Has there ever been a better 6 year period for any heavy metal band in history than Pantera’s golden run from 1990 to 1996? They went from strength to strength musically and became THE creative force in 1990s heavy metal. But then the wheels fell off spectacularly. In spite of the spectacular rise and fall of Pantera, those wheels can’t – and should not – now be reattached. Let’s find out why.
On its face, the 1990s, and especially the period from 1990 to 1996 was a time of unmitigated success for Pantera. During those years, they churned out no fewer than 4 Classic Heavy Metal albums each one arguably better, heavier, more intense than the last. They redefined heavy metal for the 1990s at a time when it seemed in danger of being swept aside in irrelevance, submerged in the wave of grunge emanating out of Seattle. They achieved considerable commercial success, but without any suggestion of selling out to commercial forces; indeed, quite the reverse – each album release they pushed the boundaries still further.
Yep, they were golden years, beyond a shadow of a doubt. And yet, that period also set in train the tensions that would ultimately prove fatal – not only for Pantera as a going concern, but also indirectly for the life of one of their most influential members. It’s a real story of triumph and tragedy, so let’s strap in and hear it in full.
Total Transformation – From Glam to Cowboys From Hell
Classic Metal Hawk has already written a blog post about how Pantera grew out of their Glam Metal roots to turn into the 90s force we all remember, starting with their first classic album ‘Cowboys from Hell’ released in 1990. It was a turning point for the band, charting in different countries around the world, and opening new doors for them. Rob Halford offered them the support gig on the next Judas Priest European tour as a direct result of hearing that new material, and they 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, gushing over the new guitar sound that, alongside Anselmo’s unique vocal style, would inspire a whole new generation of heavy metal fans in the 1990s.
‘Cowboys from Hell’ was the bands 5th album to date, but their first since signing for a major label in ATCO. Also, their first since they’d made the decision to break with Glam once and for all after a ‘sliding doors’ decision by Dimebag. Offered the lead guitar gig in Megadeth by Dave Mustaine (a slot eventually filled by Marty Friedman); Darrell told Mustaine that he’s only accept if Vinnie Paul also joined Megadeth on drums. Mustaine already had a drummer, so declined. At their next band meeting, Pantera decided to 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 album is notable for a couple of reasons – the new and heavier production of course, with credit to new producer Terry Date who would be at the helm all through their 90s triumphs. Dimebag develops his guitar sound on both rhythm and lead into something really innovative. But more important, the reigns were firmly removed from Phil Anselmo, giving him the opportunity to showcase his full range. This is probably most notable on ‘Cemetery Gates’ – a song which Classic Metal Hawk hesitates to call a ballad, but which has a brooding, emotional side to contrast with heavier sections.
Stepping it up – Vulgar Display of Power
Fans all over the world loved ‘Cowboys from Hell.’ But little did they know that it was just the beginning. That only a couple of years later in 1992, ‘A Vulgar Display of Power’ would come along and make it sound relatively tame by comparison. The title of the album comes from a quote from the 1973 movie ‘The Exorcist.’
The priest asks a tied-up devil, “If you’re the Devil, why not make the straps disappear?”. To which the devil replies, “That’s much too vulgar a display of power.” But even leaving aside the cultural reference, the title perfectly captures the bands approach.
Let’s consider some of the ingredients. Upon pulling the album down off the shelf, we see that the cover features some dude getting punched in the face. So there’s no ambiguity around the content here. Then, the first song, ‘Mouth for War’ kicks in with not one, not two, but three killer licks just in the intro section. Next up is ‘A New Level’, a song about being challenged, disrespected, treated like crap, and overcoming that. The lyrics perfectly capture the vibe emanating from this album:
A new level
Sounds like Pantera? Oh yeah. The band’s ability to write authentic sounding lyrics from the heart was now becoming a real sell with the fans, and we can see why with examples like this. The next song, ‘Walk’ is in a similar vein – a plaintiff demand for respect. Then comes ‘F***ing Hostile’, a blistering-speed attack on inauthenticity, where Anselmo’s heavily distorted vocal in the chorus line is one of the highlights of the whole piece. Then comes ‘This Love’. Will it be the ‘ballad-type’ song on the album, like ‘Cemetery Gates’ last time out? Up to a point, yes. In brings in different emotions after the none stop aggression preceding with arpeggiated guitar in intro and verse, and sung verses.
You get the idea. The band had recorded an additional track, lovingly titled ‘Piss’, which disappointingly failed to make the cut for the album, and we had to wait for the 20th anniversary release to hear it.
Critics thought ‘Vulgar Display of Power’ even more influential than ‘Cowboys from Hell’, and the fans loved it. The album and subsequent singles charted well all around the world, with ‘Walk’ even hitting the top 40 in the UK singles list.
By some accounts, Pantera were annoyed and disappointed when they first heard Metallica’s black album during the writing and recording process for ‘Vulgar Display of Power’. They thought Metallica had sold out too hard to the forces of commercialism and were determined that the same thing would not happen to them. But by the same token, they saw an opportunity – if Metallica were going to be commercial sell-outs, there was surely now a gap at the top of the heavy metal market for a more authentic offering. Pantera naturally thought they should be the act to fill this metal vacuum – and along came ‘A Vulgar Display of Power.’ Job done, right? Well yes, but…
But but but.
Stepping it up Once Again – Far Beyond Driven
They weren’t done yet. Two years later in 1994, what do we have but ‘Far Beyond Driven’, which again would put its predecessors in the shade. Classic Metal Hawk likes to imagine how the conversation went when it came to the cover art.
‘Last time round, we had a picture of some dude getting punched in the face. How are we going to top that?‘
‘Let’s do a picture of someone having their skull drilled into.‘
(The above chat is a figment of Classic Metal Hawk’s imagination, but it sounds plausible. There’s a story that the original idea had the drill going into someone’s anus, but this was rejected as possibly damaging for sales. Yes, even Pantera were willing to make a minor nod to commercialism, so they went with the skull instead.)
The whole thing starts off at a blistering pace with ‘Strength Beyond Strength’, with Anselmo’s now-even-harsher vocals kicking in in only the second bar, launching into an auto-biographical tirade about his ‘rambunctious’ activities as a youth and growing strength through them. As with ‘Vulgar Display,’ many of the songs are self-reflections in one form or another, adding to the growing ‘authenticity vibe’. That’s explicit in the second track, ‘Becoming’, which bitches about other bands moving into commercial space. Stick with us, say Pantera, if you want the real thing – a band sticking to their heavy metal guns.
There’s the hard-to-take-seriously ‘5 minutes alone’ – a fan’s father wanted 5 minutes alone with Anselmo, who he blames for provoking a crowd to beat up his son at a gig. ‘Bring it on’, says Anselmo. ‘Grow up dudes’, says Classic Metal Hawk.
But perhaps more poignant (without losing any on their aggressive edges) are ‘I’m Broken’ and ‘Hard lines, Sunken Cheeks’, which cover the fear Anselmo feels about the serious back pain he was starting to experience, and the escalating dependence on pain killers to deal with that. Also, ’25 Years’ about a falling out Anselmo had with his father and the resentment that bubbled over in the aftermath. Those 3 tracks prove that bands gain from adding a more ‘vulnerable’ side to their work, dealing with serious issues they’ve dealt with in life – for The Hawk, this is far more authentic than a commitment to fast and heavy.
‘I’m Broken’ basically sets the scene for the problems that Pantera were about to run headlong into. Anselmo had noticed worsening back pain as far back as 1994, coming off the ‘Vulgar Display of Power’ tour. Probably they were caused by his extreme moshing antics on stage – similar back and neck problems have plagued metal bands and especially front men over the years.
Had he followed medical advice – complete rest, consider surgery to correct disc problems – Anselmo might have been ok. But instead, he did what many twenty-something dudes do, feeling invulnerable, full of piss and vinegar. He dosed up on painkillers and hoped the problem would go away.
In reality, of course, things got much worse, and problems began to surface on the tour for ‘Far Beyond Driven’. Anselmo tried to mask his deteriorating back with ever stronger medication and at higher doses, causing erratic behaviour. At one point, he was charged with assaulting a security guard at a venue, eventually pleading guilty and being hit with a community service order. Realizing that painkillers would never be sufficient to manage the worsening pain, he added alcohol into the mix, and by 1996 was also self-medicating with heroin.
The rest of the band could not fail to notice all this, and it put distance between them, introducing a tension that would never really be resolved. They tried to keep the show on the road, and the next album, 1996’s ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’ is considered by some fans to be the greatest 90s album of the lot. But for the band, the writing was on the wall. Anselmo had recorded most of his vocal parts alone in New Orleans, whilst the rest of the band worked on the music in their studio in Arlington, Texas.
They duly got together to tour the album, but shortly after they hit the road, at a gig in Texas, Anselmo collapsed from a heroin overdose. His heart stopped for fully 5 minutes before paramedics were able to revive him. Sufficiently shamed by his actions, he promised the band he’d quit heroin, but went on to relapse twice more as the deep freeze intensified.
The Split and (Literally) Murderous Aftermath
Perhaps sensing that Pantera was now irretrievably broken as a functioning unit, Anselmo began to embark on a number of side projects. And although they got together once more for a final album, 2000’s ‘Reinventing the Steel’, the chemistry had gone. The album did ok, critically and commercially, and was fine for the metal purists, but the magic couldn’t be bottled for a fifth time in succession.
Anselmo spent more and more time on his side projects like Superjoint Ritual and Down. Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul assumed he’d return, but eventually they got tired of waiting, and disbanded Pantera in 2003.
The end of the story? Not exactly. After the disbandment, an incendiary war of words was soon ignited in the press which would run on for months. Dimebag Darrell implied he thought Anselmo was back on heroin, which he denied. Anselmo hit back with an interview in which he was quoted as saying that Dimebag ‘deserves to be beaten severely.’
That last quote would come back to haunt him. On stage later the same year with his own new band, Damageplan, Dimebag was attacked by a spectator, Nathan Gale, who shot and killed him. Gale killed three others in the same incident and injured at least two others before being gunned down himself by a cop.
No decisive motive has ever been established for the shooting. Gale was said to have mental health issues, and was despondent about the Pantera split. But then there was the potentially inciteful quote from Anselmo (which Metal Hammer magazine had plastered in full on its front cover) hanging in the air.
But any short term prospects of a reconciliation between Anselmo and the others were blown out of the water. Dimebag’s girlfriend said she would ‘blow Anselmo’s head off’ if he came anywhere near the funeral. Vinnie Paul closed the door firmly on any reunion possibilities. And although Paul and Anselmo did eventually patch things up at a meeting in 2009, there was never any Pantera relaunch. The possibility ended once and for all in 2018 with Vinnie Paul’s death from coronary artery disease.
There have been recent reports of Anselmo and original bassist Rex Brown re-forming Pantera with Zakk Wylde and Charlie Benante replacing the deceased members. Will they record again? Tour again? Would it be Pantera anyway? Who knows?
As far as Classic Metal Hawk is concerned, the ‘real’ Pantera were the band that disbanded in 2003, never to reform again. Those 4 1990s albums represented heavy metal perfection in so many ways and could not realistically be repeated.
Besides, the legacy of that has now been tainted by the notorious and ongoing, ahem, erratic behaviour displayed by Phil Anselmo over the years. Consider the evidence.
As far back as 1995, before (we think) the heroin addiction kicked in, he was on stage in Montreal with a diatribe against rap artists ‘pissing all over white culture.’ There was the business with the security guard that led to a conviction. The most notorious incident happened in 2016 during a Dimebag Darrell tribute gig. A drunk Anselmo starts giving Nazi salutes and screaming ‘White Power’ at the audience. This was in the smart phone / YouTube era, and the footage remains there for anyone to see.
Anselmo issued a half-assed statement to deflect attention, claiming it had all been a joke – he’d been drinking white wine before the show. White wine, white power. Geddit??
A more formal apology followed a week later, after a continuing backlash from the heavy metal community.
‘It was ugly, it was uncalled for and anybody who knows me and my true nature knows that I don’t believe in any of that. I’m a thousand percent apologetic to anyone who took offense to what I said, cause you should’ve taken offense to what I said.‘Phil Anselmo
A little better. But then that was spoiled in an interview later the same year, where Anselmo claimed his actions were a response to being taunted throughout the show. They called him all sorts of names, he claimed, and he lost patience.
‘When people start screaming ‘racist’ over and over and over and over again at me, what I did was show them exactly what […] the ugliest possible thing I could think of at the time was.‘Phil Anselmo
Or to paraphrase, he responded to allegations of racism with more ugly racism. That’ll show them.
Rob Flynn of Machine Head (who was at the same gig and had spoken with Anselmo backstage) claimed that Anselmo is a long standing racist and bully, who has been incorporating white power lyrics into songs for years.
No Way Back
Watch the footage and make up your own mind. Classic Metal Hawk still loves that 90s heyday music, but it’s much harder to enjoy now. That’s another tragedy of the Pantera story, especially as it was so easily avoidable. Drop the re-union schtick guys.
It’s too late now.
Can you think of a better ‘winning streak’ of great Classic Heavy Metal releases than the rush of Pantera albums covered in this blog? Does Phil Anselmo deserve the flak that’s come his way? If a new ‘Pantera’ formed without Dimebag and Vinnie, would you want to listen to it anyway?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.