Twenty-five years ago, an album shifted the future of metal. It shed old stigmas and embraced a new musical blueprint and, for many, offered renewed hope for the future of metal. It was named for four groundbreaking musicians — Phil Anselmo, Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, Vinnie Paul, and Rex Brown — on a mission: Cowboys From Hell.
As Pantera’s fifth album, the record took a turn no one saw coming. It made Pantera the band that metalheads know and love today, the band they look to in hard times — because it helped their favorite genre get through the hard times, too.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the beloved album, as a hardcore Pantera fan and heavy metal journalist for the past 12 years, I want to celebrate what the album truly did for music. You probably think I’m going to say grunge almost killed metal, and Cowboys From Hell saved it from extinction. You would be wrong.
Face it: With a few exceptions, metal was struggling in the late 1980s. You had some solid thrash, the rise of Metallica, and glam and hair metal. (Hey, I’ll take Beastie Boys’ “Girls” over Mötley Crüe’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” any day). Grunge was a fad that helped bridge the gap over the creeping, muddled up river of metal at the time — sort of like a distraction from Bon Jovi and Poison leading the way.
With Cowboys From Hell, the members of Pantera made the distinct decision to peel off the spandex and ditch the hairspray of the band’s early days. Before Cowboys From Hell, what was considered true heavy-fucking-metal (like Cannibal Corpse) was never heard on the radio — short of catching some Slayer on Headbanger’s Ball, a cheesy enough name in itself.
Though it’s obvious that Cowboys From Hell, written from late ’88 through ’89, was a revival for metal over grunge, the importance lies in that it introduced a unique style that felt refreshing and true. Anthemic statements like “Cowboys From Hell” and songs like “Shattered” that touched on issues like nuclear war were nothing new. The members wanted the majority of the album to be about circumstance that other people could realistically relate to. CFH was to be darker, harder, and more ear-piercing than what metal ever before heard.
You had Phil Anselmo’s hardcore punk mentality and chaotic vocal range. The talent and charisma of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, a guitarist who influenced dozens of the most celebrated guitarists around today. He and his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul, were so musically in sync they could freestyle any place, any time with their eyes closed. And bassist Rex Brown had an incredible talent for playing Dimebag’s parts right in time with him, providing the grooving backbone Pantera is known for. It made you feel like you were listening to Agnostic Front, ZZ Top, and Slayer all at one time, whipped into a frenzy then folded into deep rhythmic grooves, like bitters into whiskey. And it tasted amazing.
But the sound wasn’t just about pure metal, as many fans attest. It combined thrash, hardcore punk, Southern rock, and blues — in fact, Vinnie and Dime spent time in their father’s studio, where he produced country and blues artists and where they would listen to amazing blues players, from which Dime developed his signature sound. The album itself was influenced by albums from bands like Voivod, Faith No More, Soundgarden, and Black Flag. And it was born from chaos: Pantera was signed and able to release Cowboys From Hell to the masses because Atco record exec Mark Ross was stranded in Dallas from a hurricane in 1989. He signed the band after hearing four songs.
It gave heavy metal the violent shove past grunge into relevance again. It was about knowing when change needed to be forced, and to dive head first into it. And while it begrudgingly caused label execs scramble to get on the next heavy metal band that might be a cash cow, it also gave some underdogs from the underground a chance to be heard — think Corrosion of Conformity or even alt-metallers like Deftones and Korn.
Bands create music as an escape and release for them and their fans. Metal has always been an escape for me. It honestly and unapologetically reflects the dark underbelly of life; in politics, society, death, addiction, disasters. And because of that, it helps us deal with all of those things.
Recently my personal life has been filled with strife, with family trauma and change in the most extreme of ways, including suicide and cancer. When I am struggling, I tend to turn to music. And my go-to is Pantera.
With Cowboys From Hell, Phil Anselmo said in a prior interview, he’d had it with the formula of what metal was supposed to be, so he and the other three members decided to cut against the grain as much as possible. That’s what we do in life when things aren’t provoking us to feel that fire and passion; to step outside our comfort zone and clash with reality.
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On July 24, 2015, that first cut turns 25 years old. Give the record a spin. Embrace Vinnie Paul’s opening scream of “First take like a motherfucker!” on “Domination” — and enjoy the rawness of it being an actual first take, and the essence of the band finding it’s signature power groove. Find the humor in “Psycho Holiday,” a song titled from the time Rex bought Phil a ticket home to New Orleans for the weekend because he was homesick and needed to clear his head. Head-bang to one of heavy metal’s most recognizable guitar riffs on the commanding title track. Savor the art of shredding on “The Art of Shredding.” Make out with someone over the slow, watery, beautiful heaviness of “Cemetery Gates” and “The Sleep.”
I salute it with a shot of Black Tooth Grin, and a toast to embracing positive change and beauty out of bleakness and chaos.