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In years past, when I first started getting into the massive world known as heavy metal, I became a big fan of bands MegaDeth, Sepultura and Pantera. I still retain a heavy dose of enjoyment from these bands and their music, but in the case of Pantera, I have come to realize a few things. For one, too many fans are concentrated on deciding if "Vulgar Display of Power" or "Far Beyond Driven" deserves the crown of the band's best effort. The real champion of their later 90's works undoubtedly sits with "The Great Southern Trendkill," for reasons explained in that review. On the other side of the 90's decade, sits "Cowboys From Hell," the best album this band ever put forth.
After a good deal spent fighting their way to the top with a slew of glam rock releases in the 1980's, Pantera settled on a new sound. As described by some other reviewers, this album can be described as being power metal, groove metal, hybrid glam and hybrid thrash yet being none of these in itself. The minimalist speed metal makes itself present on a number of occasions, something that became increasingly hard to detect as time moved forward with this band. The fact that Dimebag Darrell (credited as Diamond Darrell here) continued to shred up a storm in an era when such things were disappearing is just icing on the cake for anyone into guitar performances.
Before getting onto the music, its absolutely necessary to point out Phil Anselmo. Hated by some and loved by others, Anselmo has always come off as ego driven which eventually became one of the reasons I disliked him on a personal level. His ego has usually outweighed his talents, but on this album I have a hard time holding that against him. Anselmo's incredible vocals on this album definitely bring to mind some of the operatic vocals of the NWOBHM movement a decade earlier, with Rob Halford a particular mention. While I do not hold a doctorate in power metal vocalists, I do know enough to say that Anselmo's performance here is more than respectable. With a voice like that, its one to wonder why he devolved into a tough guy bark on "Vulgar Display" and later quasi-death grunt echoes in an empty room on "Far Beyond Driven." At one time, I actually disliked Anselmo on this album, now I realize that was completely moronic on my part.
To speak of the music is to notice we have a good deal of variety here. Pantera definitely throws in some power metal attributes on the title track, an anthem of sorts that carried this band until their demise. The emphasis is placed on the guitars and anthemic chorus, two things I've always noticed is prevalent in power metal. Other songs of this nature would be the incredible "Cemetery Gates," which is at the top of the list in terms of guitar performance of Dimebag's entire career. Yet the majority of this album is consumed by hints of Metallica and speed metal worship, with Anselmo even cutting into some James Hetfield territory when things slow down. I do not count this as a bad thing, given that Pantera's filtering in some Metallica influence definitely works better than alot of Metallica worshippers I've heard. Songs of this caliber include "Primal Concrete Sledge," "Domination," "Clash With Reality," "Message In Blood," and "The Sleep," the last of which includes some intricate acoustics.
One song in particular I found interesting is "Medicine Man." It seems like a combination of a multitude of styles, which is exactly what this album embodies anyway. The slower sections seem to filter in doom metal, a genre of metal I'm always happy to hear, especially when its done right. Yet the song also cuts more into the mid-tempo groove Pantera would later become famous for, though there are enough changes to avoid becoming tedious. I enjoy hearing Anselmo's vocal shifts, moving between his usual high pitch and lower end spoken word parts that appear in the verses.
There is not a single reason why any Pantera fan should not recognize this as the band's crowning achievement. Its an interesting brew of a variety of styles, yet it does not exhibit any of those styles in and of itself. "Cowboys From Hell" also throws in the best performances most of the band members here have ever contributed to the medium of music. Dimebag Darrell set forth performances here that he would never overcome (or really even attempt to overcome) and the exact same could be said of Phil Anselmo. I often question why this band did not evolve further, carrying the sounds of this album to another level. In any event, this represents the best album Pantera ever put forth into recorded history, and is something power metal and even thrash metal fans might be interested in. It isn't either of those genres in their purest forms, nor is it close, yet there is enough of both to draw attention. "Cowboys From Hell" undoubtedly ranks as one of the best albums of the year 1990 and the greatest summit Pantera would ever achieve.