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This album has been described and tagged in many ways, including groove, thrash, heavy, power-groove, thrash-groove, you name it. The problem with Pantera's post-80's output always was that it was quite difficult to put any of their work into one genre, because they've always included elements of different genres into their music, mostly groove and American heavy metal, sometimes thrash. THIS album is the one where they probably included the most elements into one record. It isn't their most experimental record (I'd give that title to The Great Southern Trendkill), but despite that it's still a one-of-a-kind LP that doesn't really compare to any other metal album that I have ever heard. And damn is it good!
One of the most standout moments in this album is Phil's vocal performance. You can hear a dose of Rob Halford worship in his falsettos, but at the same moment he isn't exactly trying to imitate anyone. When he's not delivering his amazing high's like in the outro of Cemetery Gates, he becomes a solid thrash vocalist in songs like The Art of Shredding and Domination, and other times he makes good use of more peaceful, yet atmospheric singing in the album's heavy ballads (Cemetery Gates and The Sleep). Overall, this albums is probably the best proof of the fact that Phil Anselmo (at one point) was one of the most powerful and unique vocalists in metal.
The other man to thank for making this album a masterpiece is the great Dimebag Darrell. Even though he has watered down his rhythm playing and isn't quite the same riff-machine like he was in the 80's, he still has created some of the most memorable and catchy riffs ever for this record. But where he truly reigns is his soloing, almost every song's lead section is completely genius. Each solo is packed with emotion and soul. You will probably get goose bumps more than once when listening to the solos on this album. Just because of the lead section, I can never get tired of songs like The Sleep, Domination, Cemetery Gates and Message in Blood.
The rest of the band keeps up with the former two as good as they are able to. Thanks to Pantera having a decent production for the first time in their career, we can now hear how interestingly Rex Brown swims beneath Dimebag's solos with his bass. He doesn't really have his own highlights on the album except for the beginning of The Art of Shredding, but at least his bass is perfectly audible. Vinnie Paul doesn't do as much fills as he did in the old times, but he has his moments none the less, notably his work with the bass drum.
When you compare the songwriting with the 80's output, the one here is less straightforward and has more experimenting throughout. The songs in general aren't as speedy as some of the 80's work, but it doesn't make them any worse. The songs are groovy as hell, often catchy, and sometimes thrashy. There is more variety than in the 80's, due to the already above-mentioned influences from numerous genres, even in the songs themselves, take for example Domination. It starts out as one of the more thrashy songs in the album, but when the solo section comes in and later the outro, it takes a breakdown not very unlike what you can hear in modern metalcore. If you have heard some of Pantera's 80's work and some of their 90's work, but not this album, then surprisingly, it is still quite difficult to explain to you how this album sounds, because it doesn't really sound like anything they've done before or after it.
I'm not going to take a quick review of each song on the album, but to make things easier, I will just point out the songs I didn't like on the album:
-Primal Concrete Sledge: the song is actually half-decent, in a way. It's got a nice attitude, but it's just too short and somehow directionless. I think it's safe to say that it is even a filler song - it's like a hardcore punk song in a solid metal album. It just doesn't fit.
-Psycho Holiday: I don't see the reason why this song was chosen to be made into a single, it is easily the most mediocre song on the album, not a single outstanding moment to be found, yet it is one of the most well known songs by the band. I can swear to God that the album would have been better if this song wasn't included in it.
There isn't much to say about the lyrical content here. The latter is quite average, with Cemetery Gates being perhaps the only song that hits you a bit stronger than an average metal song. But that may just be because of how well Phil delivers the song on the emotional side.
The production has vastly improved over the one we've heard in the 80's. The drums are loud and in a good way, the bass is perfectly audible, but the guitar is a bit muddy for some reason. This may lead to the rhythm guitar sounding a bit monotonous throughout the album.
What can be said in the conclusion? Cowboys from Hell is truly one hell of an album! Whether you are into traditional heavy metal in the likes of Judas Priest or more aggressive thrash metal, whether you enjoy music for the breathtaking lead guitar work, or you're into pure groove, I would still recommend this album for you. I am pretty sure that anyone who simply appreciates metal, regardless of its form, will find something for him/herself in this kick-ass piece of groove.
Cemetery Gates, The Sleep, The Art of Shredding, Message in Blood, Domination... damn, too many to name.