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Well this is an album with a rather unfortunate reception on this site. I was actually shocked to see the average score for this album being under 50% when I first checked out Pantera's page. What's actually so terrible about this album? Yes, it may not be a masterpiece, but it's still rather enjoyable. Why don't we look at it with a more fresh look? By saying that, let's not look on this album as a "magnum opus for influencing mallcore", but rather just an album by a metal band.
When compared to previous records from Pantera, the first thing that has notably changed is the production. I personally have mixed feelings for the production here. For a heavy record, it's rather clear, but some things might have been done better, in particular, the guitar tone. It might be greatly influenced by the way Dimebag tuned it down, but when producing the album they seemed to have fucked it up even more. To describe it in a short way, it feels like every riff just sounds like every other riff on the album, because the guitar sound is so heavy in contrast to the drums and the bass that it's just too messy, and hearing the palm muted riffs with this kind of tone is one of the most undelightful things you may experience. Phil Anselmo's vocals seem to have been worked out in a similar way. The production wasn't really that good on CFH either, but at least on that album the drums were way louder and the bass was clearly audible. Here, it looks like the album was produced in favor of the band's two most significant figures to stand out from the other members.
So, what about the musicianship? Well, there isn't much to talk about the improvements from the previous record. In fact, there is none. Phil has dropped his Halford-inlfluenced vocals he used in the previous records and now just seems to imitate Kyle Thomas. While he is in my honest opinion rather better at what he's doing here than Thomas, I miss his falsetto-vocals from Cowboys a lot. Dimebag's lead work is still impressive, but the riffs have just been toned down dramatically. Yes, there is some groove in them, but there is something frustrating about hearing chugga-chugga riffs in the verse of almost every song, and every non-chugga riff sounds almost the same. Vinnie Paul can't help but to do his best what he can by fitting into the toned down songwriting on this album. Rex Brown still swims below Dime's leads as always, and doesn't have any standout bass lines to offer. It's a shame that Pantera have gone towards this kind of musical direction with VDOP, because while the music is enjoyable for the bigger part, you'd expect something more from them after releasing Power Metal and Cowboys from Hell. Judging by those albums you can be sure that they are competitive musicians, but here, they seemed to have jumped on the bandwagon of commercializing their sound, something that lots of bands who were great in the 80's did in the 90's.
Despite the annoying production and weakened musicianship, the music on the album is actually mostly enjoyable and with an open mind you'll most likely be pleased with the album most of the time when putting it on a full spin. Though weak compared to what he was capable of, Anselmo's vocals have some sort of personality on this album, and it goes well with the album's groove-driven sound. Though on most songs the vocals are screamed/shouted, we can enjoy some of Anselmo's more clean singing on the album's two power ballads, "This Love" and "Hollow". I personally loved the vocals on the latter a lot, in my point of view, they gave an already nice ballad even more depth. There's A LOT of groove here, mainly thanks to Dimebag's riffs and Anselmo's accompanying moody shouts, and the lead work is top notch as always. Even though Dimebag likes to abuse them chugga riffs on this album a bit too much at times, there are several memorable riffs that you could recognize at any given point, like the legendary "Walk" riff, the main riff of "Mouth for War", the haunting main riff of "This Love" and some others. Despite being simplified in comparison to Dime's previous efforts, the riffs are still incredibly melodic and are definitely played with a soul. Vinnie Paul fits into the songs with his drumming nicely, as always, though like the rest of the band, he also sacrificed some of his talent for the musical direction the band took. In the 80's albums he used to play a lot faster and did many nice fills, now, almost all of that magic has been lost. A shame, considering that in the old times Vinnie was basically as talented on his instrument as his brother was on the guitar. A strong point on this album is the diversity of songs, we start out with a fairly mid tempo-ed track which changes it's attitude to a more thrashy one towards the end, followed by a similar song with tempo changes, then to a slower, heavily riff-driven hit song "Walk", followed by a more hardcore-punkish quickie "Fucking Hostile", then a lengthy power ballad, then again a more thrashy song and so on. Finally, the album closes with yet another power ballad, a rather more sad-toned one, and smartly does so, because those kind of songs always leave at least a decent impression after listening to the album on a full run. And yet, even that song changes it's attitude to a more aggressive one towards the end.
As far as the lyrical content goes, admittedly, there is a bit too much tough-guy bragging going on most of the songs, but there are some exceptions. "Hollow", similarly to "Cemetery Gates" from the previous album, deals with the death of a close friend or relative, "This Love" is about keeping a relationship with great struggle and "Fucking Hostile", just as it is musically, it is lyrically also similar to a hardcore song, expressing raw anger against society, in particular, the police. Lines like these:
The truth in right and wrong
The boundaries of the law
You seem to miss the point
Arresting for a joint?
You seem to wonder why
Hundreds of people die
You're writing tickets man
My mom got jumped -- they ran!
show that Pantera still have some lyrical depth left in them, despite what most people would think.
So, in the end, what do we have? Vulgar Display of Power, in short, is a good groove metal album with a stinky production. It may not blow you away, but it will leave a special place in your heart in one way or another. I am pretty sure that this album holds a special place in the hearts of all metalheads, whether that's a good thing or not. If you like groove, variety and nice lead work, this is an album you should listen to before you die.
Highlights: Mouth for War, A New Level, Hollow