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The timeline of Pantera’s career very much resembles the visage of a grand mountain peak. From humble beginnings in the dregs of glam metal excess, the band began a steady climb of success, incorporating speed and power metal elements until they were a refined, respectable thrash metal unit. Then they began an equal and very opposite descent, incorporating more and more groove elements until they were a parody of their former selves. The summit of their career was Cowboys from Hell, a powerfully executed display of technique that is not only heavy as shit, but is surprisingly catchy from start to end. This would be their last great album, even though the band would like you to believe it’s only their first.
There’s quite a bit more groove on this album than I’d like to admit, but it’s perfectly infused between thrash riffs and the transitions flow quite naturally. I don’t care what anyone says, this thing absolutely rules. There’s some bona fide thrashers on here in the form of “Heresy,” “Shattered,” and “Domination.” If Dimebag Darrell’s guitar playing was not revered up until this point, it certainly was from here on out. The lead work is monstrous, more technical and more melodically-enlightened than anything he had done or would go on to do. And though solos are his true craft, the riff work suffers not. Check out the sweet opener/chorus riff to “Message in Blood” for example. Rex Brown is still relevant on this album (and his bass tone rules, most readily apparent when there‘s no overdubbed rhythm track under the solos, a classic Pantera maneuver.) while Vinnie Paul acts as a crushing and dynamic pacemaker, really mixing it up on this album more than usual. The band is clearly at their instrumental peak and it serves this album well.
I hate to admit it, but the star of the show here is the generally loathsome Phil Anselmo. Having been initially introduced to the band through Vulgar Display and Far Beyond Driven, I was under the impression that Phil was attempting his best death growl parody while choking on a big meaty cheeseburger. Little did I know he used to wail with the best of them and had managed to completely destroy his voice by the early 90’s. Holy shit though. On here, he still has that bastardly tone he possesses on all their future albums, but is capable of actual singing, as well as some very 80’s metal wailing. He almost sounds like fucking Halford at moments in “Shattered” while his performance on this album’s power ballad masterpiece “Cemetary Gates” is awe-inspiring. Just listen to that pre-chorus and try and tell me that guy couldn’t sing. “The Sleep” is a really good example too.
Okay, so this isn’t purist thrash metal (“Primal Concrete Sledge” is pretty nauseating), but for what it is, it’s really, really fucking good. I guess their bravado comes off a little strong at first, as opposed to their glam-ish albums, but if you can get past it, there’s some magnificent songs here, as well as great vocals, wicked solos, and hell, even some cool lyrics.
Highlights: Everything but “Primal Concrete Sledge”