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There are a handful of bands out there in the metal world that are particularly divisive; people tend to either love them or hate them. Pantera is one of those bands. What exactly causes a band to gain such a rabid following and a merciless wake of naysayers? In Pantera's case, it was the attitude of the band members and the music they created, and the subsequent influence they would have on heavy metal music.
Vulgar Display is all about attitude. If you wanted to break down what the message and feel of it are at the roots, it's about saying "fuck you" and punching someone you hate in the face. To make it perfectly clear, this is depicted on the album's front cover. Really, the cover is perhaps the most simplistic way to sum up the album's contents. Vulgar Display is the soundtrack to punching someone in the face. But is that a good thing or a bad thing? Really, it's all about your tastes. I, for one, think the cover is hilarious and love how it's so forthright about what is to be found on the disc contained inside.
The music varies widely in tempo and composition. There are a few passages that are clearly meant to be slower and atmospheric. Much of the rest of the album is absolutely blistering. The shift in Pantera's sound from their previous effort Cowboys from Hell is apparent from the very beginning. Cowboys was an eclectic but nonetheless catchy and overall heavy album. Vulgar Display takes the sound from Cowboys and cuts out the remaining traces of glam influence, replacing them with ferocity. Many years after first hearing this album and perhaps one hundred times listening to it since then, there is one word that still sticks with me to describe it: fierce.
In total seriousness, this album is ferocious. The anger and frustration is absolutely palpable. Phil's vocals are very memorable, whether you like them or not. They're mostly shouted, as they would be on a thrash record, but they have a much stronger delivery than one would expect from a thrash group and they border on screams. That's not to mention the several times that Phil actually does scream, all of which are executed quite well. The vocals are the source of much of the album's attitude, and in that vein they are a tremendous success. Dimebag's guitar work is thunderous and unrelenting throughout, but he never gives up his characteristic twang - perhaps the most obviously southern influence apparent in Pantera's music. In the rhythm section, the bass and drums really hold the album together. There's nothing exceptional going on there, but the execution is nearly flawless. The production for the drums is probably my favorite out of all the instrumentation. It's very sharp, but in no way overshadows the rest of the group.
As for the songs themselves, they deal largely with issues of frustration, anger, and hate, which certainly seems appropriate given how blunt the album's cover is. The opening track, Mouth for War, is simply remarkable. Pantera wastes no time in getting directly to the point, within seconds of the album's start laying down the framework for what would become groove metal. The performance is sharp and strong, and the energy of it all is empowering. In particular, roughly the last fifty seconds of the song are absolutely pounding and drive with tremendous force. It closes with a bang, and one of my favorite riffs ever.
A New Level is also fantastic, featuring a simple but effective main riff and generally outstanding guitar work. Dimebag puts on a great show of technical work and a great solo, as he is well-known for. No Good (Attack the Radical), Live in a Hole, and Regular People (Conceit) are also excellent exhibitions of Dimebag's abilities. Live in a Hole, in particular, is one of the most memorable songs from the album because of how bizarre and non-conventional it is. Regular People has a superb into section that I've found myself wanting to listen to again and again for years now. Furthermore, the lyrics are catchy and hilarious, featuring Phil seriously insulting the integrity of some unspecified nemesis, informing him that he doesn't have the balls and that his head is up his ass. It may be considered immature, but maturity is not the point of this music.
On the slower side, the album features two "ballads": This Love, in the middle of the album, and Hollow as the closing track. Both of them have sections of more atmospheric and aesthetic work, along with passages of clean vocals, which contrasts with the rest of the album. This Love is notable for the contrasting vocal sections and more so for the breakdown. It's perhaps the most simple breakdown ever recorded, but it's heavy as hell and incredibly effective. Hollow is worthy of discussion because it's easily the most serious and mature song to be found here, the lyrical subject matter dealing with an emotionally shattered and distanced friend. Once more, an outstanding vocal performance from Phil can be found here, but what I remember the most is how fierce the song's latter half sounds. It's unpleasant to the ear in the most strangely satisfying way, and the fade out at the end is almost what I would describe as eerie. It really sticks with me.
Fucking Hostile, along with Rise, are the song's most unrelenting and heavy tracks. The delivery is ferocious for both of them. The only reason the album loses any points from me is that those two tracks, along with the overrated Walk and the odd By Demons be Driven can get somewhat tiresome. Outside of that, though, I really don't feel that the album has any flaws. Good, bad, or indifferent, it has had immense influence on the development of heavy metal in the past twenty years, and that cannot be denied. Don't hate it for what it spawned - love it for what it is.