‘Vulgar Display of Power’ was the reanimation the metal scene needed. Sure that string of Metallica albums are now considered seminal and still are. But the relentless chugging of the tracks became a little vanilla. Pantera introduced a groove and pace change much needed in genre that was becoming increasingly flacid. With the invasion of grunge rock, it seemed metal was heading for a downward spiral.
Some of you may not be aware of the early work of one of the most successful groove/thrash metallers of the 90’s. The first three albums were, in a nutshell, sub-par produced, clichéd and quite frankly embarrassing glam metal. Debut album ‘Metal Magic’ is a piece of work so bad it’s a smear on the bands discography and a topic guaranteed to fluster many fans. After the Darrel brothers found vocalist Phil Anselmo and bassist Rex Robert Brown, the band slowly weaned of the dangerously fast dying hair metal and started to find a stronger, heavier sound. One that would put them at the forefront of the genre. Ballads, hairspray and spandex were replaced with beards, beer and musical balls. A lot of heavy swinging balls. I’ll just let you enjoy the imagery of that metaphor for a moment.
Some of you may be asking why I don’t consider ‘Cowboys from Hell’ more of a landmark classic. Well whilst it may have been the catalyst for the band’s career it’s not the better album musically. Although Cowboys does arguably have as many hits, ‘Vulgar’ works better as an entirety. Every song fits and while some stand out more than others, no song feels as though it doesn’t belong; a problem they suffered in their previous discography. The apprenticeship was finally complete and all the tools in their box were sharpened and put to proper use.
Ditching the operatic glam notes, Anselmo growls all the way through with a ferocity and spite unmatched by many of metal’s greatest vocalists. There’s a genuine fury within the lyrics that never reaches the absurd horror-violence of acts like Slayer and Anthrax but has enough gravitas to create adrenalin fuelled fist pumping. It’s also superficial enough for the audiophile to steal for their own purpose. It’s a lot more listener friendly compared to the more personal lyricism used by the likes of Dave Mustaine and Devin Townsend. This is perhaps one of the reasons Pantera gained more commercial accessibility then Megadeath or Strapping Young Lad.
Dimebag Darrell finally found his signature style and peppers it over the album. Chromatic trills underneath a blues foundation, virtuosic hammers and pull offs alongside a very well used whammy bar. But it’s the rhythmic quality of the melodies and the notes he chooses to leave out and move somewhere they shouldn’t go that make them so memorable. It was on this album that Darrell proved himself to be world class and not just another fast shredder.
Bone crunching riffs blend in with dead knuckle bass and machine gun tempo drumming. Rhythms bond like isotopes that creates a fluidity you rarely here in nineties metal. If a chainsaw could ballroom dance it would use this album for its performance piece. The whole album bursts with moments that could make a Buddhist monk windmill in a mosh pit.
Pantera have developed a collection of unaffectionate terms for their style including redneck metal. Some consider the band lacking ingenuity within their songwriting and their lyrics sometimes verging on the nonsensical. Their macho image supposedly damaged the intellect and genuine quality of the metal scene. That it ruined the ‘brotherhood’ within the genre. Whether this is true or not is a debate far too embedded in history and belief for a mere mortal writer like me to decide. But for the haters I will say this: ignore the politics and listen to the album for what it is. Then tell me you didn’t pop a vein in your neck screaming along, punching the air.