This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #254.
It’s been 20 years since Pantera released Far Beyond Driven, the first extreme metal album to debut at Number 1 in the Billboard 200, and arguably the most extreme album still to do so.
It’s been 13 years since their final show, and 10 years since the tragic and pointless death of guitarist Darrell Lance Abbott, better known to his many friends as Dimebag. It may be worth spending a moment to take that in. For younger fans it’s quite literally a lifetime, and yet the legacy and influence of the band continues to grow, and, with it, the myths and folklore that surround them. Put simply, Pantera are giants of rock music, legends.
The end was acrimonious – officially coming in 2003 – and made more final by Dimebag’s senseless murder in December 2004. Harsh words were spoken in the press, very harsh words, that in some cases couldn’t be taken back. And, while much of it was blown out of proportion, old wounds have yet to fully heal. Every now and again there are rumours of a reunion, perhaps with Zakk Wylde on guitar, but the chances of finding Bigfoot are probably higher. Still, it’d be remiss not to mark the anniversary of such a landmark album, one that effectively changed the face of metal.
And so Hammer speaks with the three remaining band members – vocalist Philip Anselmo, bassist Rex Brown and drummer Vinnie Paul, by phone, a sit-down meeting being out of the question. Pantera are still a big enough concern that the record company listens in on the conversations in Orwellian fashion, predictably giving away a back-story by trying to divert attention from it. There’s a very strong sense that enormous carrots are being dangled at the band should they decide to reform.
But first, let’s go back to the early days of the band. It’s no secret that Pantera began as a covers band in Arlington, Texas, in 1981, gradually learning to write and play their own songs, and putting out their own albums, albeit with more of a Kiss and Van Halen influence, more glam rock than the Pantera we know today. Still the band’s sound was evolving and growing heavier, particularly with the departure, in 1987, of their original frontman, Terry Glaze, and the arrival, where we begin today, of a kid by the name of Philip Anselmo.
“I picked him up from the airport and he lived with me and didn’t leave for about four years!” laughs Rex. “We dropped all his stuff at my house, and went and got acquainted, and we hit it off right off the bat. We’d heard of him because he was playing the same circuit we were playing, where you play three sets a night, six nights a week. When we got Phil, everything just moulded into what became the power of the groove, but we were selling 40,000 units out of the back of our car in 1988, and now if you can sell 40,000 you’re doing pretty good.”
It’s easy to forget that Pantera were already pretty big fish in a relatively small pond, packing venues throughout the southern US, even if they were unknown elsewhere. Philip was “very much the new guy”, but brought with him new and heavier influences like Black Flag, Agnostic Front, Poison Idea and The Misfits, leading the band away from the glam rock image that held little interest to him.
“It finally boiled over in about ’88,” says Philip. “I said, ‘Fellas, this bar band shit really isn’t working for me.’ They said, ‘OK, we’ll embrace this attitude,’ which came with throwing the Spandex in the trash and letting the music doing the talking for you instead of this gigantic image, which had been done and done, many fucking times before by way worse bands like Poison. It wasn’t Pantera’s fault, it was just the times.
"The underground was still the underground and I was always the baby of most of the bands I was in; I was always the youngest, so I’m listening to these older guys who are playing the bar scene, which is outdated by itself. Finally I just said, ‘Fuck it, I’ve had enough!’ You’ve also got to look at circumstance and the times and what people thought was fucking heavy, y’know? When you think about the older Monsters Of Rock lineups, little did most people know that there was this growing underground that was about to emerge.”
1988’s Power Metal would be the last Pantera album to sport the glam rock image. It was also to be Pantera’s last self-released album before signing to a major label, and sometimes the gods have to play a hand. On September 9, 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit the East Coast of America and an A&R guy got stranded in Dallas. Pantera happened to be playing “a little disco party” that night and, despite the band trying to put him off (it was a disco, after all) he came down to see them. It was pretty easy to pick him out of the crowd, and Pantera set about the business of impressing him. He left after four songs.
“We’re like, ‘Ah, fuck it, another one that came and went. Let’s start partying!’” recalls Vinnie. “We started doing shots and sliding around in birthday cake on the stage, and about four songs later he came back in and we had to get serious again. He said we were the greatest live band he’d ever seen and I’m like, ‘Really? Why did you leave?’ He’s like, ‘I went out to call and tell them I’m signing you guys.’”
While the perfect storm may have helped to get the band signed, it was also brewing within their sound, dark and portentous like the beginnings of some distant tornado. Power Metal was already old news and Cowboys From Hell was stampeding into town. By rights the tornado should have destroyed every place it touched down, a monster of an album, but instead Pantera, in 1991, played 56 dates in Europe opening for Judas Priest and Annihilator and were universally hated.
Three months sharing a tour bus with Annihilator and the most t-shirts they sold was 12. In Spain. The band vowed never to return and it wasn’t until 1993, after much arm-twisting from Megadeth, that Pantera tried their luck across the pond again. By this point there was a buzz about the band and Vulgar Display Of Power was already on the shelves, brimming over with modern metal classics like Walk, This Love and Fucking Hostile. It was a move that Megadeth would probably regret. Suddenly it was Mega-who?
“Oh we fucking crushed them,” grins Phil, “but that’s not all that tough. We played with a chip on our shoulder every single night. All the years being bogged down in the fucking clubs most certainly fuelled me, but speaking specifically about our return to the UK and Europe, I think we all felt we had a whole shitload to prove because of our first time around and how rough it went, and how dismal it really was for us. But it was the same in America as well, I’m not gonna lie. We were hometown heroes in Texas, but it was like being a small fish in a large ocean again once we did our first tour with Exodus and Suicidal Tendencies. There were a lot of crossed arms and curious looks, people didn’t really know what to think. But once we kept backing that up with show after show, I think the negative experiences really fuelled us to kick everyone’s fucking ass.”
And kick ass they did. Pantera took just 32 days off on the Cowboys… tour cycle before recording Vulgar Display…, four years of solid touring that turned them into an unstoppable force. Metallica had drifted towards the mainstream with The Black Album and elsewhere the world was awash with grunge.
Meanwhile bands like Sepultura, Biohazard and Fear Factory were making themselves known, a new breed of metal.
“We never felt like we were part of a movement or anything,” says Vinnie, “but the one thing we did do is claim to be a heavy metal band, because that’s what we are. At that time heavy metal was being deemed uncool and it was all alternative music, and we always flew the heavy metal flag.”
“It was about the time that Sepultura were coming into their own,” adds Rex, “and behind that Metallica had put out The Black Album, which left a really big hole for us to slip through. Y’know, it was all grunge, all these Seattle bands that sound the same, apart from Soundgarden, it was a different time, and it was time for a heavy band to come back in. There was definitely a crack in the door and it was our time to take it.”
For once Pantera took a little time to regroup and took their time over the recording of Far Beyond Driven, recording in Nashville, their first time away from their home base. And while the band were still growing musically, Philip was also coming into his own as a lyricist, songs like Shedding Skin and Becoming both seeing him open up.
“Becoming is probably a culmination of a lot of the stuff we’ve just talked about,” he explains. “Being misunderstood on tour and having to fight every inch of the way to gain any type of respect or notoriety. Technically, as a band, we could see that we were better than a lot of bands that were out there that were selling triple the records that we were doing. Once again it built that chip on our shoulder, so Becoming was basically, ‘We told you so! We are becoming!’
"Shedding Skin was about several relationships that I’d been in where you get a girl and everything’s perfect, and then they wanna pin you down. When you are in your early 20s, it’s like, ‘Fuck all that!’ Far Beyond Driven was very free for me. Five Minutes Alone stemmed from one of the dozens of lawsuits that we’d encountered, and in one particular lawsuit I was accused of beating up a kid, and it was absolutely not me, not my fault. But I think that father of the kid said, ‘Just give me five minutes alone with that Anselmo guy,’ and my manager said, ‘You do not want five minutes alone with Phil Anselmo!’”
“That record took us a year to do,” says Rex. “We tracked it in four or five months, although my memory may be very wrong, and it took us six months for overdubs and mixing. And it was one of the most expensive records we ever made! But it paid off. If you think about the riffs on that record, they were very to the point, like the riff of all riffs on Becoming, that was Pantera at its finest. I can’t think of a bad song on that record, and we took our time on it. It gave us more time and more freedom to get that sound that eventually became a trademark. That was a totally different environment for us to experiment. It was about the time that Dime was introduced to the whammy pedal and I started playing five-string bass around that time.”
As has been mentioned, Far Beyond Driven, released on March 22, 1994, was the first extreme metal record to debut at Number 1, an astonishing feat for a metal album, even today. Rex has fond memories of sitting with Philip, planning where their sofas were going to go when they bought their first houses. He remembers they were still very close, a functional band, going out and destroying every night.
“That was a true accomplishment and I want to give all the credit for that to our fans,” says Vinnie. “I remember we knocked Ace Of Base and all these pops bands off the top of the charts and all these magazines went, ‘Pantera’s an overnight sensation!’ It was no overnight sensation, buddy! We spent seven years playing nightclubs, doing cover tunes, and trying to learn to write our own songs, then after that we spent four solid years of being on tour with Cowboys… and Vulgar…. We never took any time off! That year for Far Beyond Driven I think the final number was 306 shows that year. That’s a lot of touring! That’s where we built our fanbase.”
Unfortunately, the success came at a price. Years of touring, years leaping off speaker stacks, and stage-diving, and craziness, had lead to crippling back problems for Philip, and while he was pleased for the band he was deeply worried about his own durability and how much he’d be able to cope with the pain. A Number 1 album means a world tour, no two ways about it. On top of that it seemed that success was causing personal problems within the band. Time Warner gave them a Jetstream aeroplane and they’d do constant in-stores, signing thousands of autographs a day. In his book, Official Truth 101 Proof, Rex strongly suggests that egos were getting out of control, and he is less than complimentary about Vinnie Paul.