot and Heavy’ from the ‘I Am the Night’ album.
Here, there’s not a massive progression sound-wise between albums 2 and 3. Good playing, decent production, but still crammed with Glam cliches. (Listen to those big harmonics in the opening riff)!! At this point, the band collectively threw their hands up in the air, and concluded that if they wanted to ever put out the album they imagined themselves creating, a major change was needed. They parted company with Glaze, and went looking for a suitable replacement. Several failed attempts to find a new singer followed (Matt L’Amour, Rick Mythiasin, Donny Hart) before an 18-year-old Phil Anselmo turned up for an audition and was hired on the spot.
Anselmo was picked up in 1986 and was already a fan of the big thrash bands of the time, Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth et al. He was fully sold on the heavier style the band envisaged for themselves, and had the vocal abilities to back it up. So, the transition from Glam had started. But a transition to what? Something else is all that was certain.
A first album with the new line-up, ‘Power Metal’ was released in 1988. Check out the opening track, ‘Rock the World’.
It’s obviously the heaviest offering the band had come up with to date, and that’s mostly because of the new vocal style. Anselmo hadn’t yet fully developed his trademark aggression though – he’s still a conventional ‘singer’ on this record, if you get what the Hawk means. It’s decent, but still closer to the band’s Glam roots than to their subsequent style. Plus, get a load of ‘Big Hair’ Phil Anselmo (third from the left if The Hawk is not mistaken) – not the image he would go on to cultivate, by a long shot. But we all make mistakes, right Phil?
Sliding Doors Moment
But anyway, Pantera were now closer to what they had always wanted to be – but one final shove was still required. It was duly provided by a ‘sliding doors’ decision by Dimebag. Offered the lead guitar gig in Megadeth by Dave Mustaine (a slot eventually filled by Marty Friedman), Dimebag told Mustaine that he’s only accept if Vinnie Paul also joined Megadeth on drums. Mustaine already had a drummer (Nick Menza), so declined.
At their next band meeting, Pantera decided that with that distraction out of the way, they should get serious about heavy metal in its rawest sense. They ditched the Glam clothes and hair, and got to work on ‘Cowboys from Hell.’
The difference between ‘Power Metal’ and ‘Cowboys from Hell’ is remarkable – Anselmo now sounds like you expect him to on a Pantera record, like he’d now found his confidence to perform in that way. The other instruments are now as un-Glam as you could imagine. Anselmo has had a haircut.
How They Were Always Meant to Sound
‘Cowboys from Hell’ was also Pantera’s first release on a ‘proper’ label, having signed for ATCO – the previous 4 having all come out on their own Metal Magic label.
Classic Metal Hawk can’t help but wonder about the first play-through of the album for the ATCO top brass. They were presumably a bit surprised that, having signed a Glam band, they were now listening to an ear-splittingly heavy record, a total change in direction from anything that had gone before. Strong words may well have been exchanged. But anyway, the suits must have been relieved when the album performed well, certainly better than any of the previous albums. Charting in different countries around the world, it opened door for the band that would never have happened had they not abandoned the glam roots.
For example, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, on hearing some of the new material was blown away. He’d never even heard of the band up until that point, but went to see a show, and offered them an opening slot on the next Judas Priest European tour on the spot. They also landed a slot on the Monsters of Rock bill for 1991, playing all over Europe alongside royalty such as AC/DC, Metallica, Motley Crue and Queensryche.
The critical reception was also good. For a start, the critics actually noticed that ‘Cowboys from Hell’ existed which marked a step up from previous albums. And reviews were positive, especially for the new guitar sound that, alongside Anselmo’s unique vocal style, would prove influential for a whole new generation of heavy metal fans in the 1990s.
What Kind of Metal??
Some people refer to the style they pioneered as ‘Groove Metal’ which, let’s face it, is a terrible description, and not a phrase that will darken the Classic Metal Hawk blog very often. But it was an original sound at the time – part thrash, sure, but certainly far more than a Metallica / Slayer knock-off. Interestingly, that fourth album ‘Power Metal’ is also a label briefly given to early years Metallica by their bass player at the time, Ron McGovney. Were Pantera trying to compare themselves to ‘Kill Em All’ era Metallica? The Hawk is unconvinced by the similarities, but make up your own mind.
The Hawk covers that 90’s era in more detail on another blog post, taking in the music, the Anselmo meltdown and the tragedies. Tune in for that here on The Hawk’s blog.
But this post is here to showcase their roots, and show that in Classic Heavy Metal, bands can and do successfully change direction. Pantera went from a moderately OK Glam band to an original and influential metal outfit almost with one jump.
It’s kinda strange now to look back to their big hair days, and the Hawk can’t help but wonder how the band feels about that part of their journey now, at least those who have survived long enough to look back on it.
It’s hard to say, but the Classic Metal Hawk blog is here in part to allow us all to reminisce, and indeed to maybe make a few new discoveries in the Classic Heavy Metal space. The Hawk’s view is that he probably won’t end up adding too many of those early era tracks to his play lists – they are mostly ok, but nothing more. Glam nerds out there will no doubt already know a lot of this history, and it’s obviously a part of the Pantera journey that took them to eventual dizzying heights. The Hawk was pleased to be able to track the journey, and now share it with fellow Glam-Pantera newbies. Let’s play out with another of the better tracks from their man-kitty album – ‘I’ll be Alright’.
Most shocking thing about this whole article? Definitely that band photo on the cover of ‘Power Metal’. I mean, Anselmo with big hair, sure, but the rest of them as well. The Hawk for one is grateful that Pantera eventually found their true calling, but stands to be disagreed with, as always. Were the big hair days underrated?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.