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Not as special as you might think - 61%

Ilwhyan, January 17th, 2009

Undisputably a very influental album, ”Cowboys From Hell” is often remembered as one of the foundations of groove metal, and thus, metalcore, and some criticize Pantera for popularising the style of metal that they claim to have started the modern metalcore trend, which is generally disliked by metalheads. However, Pantera influences can be found from rather surprising albums, such as Symphony X:s ”Paradise Lost”, where Michael Romeo's guitar rhythms are like a proggier version of Dimebag's, and Russel Allen sounds like an even more versatile Phil Anselmo. Similarities can be found from contemporary albums aswell, especially in the groove metal genre, but even albums such as ”Painkiller” by Judas Priest. It can be argued that ”Cowboys From Hell” started, or at least led, a new movement of metal in the 90s, which ended up influencing surprisingly many metal genres, as well as modern rock and post-grunge. Regardless, this album is a very controversial one among metalheads, which is strange considering how average and inoffensive it actually is.

Certainly a turn in musical direction, Pantera's near-legendary groove metal album is catchy, heavy and very riff-based, with Dimebag and his groovy rhythm riffs as well as solos astounding in how technical they are. Phil Anselmo's vocals, too, also of great technical ability, are an important part of this album's sound: ranging from sandpaper-throated fry-grunts to soaring falsetto (implementing Anselmo's huge vibrato) and the middle ground between these, a melodic type of half-growled shouting, Anselmo's aggressive style of singing is a definitive trademark of the sound Pantera is known for. The rest of the band assumes a much more minor role, but both the bassist and the drummer do play a role in defining the sound of ”Cowboys From Hell”. There is a prominent thrash metal influence here, or at least it's clear that Pantera derived their sound on ”Cowboys From Hell” from thrash metal to a noticeable extent, but Dimebag's guitar rhythms are by far more groovy than most thrash, and as a result, much simplier and possibly not quite as energetic, giving the album a funkish vibe at times. Using downtuned start-stop rhythm guitar riffs, the songs are mostly mid-paced, well-flowing pieces of constant head-nodding and foot tapping. However, while technically very impressive, Dimebag's leads and solos often fail to seem related enough to the rest of the music, making the so much acclaimed and praised shred moments seem rather disappointing. Since the music isn't as fast or energetic as thrash metal often is, the solos that utilize the mood and feeling of the songs, like in ”Cemetery Gates”, work much better than extremely fast shredding. Sadly, Dimebag was never the most emotional of guitarists, making most leads and solos appear either awkward or rather misplaced in their context. Each solo seems like a mandatory kind of thing that just had to be implemented due to Dimebag's phenomenal shred skills, not really caring whether it improves the song and elaborates its themes further or simply is there just for the sake of it – the solos often interrupt the songs and make them seem badly constructed, but thankfully, the flow is quite excellent as long as Dime sticks to his rhythm guitar riffs.

Certainly the grooviest and catchiest song on the album, ”Cowboys From Hell” invitingly opens the album. Abound in simple start-stop riffs and groovy rhythms, it's an excellent opener as it describes the overall mood and the attitude of the music: energetic, masculine and aggressive. ”Primal Concrete Sledge” implements even more aggressive and hardcore-influenced moods and influences, where as ”Cemetery Gates” is a much grander and more dramatic song, though it lacks much of the epicness that ballads require. ”Domination” features some of the best riffs on the album, and coincidentally (or not), it's the most thrashy song on the album. The album is full of different styles and moods, which brings some much needed variety to it. At times, the music is aggressive, volatile and very brash, and at others it's hard-rocking and almost laid-back in nature. Sadly, while there's potential for a very interesting listening experience on the album, the production causes everything to sound tame, docile and monotonous. While the production is tight and clean, the sound really lacks life and colour, making the music tedious and plodding even at its most energetic. The music itself never stoops to the level of uninspiredness that metalcore is known for, but it often sounds equally tedious – though not quite as watered-down, over-theatrical (or prententious) and bland – because of the weak production, simplicity and too much focus on Dimebag's guitars. The music does become fully insipid drivel at some points, like in ”The Sleep”, mostly due to riffs greatly lacking in taste, making this album not only rather boring in nature, but also quite inconsistent.

Though quite catchy and fun, the music doesn't really grab the listener's attention. It doesn't cause uncontrollable headbanging, nor is there enough emotion or atmosphere to make the music otherwise compelling or interesting enough. The album has a lot of potential, and the performances here are certainly those of very skillful musicians, Dimebag's in particular, but it hardly rises above the average metal album when it comes to artistic expression (unless expressing tough guy attitude counts, since that is pretty clearly elaborated here), or even merely good composing. Indeed, ”Cowboys From Hell” comes greatly short of being outstanding, let alone a masterpiece, but it's a fun album to listen to regardless for more open-minded fans of metal, as well as all fans of energetic and heavy kinds of music. A decent if a little inconsistent piece of metal that most fans of the genre should be able to enjoy, for those who are looking for something really catchy, aggressive, and particularly groovy in the rhythm section, ”Cowboys From Hell” is quite essential.