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Now sit right back and you’ll hear a tale about a quartet of Texas bad-asses shed their makeup and perms and decided to throw down head-crushing style, my friends. What! You don’t associate makeup and perms with these here gun slingin' whiskey drinkin’ noise makin’ boys with that there stuff. Well wise up, kids, because previously to reinventing themselves as seriously riff-tastic maniacs, Pantera did the whole glam metal look thing, and managed to turn in no less than 4 (yes, four!) full length albums before converting to the thrash cum hardcore style they’d make their beer soaked names in.
And who could blame them? None of those first four Pantera albums are worth all that much musically, only one featured signature vocalist Phil Anselmo, and the music they were to forge thereafter was really and truly innovative, ludicrously powerful and often lyrically acerbic. And Cowboys From Hell was the first warning shot in this equation, and the shot was indeed heard round the world (well, at least the metal world that is).
The ingredients here that matter are as follows. Dimebag (Diamond at the time, but we’ll excuse that early nom de plume) Darrell Abbot was in possession of a jam-packed arsenal of guitar ammunition, not the least of which being his thrash metal style compressed riffing and hi fluid but super thick soloing tone. Backed by tight as a duck’s butt drummer Vinnie Paul and bassist of doom Rex Brown, the band conjured up riff driven grooves that are truly an ugly beast to behold (and hear, for that matter). Vocalist Phil Anselmo brought a grit and roar to this sound that while not approaching the underground shriek/growl of death metal, did borrow from it, and his venom would continue to fester noxiously over the band’s music going forward.
Another nice thing! The band could actually forge their combined strengths into memorable songs, some actually becoming among the best (don’t laugh kid, I’ll sick Vinnie on yer ass) ever penned in this metal age. Doubt me? Okay wise-ass just try and get the riffs and hooks of the title track to this here opus out of your head after one hearing. The same goes for the double bass-thunder of “Primal Concrete Sledge” and “Domination,” both of which accomplish what so many longer standing acts had failed to do; bring the authentic sound of the metal underground to mainstream ears. Somehow the combination of visceral force and tuneful riffs made lettermen and jocks across the nation love this band, as did the metal-heads, causing the band massive loss of street cred from the underground and major influx of cash from everywhere else.
A bunch of the other tracks can kinda run together, but the killer riff count is still a thing to marvel at, especially where “Message In Blood” and “The Art Of Shredding” is concerned. But on the whole, the real triumph here is the ballad (well, kind a ballad, I guess) “Cemetery Gates,” which not only reveals the depth of the band’s song writing, displays the diversity of Anselmo’s voice, it contains some of Darrell’s most inventive, memorable and downright mind blowing axe work ever. From riff to solo to general flourishes, this one is a guitar worshippers altar, man.
The album was produced with no lack of tact by Terry Date, who produces the thing with maximum compression. That means the bass drums are as in your face as the slammin’ guitar riffs, and the bass (usually lost like a set ‘o car keys in metal production jobs) is right up front as well. No complaints here, as this sort of sound is perfect for this type of no frills riff delivery system. And so friends, my advice is to skip the first four Pantera novellas (not like you’ll be able to find ‘em anyway) and hop the train here. And believe me, the ride is only going to get much bumpier from here, as Pantera continue to slither closer and closer to the death metal frontier, dragging many a mainstream here along with them. And bless them for it.