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Today, February 21, 2012, is the 20th anniversary of one of the most divisive albums in metal history: Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power. On the one hand, it's almost universally acclaimed as the band's greatest work, and one of the most influential albums in metal history. Outside the core metal audience, that is. You can predict with near-certainty that any casual metalhead over 25 has a copy in his collection. But the more outspoken, critically-minded metalheads hate it with near-unanimity. Metalheads on the whole are pretty well divided.
Much of the hatred toward the album is based on what it's not, rather than what it is. The band's prior record, Cowboys from Hell, is reasonably well-loved among metalheads. It's a good example of thrash, with hints of the band moving toward groove metal. But Vulgar is clearly not a thrash metal album. Yet, you'll see many reviews call it a terrible thrash album. That's like ripping on a pickup truck because it doesn't get gas mileage like a compact. It doesn't make any sense.
Perhaps more prevalent is the hatred directed at Vulgar precisely because of its influence. The stripped-down, simplified, slowed-down approach hasn't been seen as bringing Sabbath back into metal (which would be a perfectly legitimate opinion) but instead as ushering in nu metal, and the bad groove metal of the late 90's. The vocal style and mosh-readiness of the music is blamed for the tough-guy posturing of metalcore bands like Hatebreed or hard rock bands like Drowning Pool. But plenty of great albums have led to terrible imitators. It doesn't make any sense to tear down Thergothon just because there are bad funeral doom bands out there.
Taken on its own terms, Vulgar Display of Power is an adrenaline rush that will pump up your blood like few others. Even the ballads, "Hollow" and "This Love", have crushingly heavy and aggressive parts. Yes, I said crushingly heavy, because at the time this was one of the heaviest records ever released. The songs are infectious, too. Who doesn't at least occasionally want to sing along to the "Don't fuck with this" in "Regular People (Conceit)"? And how could you not get into "By Demons Be Driven", which has what is easily one of the greatest choruses in metal history?
It's deceptively simple, like Sabbath. But each and every song on it is loaded with dynamism. Riffs change often, and with little warning. Tempos and moods range from headbanging thrash to depressing ballad to mosh-ready hardcore, often within the same song. The questionably-legendary Dimebag Darrell also imbued each song with his own touches, the pinch harmonics, squeals, and some great solos.
Dynamism and great songwriting are what set it apart from its many imitators. But Vulgar isn't perfect, by any means. "Walk" has a silly riff, and for the life of me I can never figure out why people cite it as a highlight. "No Good (Attack the Radical)" isn't great, either. But the great stuff here is really, really great.
So, it's not what people expected. That's how you make your mark. Well, Pantera made their mark, and it will be remembered for a long time.
The Verdict: Twenty years later, Vulgar Display of Power still holds up well. It's one of the most influential metal albums of all time, with some of their followers good, but most of them bad. But most importantly, it's got plenty of adrenaline-pumping shout-along anthems for those moments when you need it.
(originally written for http://fullmetalattorney.blogspot.com/)