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Looking Back At PANTERA's Vulgar Display Of Power On Its 30th Birthday

And it hits as hard as it ever did.


Thirty years have elapsed since Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power first knocked us off our feet with an epic sucker punch on February 25, 1992. The album debuted on Billboard's album charts at No. 42 and became Pantera's first gold album. This record has not only proven to be one of the most significant metal releases of all-time, but is also one of the most iconic. In Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal released in 2013, Jonathan Davis of Korn spoke for countless fans and musicians when he confessed to author Jon Wiederhorn that "The thing that changed my life was when Pantera released Vulgar Display of Power." Judas Priest's Rob Halford also told Wiederhorn that "Pantera changed the playing field for a lot of people. They were so heavy and aggressive, and their songs had amazing melodies. And there was this unbelievable guitarist who was in your face and played with incredible skill."

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Pantera was formed in 1981. The group's classic lineup, which acquired its final member in 1987, featured the late Abbott brothers drummer Vinnie Paul and guitarist Dimebag Darrell, bassist Rex Brown; and frontman Philip H. Anselmo. Pantera quickly turned their idols into peers over the next decade. Most fans know that Dimebag, who was tragically shot by a crazed gunman in 2004, sported a razorblade necklace in homage to Judas Priest's 1980 album British Steel. Halford immediately befriended Pantera after seeing that Dimebag was wearing a British Steel T-shirt on television in 1990, and in 1991, Judas Priest took Pantera on their Painkiller tour, which Paul believed inspired Halford's band Fight one year later. Pantera also counted Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield of Metallica, whom they met in 1985, among their early acquaintances as well. Another was Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, who wanted to possibly recruit Dimebag as the band's new guitarist around 1988, but Dimebag refused to join any band without his brother (Megadeth went on to hire Marty Friedman). "Saint Dimebag," as his best friend Zakk Wylde dubbed him, was clearly one of the greatest guitar players to bless humanity with his presence. Pantera's riffs were revolutionary. As Anselmo says, "everyone wants to copy Pantera's style." Yet, there is only one Pantera.

Before Pantera developed their signature sound and image, they recorded several albums: Metal Magic in 1983, Projects in the Jungle in 1984, I Am the Night in 1985, and Power Metal in 1988. Fans tend to think of Pantera's first four records as belonging to their "glam" phase. Granted, Power Metal moved in a heavier direction with Anselmo on vocals. However, Brown points out that the glam label is slightly unfair in Pantera's case as it stems from superficial assumptions that have been largely based on how the band dressed. Pantera's music was heavier than typical glam and had thrash influences like Metallica and Slayer. In Reinventing Metal: The True Story of Pantera and the Tragically Short Life of Dimebag Darrell, author Neil Daniels points out in that aside from the vocals and the lyrics, Anselmo's Pantera was "not wildly different from what Pantera did in its Terry Glaze-led incarnation." Glaze, who sang on Pantera's first three albums, had a laugh with Daniels: "The music sounds almost the same; it's just you took a girl singing [and replaced her with] a caveman singing." As you can clearly hear on Vulgar Display of Power, for example, Anselmo, is far from a caveman. He is a genius with a wide vocal range and superhuman stamina.

Pantera had encountered many difficulties with frontmen prior to finding Anselmo. Only Anselmo, who had performed with Razor White, had that extra je ne sais quoi that Pantera had been lacking and made it possible for the band to become a household name. Yet, the trained boxer had to keep his guard high. He is quoted in Wiederhorn's Raising Hell: Backstage Tales from the Lives of Metal Legends as saying "I had a chip on my shoulder, and I was in a brand-new town in Texas, so I had my guard up." He recounted the story of how one of Pantera's former vocalists Donny Hart and his Assassin bandmates tried to assault him in a restroom. Philip annihilated them one by one. You may have wondered: What prompted Pantera to forsake their hairspray and spandex for baggy shorts and an unfussy visual presentation? Apparently, Anselmo simply put his foot down one night. He threatened to quit unless he did not have the freedom to dress as he chose. This is a little bit amusing, considering that like Dimebag, Anselmo used to enjoy applying Kiss makeup to his face as a child. Audiences did not always understand what Anselmo represented or Pantera's raw force with him at their helm. Luckily, Dimebag held the attitude that if fans were not appreciative, future generations would be more receptive.

In 1989, Pantera landed a deal with ATCO Records thanks to two of their representatives Mark Ross and Stevenson Eugenio. Cowboys from Hell was Pantera's breakthrough album. Although Anselmo hails from New Orleans, Cowboys from Hell is as "True Texan" as Darkthrone's Transilvanian Hunger is "True Norwegian." Just like many pioneers of the most dissimilar musical movements, Pantera had a refreshing DIY spirit that has been noted by their collaborators. Ultimately, the band toured Cowboys from Hell for nearly two years and played close to 200 shows during that period. Remember that Nirvana's Nevermind hit shelves in September 1991. Grunge was on the rise, and traditional heavy metal was becoming "uncool."

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Before leaving for Moscow and an appearance at the Monsters of Rock festival, Pantera spent a couple of months at Pantego Sound Studio in Arlington, TX where they wrote and recorded Vulgar Display of Power during the summer of 1991. Pantego Sound Studio was the studio of Dime and Vinnie's father, Jerry Abbott, who produced Pantera's first four albums. As a kid, Dimebag used to hang out there. He would approach recording artists and ask them to show him their licks. Terry Date, who had already worked on Cowboys from Hell, produced Vulgar Display of Power.

Vulgar Display of Power could be one's entire raison d'être. It is so sublime that it does not seem like the product of mortal men. For reference, the original track listing was "Mouth for War," "A New Level," "Walk," "Fucking Hostile," "This Love," "Rise," "No Good (Attack the Radical)," "Live in a Hole," "Regular People (Conceit)," "By Demons Be Driven," and "Hollow." Four of these songs became singles. Anselmo's soulful lyrics and ultra-masculine delivery are not only brilliant, they are simply eargasmic. Although Pantera has been called a second-generation thrash band, Anselmo told Vanessa Warwick of Headbangers Ball that his influences were much broader: "My favorite band is like old Black Sabbath and stuff like that. You know, I'm into slow heavy shit. You know, what we try to do is groove… What we try to do is make the crowd… move to something…" Anselmo has literally sacrificed his body for his art and ruined his back trying to put on a good show night after night. Every song on Vulgar Display of Power is an invigorating anthem. The album is sure to make you feel hyped. For this reason, "Walk" is a go-to at sports venues. The record's tagline could be: "Unscarred… No fucking surrender."

"Walk" is perhaps the song that best embodies the essence of metal. If ever you need to explain what heavy music is to an extraterrestrial, just play this song. Allegedly, Dime came up with the riff in response to the fact that Anselmo began yelling that Pantera needed new material. The lyrics were written as an answer to Pantera's Janus-faced friends who thought that success had changed the band members' personalities. Pantera, on the other hand, believed that they remained just as authentic in their personal dealings as ever. These lines will echo in the ears of mankind for eternity: "Is there no standard anymore? What it takes, who I am, where I've been, belong. You can't be something you're not. Be yourself, by yourself, stay away from me." "Mouth for War," for example, was created after Anselmo showed Dime a riff. Vulgar Display of Power is said to have come together effortlessly. Nevertheless, Anselmo confessed to Kerrang! that he preferred to record at night, whereas his bandmates used the studio during the day.

Although Vulgar Display of Power is thrillingly brutal, it is wholesome. Without ever becoming soft or cheesy, Vulgar Display of [Em]Power[ment] addresses political and social issues. On "Regular People (Conceit)," Anselmo sings: "I fight for love of brother. Your friends fight one another." On "Rise," he righteously shouts: "It's time to have a new reign of power. Make pride universal, so no one gives in. Turn our backs on those who oppose." The album's final track, "Hollow," is a tearjerker about collective losses that Anselmo has experienced. Anselmo, who is an atheist, vents his anger at God in this song. Anselmo's powerful voice is awe-inspiring. In those days, his voice could even be quite beautiful if he was striving for that type of effect. Yet, in Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera, Brown remembered that in response to Anselmo's distorted vocals on "Fucking Hostile" a man at the studio commented: "Son, boys, y'all can't put that on the record, nobody's going to listen to it."

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Brown has confirmed that "Hollow" was made with spare riffs from Cowboys from Hell. He believes that the same applies to "Regular People." Similarly, The Great Southern Trendkill in 1996 contained riffs from the periods in which Cowboys from Hell and Vulgar Display of Power were created. According to Reinventing Metal from 2013, Vulgar Display of Power was mixed backwards. Terry Date was chosen to mix the album. On the packaging, Paul technically shares credits for producing, engineering, and mixing while Pantera is named as a co-producer. Vulgar Display of Power was mastered in New York by Howie Weinberg of Masterdisk. Vulgar Display of Power's title was taken from The Exorcist. Although Dimebag wanted to use an old photo of someone receiving a punch to the face as the cover image, ATCO recreated the pose with a model instead. Vulgar Display of Power was the last effort in which Dimebag was listed as "Diamond Darrell." After the album was finished, Jerry Abbott sold Pantego Sound and moved to Nashville, TN.

The famous track "Piss" was written for Vulgar Display of Power, but it was cut. Nonetheless, it ended up on the album's 20th anniversary reissue and has been given a widely viewed music video. This marked the Vulgar Display of Power's 4th video. The "Walk" footage is such a defining high point of American culture, that by this point, everyone and their grandmother has seen it. The clip for "This Love" was shot by Kevin Kerslake, who is famous for his work with groups like Nirvana, The Rolling Stones, and Stone Temple Pilots. Respected director Paul Rachman, who shot Pantera's "Mouth for War," had some insightful words about the group for Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott author Zac Crain:

"[Pantera] were very different. Phil's attitude was all about the energy and keeping it real and just being, like, as truthful as you can be to the audience. Vinnie, as the producer, was really into the technicality of the music. A certain integrity was important to him. And Darrell was actually the most fun to work with. Because he had the true kind of rock-and-roll spirit. I don't want to call it 'rock star spirit,' but he had a glow about him. Where it was this balance between being, you know, a great guitar player and really caring about your band and your music and your fans having a good time. Kind of balancing all of those things. It was really an art. He didn't have to try to be a rock star, because he was one. You know what I mean? He was a natural."

Brown wrote: "When we played the new Vulgar material on the road it just blew everybody's fucking mind… jaws were dropping…" Before the album was released, Pantera hit the road with Skid Row, who was promoting Slave to the Grind in 1991. In his autobiography 18 and Life on Skid Row, frontman Sebastian Bach reflected: "I simply had never met anybody in my life that partied as hard as PanteraPantera would line up forty shots of Crown Royal and Coke [ingredients for Dime's favorite 'Black Tooth Grin' cocktail] before they went out. Going on the road with Pantera was like being on tour with Mike Tyson." Sebastian continued later: "I must admit that following Pantera some nights onstage was a gigantic bummer. When they got going into their unique, heavy groove, they were like a machine… They were together in every way."

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Surprisingly, Pantera not only used this tour as an opportunity to convert Skid Row's fans to their camp of followers, but they also won over Sebastian and his father, the late art professor David Bierk. Sebastian's father loved that Pantera called his son by his patronym — "Hey BIERK!" After Sebastian Bach was cruelly booted from Skid Row in 1996, Vinnie Paul went to see him perform. Intoxicated, Vinnie jumped onstage and shouted: "This motherfucker took Pantera On Tour! And now Pantera is gonna take this motherfucker out on tour! RIGHT NOW!" The fact that Vinnie kept his promise gives one a sense of his integrity. Pantera also toured Vulgar Display of Power with Megadeth, whom they supported during the Countdown to Extinction tour. Rex Brown reminisced: "Dave Mustaine would sneak bottles of mouthwash or shit like to drink…" Pantera booked shows with groups like White Zombie as well.

After Vulgar Display of Power, Pantera completed three more albums: Far Beyond Driven in 1994, The Great Southern Trendkill in 1996, and Reinventing the Steel in 2000. Pantera played their final concert on August 26, 2001. Although they had more dates planned, the events of September 11 prompted them to return home from Ireland. Fortunately, Anselmo has overcome the drug addiction that led to Pantera's demise. The tragic loss of the Abbott brothers, as noted, has put a "hole in the paper heart[s]" of metal fans all over the world. Over 18 years have passed since Dimebag was killed, along with four other victims and the shooter, during a Damageplan concert with Vinnie Paul on drums. The venue, the Alrosa Villa in Columbus Ohio, has already been demolished and will be turned into affordable apartment units. The cause of Vinnie's death in 2018 was officially determined to have been dilated cardiomyopathy. Vinnie's former home was recently listed on the market. Thereafter, Avenged Sevenfold's Shadows announced that he and his bandmate Zacky Vengeance had a plan to buy the space. Thankfully, an undisclosed buyer ended what had become a distasteful circus of voyeurs by purchasing the house. It has become impossible for most fans to listen to Vulgar Display of Power without experiencing a degree of sadness. Yet, the Abbott brothers' enduring, life affirming spirit ensures that this album has aged like whiskey. After all these years, Vulgar Display of Power is still guaranteed to bring out your best "Black Tooth Grin."

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