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Lost but not beyond hope - 57%

JamesIII, March 24th, 2010

One of the most controversial set of bands to discuss in the world of heavy metal most comfortably belong to the groove metal genre. It can't be plainly stated enough how quickly these groups divide the various metal circles out there with almost equally divided fans. Amongst these, I often find myself embattled as what to really say about Pantera, since their own career was divided between focused, aggressive music and something akin to this album, which runs amok with little concentration and a heavy emphasis on the predictable.

I now and will always wave the albums "Cowboys from Hell" and "The Great Southern Trendkill" as this band's two best offerings, with "Vulgar Display of Power" and this one being something of an anomaly. It seems strange that two mediocre efforts could be sandwiched inbetween two albums full of focus and quality material other than perhaps falling victim to the trend oriented tendencies of the decade. In theory, one could liken Pantera's career 1992-1995 as something similar to Anthrax, as simply watching a once gifted band pissing away their potential by making sub-par material. Since this would all crash and re-emerge as "The Great Southern Trendkill," an album even diehard Pantera fans ignore, I guess one could argue that Pantera were trying to feel out their style since "Vulgar Display" but the pop-oriented metal songs of this album tell a different story.

As with most things Pantera recorded in this era of their career, Dimebag remains something of a saving grace. Granted, he can't directly pull this album from the depths of mid-90's mediocrity, but he does help it become a much better version of what Skinlab would be doing a few years later. He does offer a few more magical moments here than was present in "Vulgar Display" which helps this album eek out a better score. Phil Anselmo has actually taken a turn for the worst here, evolving his hardcore-esque bark from the previous album into something that sounds like quasi-death grunts shouted into a tin can on a string. He always seems to sound distant in the mix, which is probably all the better since I personally couldn't stand this version of his vocal style and we can all thank our deity of choice he didn't do it again beyond this album.

Even with the above musicians who aren't on their "A" game, this album could have been better than it was. Much like the previous album, Pantera wrote their songs several minutes too long, something fellow Texan band Pissing Razors would remedy by cutting their songs to 2-3 minutes. Here, its more likely to be 4-5 minutes, with "Hard Lines, Sunken Cheeks" and "25 Years" going 7 and 6 minutes respectively and both are guaranteed to bore you senseless. "I'm Broken" is a similar story, despite its iconic status, and "5 Minutes Alone" would be another example but its made slightly better by being more memorable and focusing less on driving a repetitive groove into one's skull.

Despite the mediocre material that runs rampant here, there are songs that help salvage this listen. The opener in "Strength Beyond Strength" is one of the more notable, as it filters in some thrash influences while also helping to craft a better version of groove metal into a three and half minute song, ideal for this genre. "Becoming" is another good example at only three minutes, and manages to maintain focus instead of launching off into endless groove land. "Slaughtered" takes my pick as the best of these, manifesting a style that would become a template of sorts for some like-minded songs on the next album. Phil's constipated coyote barks become more in the range of full fledged death grunts and suit the song very well. "Slaughtered" remains one of the few songs I still listen to from this album, and probably the best off either "Vulgar Display" or this album.

For all the pointless mediocrity on display here, this album does have a few tracks worth salvaging, though I'd be hard pressed to bring up a reason why anyone would look into purchasing this from anywhere other than the bargain bin. Even the cover of "Planet Caravan," which is essentially a bonus track tacked on due to its being left out of a Black Sabbath tribute album, is particularly lackluster. If one could find "Strength Beyond Strength," "Use My Third Arm," "Becoming," and "Slaughtered" from an outside source, they'd already have the best songs this album has to offer. As such, this isn't anything I listen to much of anymore as I still champion the superiority and unfortunate one-time only of "The Great Southern Trendkill." That album had focus and set forth to aggressively answer some questions about this band and their standards. "Far Beyond Driven" does none of that, and instead finds Pantera lost in a haze of lacking ideas and the misconception that all good music needs is a heavy dose of groove.