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Pantera was one of those bands that just were never in the right place at the right time. They had all the ability to break out into the 80s metal scene and challenge most of the others, but for some reason their music just didn’t seem to take. Under such circumstances, it is quite natural that after 7 years of fighting to get a head in the glam scene, the band would want to take a different road. What “Cowboys from Hell” represents is an affirmation of the overall spirit of metal, but with a good deal more aggression than their last album, but still the same signature solos and over-the-top vocal acrobatics.
The primary distinction between this album and “Power Metal” is the lyrical subject matter, which has more to do with the darker side of life rather than the cliché 80s party hearty approach that dominated their previous efforts. In addition, although he has continued to belt out the high notes, Phil Anselmo is now incorporating the rougher low range associated with the thrash genre. Think of a combination between Rob Halford and James Hetfield, both sides of the coin complementing each other rather than fighting each other.
Although the riffs on this album are a bit heavier, there are a lot of similarities in the guitar work on here with that of “Power Metal”. We have a strong collection of mid-tempo rockers, combined with an increased number of speed metal tracks. However, as some bands were starting to shy away from the shredding that had dominated the threshold of the 80s, Diamond Darrel was still tearing it up with the best of them, and exploring the various unconventional approaches to guitar effects first pioneered by his inspiration Eddie Van Halen.
We kick of this masterpiece with the title track, and right away we can tell something is different by the weird guitar intro (it almost sounds like a train), followed by a much heavier set of riffs than heard previously. This track tends mostly towards the more mid-tempo feel, but is loaded with power and amazing guitar work. “Primal Concrete Sledge” is pure thrash in the mold of acts like Overkill and early MegaDeth, loaded with fast drum work and heavily minimalist riffs. “Psycho Holiday” is a more groove oriented thrash in the mold of “Jump in the Fire”, but loaded with some rather rapid changes in feel, and an army of contrasting riffs. The solo on this one probably bears the most similarity to a thrash solo in the Mustaine/Friedman vain, though painted with the occasional Van Halen inspired screech.
“Heresy” has another interesting Van Halen inspired intro, although what follows is pretty much Metallica inspired thrash. One thing I can say for these guys, when they do their Metallica worship, it works a lot better than when all the others do it. “Cemetery Gates” is one of the highlights of this album, combining together a very dreary acoustic section with a set of heavy riffs. This song gets my pick for best lead guitar/guitar solo work, and my second pick for vocal performance. “Domination” is more up tempo thrash with some straight-forward riffs, though a bit heavier. The Metallica worship is starting to get a bit obvious at this point, although as it is still being done well I’m not complaining.
“Shattered” is another highlight of this album, in this case for the extremely intricate vocal performance on the part of Phil Anselmo. Sometimes it reminds me of “Painkiller”, at others it reminds me of “Trapped Under Ice, but in both cases it cooks relentlessly. “Clash with Reality” is another thrash classic with some extremely aggressive guitar and drum pounding, and more Halford worship as only Anselmo can do it. “Medicine Man” is another quasi-groove oriented rocker with some Doom inspired spoken narrations before launching into more amazing banshee wails. Another series of great guitar solos in this one, showcasing how non-contradictory the Van Halen approach to shredding is with the groove variety of thrash.
“Message in Blood” has some great contrasting quiet and loud sections, thought a bit less gloomy, yet vile sounding than “Cemetery Gates”. Another great guitar solo here, loaded with amazing pentatonic licks and some neat feedback and harmonization effects. “The Sleep” has a nice classical guitar intro to it, though it ultimately ends up being another mid-tempo Metallica homage. We then close this magnum opus with the riff driven and change-up happy, “The Art of Shredding”. The tempo is ratcheted up again in many parts of this song, after a set of slower tracks, as the drums have become a main focus yet again. Darrel has put some really great effects on his guitar, as this solo is amazingly agitated yet simultaneously beautiful.
There is ultimately only one drawback to this album, and that is that it didn’t function as the influential piece of art that it was, but was instead a transitional album into a dark time for music. Ultimately only one song off this album would be treated as something worthy of emulating, and that is “Psycho Holiday”. Although a great song, it alone can not do justice to the amazing genre that spawned it, and ultimately would lead to its exile from the mainstream. Even sadder still, Phil Anselmo decided to dumb his vocal style down to mere death grunts, rather than continue working with his versatile range to challenge the musical mediocrity that was fast approaching.
In conclusion, this album is a brilliant hybrid of thrash and power, from start to finish. Fans of thrash and power metal alike will find plenty of head-banging good music to latch onto. Perhaps in time, this album may become the inspirational collection of songs that will help bring thrash back from the gutter here in the States, after the right set of musicians decide to start emulating it. I proudly give it my full endorsement and state without any hesitation that it is the greatest album ever to be put out by this band, and one of the 5 greatest albums of 1990.