A band with truly few peers, Pantera rose to unprecedented prominence in the early '90s with an uncompromising approach that prided itself on brutality and reverence rather than style or trend. Their eccentricity and stubborn insistence on being the most intense metal band this side of death metal took them to the top of the Billboard charts, yet also ironically reduced them to cult status. Either way, Pantera never followed the bandwagon, winning legions of metalheads with sincerity, even if it meant they had become the genre's dark horse. But the Texas band wasn't always uncompromising. In fact, for much of the '80s, an admittedly formative version of Pantera was indeed rather trendy. That changed, though, in 1990 when the group released Cowboys From Hell. Undeniably influenced by late-'80s thrash, it nonetheless stunned much of the metal community by toning down the tempo and upping the intensity level. Pantera's king-of-the-hill status, however, came with 1992's Vulgar Display of Power. Their next album, Far Beyond Driven's debut at the top of Billboard in 1994 confirmed this lofty status. Yet, by the time Pantera returned two years later in 1996, things had changed and they saw their following dwindle slowly. It was inevitable. Yet rather than adapt to the latest trend, Pantera remained Pantera, priding themselves on their workmanlike approach to keeping heavy metal heavy, never toning down their intensity level, and scoffing at trends. They may have become bitter and jaded, but you could never call Pantera sellouts.
The group's beginnings date back to the early '80s when they began releasing albums for the Metal Magic label. Originally, the band featured brothers Darrell and Vincent Abbot, Rex Brown, and Terrence Lee. They debuted in 1983 with Metal Magic, followed by Projects in the Jungle in 1984, and I Am the Night in 1985. Singer Philip Anselmo replaced Glaze in 1986, and the group went on to record Power Metal, an album released in 1988 that eventually scored the group a deal with East West. While these '80s albums are no doubt curious to hear, it's fairly evident that this was a much different Pantera. For the most part, fans and surely the band treat Cowboys From Hell as Pantera's "official" debut album featuring the group's longtime lineup: Anselmo (vocals), Diamond Darrell (guitar), Vinnie Paul (drums), and Rex Brown (bass). This album put Pantera on the national metal map, particularly thanks to songs like "Cemetery Gates" and the title-track. Still, as treasured as this album has become to many of the group's fans and while it features some of Pantera's most crafted songwriting, it's a rather derivative album owing obvious debt to the late-'80s thrash movement and didn't sell many units at the time of its release.
Two years later, the group truly came into its own with Vulgar Display of Power, what will no doubt forever remain the definitive Pantera album. Rather than derive its approach from thrash like much of Cowboys From Hell did, Vulgar Display carves out its own unique aesthetic, emphasizing not so much musicality or speed but rather intensity and heaviness. In fact, much of the music on Vulgar Display is downright simple and straightforward, which only accentuates the album's unbelievably menacing delivery. Anselmo in particular blossoms here as not only a lyricist but also as a vocalist, singing/yelling/screaming his words/sounds with reckless abandon. And with such classic songs as "Walk," "Mouth for War," and "Fucking Hostile," this album essentially changed the sound of heavy metal upon its release in 1992, a key moment in the evolution of metal, post-dating the simultaneous demise of thrash and Metallica's commercial breakthrough and pre-dating the rise of Korn and the successive alternative metal movement.
If Vulgar Display of Power and the band's ensuing tour changed the sound of metal in 1992, Pantera capitalized on that change two years later with the release of Far Beyond Driven, which shocked the States by debuting at number one on Billboard's album chart, a remarkable feat for such a harsh album. Yes, Pantera actually one-upped themselves with Far Beyond Driven, delivering the heaviest album they could seemingly make. In fact, the album's relentless focus on intensity and abandon came at the expense of the songwriting. Where past songs like "Cemetery Gates" or "Walk" boasted crafted songwriting, Pantera seems to care less about songwriting on Far Beyond Driven than sound and intensity, every bandmember funneling his efforts into delivering the most brutal performance possible. So while it's easy to criticize the album for being a bit careless in terms of songwriting, it's just as easy to cherish the album's sonic blitzkrieg. Legions of fans did just that on Pantera's ensuing arena tour with Type O Negative. (This album also found Diamond Darrell changing his name to Dimebag Darrell.)
Things would never be the same for Pantera after Far Beyond Driven, their zenith in terms of popularity. In the two years following that album's release, bands like Korn and Tool arose while the entire metal genre essentially bottomed out for two or three years (before being resurrected by Ozzfest and the alt-metal bands). Given the context, The Great Southern Trendkill was no doubt a fitting title for Pantera's next effort. Here the group expanded their approach, realizing that they couldn't continue on the path they were headed with Far Beyond Driven. As a result, there is a commendable diversity present, some of the songs proving success, others failed experiments. Furthermore, the album found Anselmo's lyrics taking a surprisingly turn toward self-destructive negativity, with cynical themes like suicide, disillusionment, and depression taking precedent over the empowering themes of past albums. Though few knew it at the time, Anselmo struggled with drug abuse in the years following Far Beyond Driven, culminating sadly with a heroin overdose in July 1996 that left him pronounced dead for four minutes, only two months after the release of Southern Trendkill and in the midst of the ensuing tour. As a testament to Anselmo's willpower and inner strength, he went cold turkey, didn't miss a single show, and continued touring despite struggling with severe withdrawals.
From this point onward, from 1996 through 1998, Pantera focused on literally touring the world as a means of retaining and hopefully expanding their fan base, which had diminished slightly with the general declining interest in metal. In particular, they headlined the 1997 Ozzfest tour and released Official Live: 101 Proof that same summer, which featured two new songs. Then in 2000, they finally returned with another studio album, Reinventing the Steel, a succinct and relentless album that found them abandoning the diversity and at times sedate moments of Southern Trendkill in favor of manic bombardment. Pantera went back to the basics and simply delivered the heaviest metal they could possibly make, and their existing fans were no doubt pleased. The following year they toured extensively with Slayer, a similar band who had never compromised their trademark intensity over the years even if that meant losing some fans.
At this point, nearly 20 years after Pantera first formed and 15 years after Anselmo joined the group, the band remained as committed to their music as ever. Their albums no longer debuted atop the Billboard charts, and they no longer wore the crown as metal's band of the moment; rather, Pantera stood tall, one of the precious few metal bands, like Slayer, who had endured mass admiration, commercial success, and personal adversity. Not only had they endured, though; they treaded forward, championing their individuality within a tumultuous genre notorious for being trendy. While legions of die-hard fans no doubt cherished Pantera's music, they perhaps admired the band more for their unending reverence and their earnest stance. Jason Birchmeier