On June 22, 2018, news broke that drummer Vinnie Paul had died in his sleep at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the age of 54. Best known as the drummer for Pantera and as the brother of the late guitar great Dimebag Darrell (as well as the drummer for Damageplan and Hellyeah), Vinnie inspired an entire generation of drummers with his hard-hitting playing on such now-headbanger standards as "Cowboys from Hell," "Domination," and "This Love."
During the '90s, Pantera could single-handedly be credited with keeping heavy metal alive. While many veteran bands either lost singers (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Anthrax) and/or lost their way (Metallica, Megadeth, Mötley Crüe) as the decade wore on, Pantera - whose classic line-up consisted of singer Phil Anselmo, Dimebag, bassist Rex Brown, and Vinnie - issued a string of classic albums comprised of 100% pure metal, tops being 1990's Cowboys From Hell, 1992's Vulgar Display Of Power, and 1994's Far Beyond Driven.
In 2015, I tried to make sense of this troubling decade for metal, with the book Survival of the Fittest: Heavy Metal in the 1990's, which included all-new interviews with members of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, and of course, Pantera. Here are parts from a chapter in the book, entitled "You Could Count On The Cowboys," in which Pantera's importance is fully explored - and also, can now serve as a tribute to Vinnie Paul and his musical accomplishments.
Phil Anselmo [Pantera/Down singer]: That's a tough call, man [if Pantera was the top metal band of the '90s]. Because there was - and always has been, since I've been in the business - a band named Slayer, that's very tough to argue that they were anything but heavy metal or thrash metal... which I think go hand-in-hand. I don't know, we were definitely one of them. And I think with the rapport I had with the audience, I made it very well known that we were a heavy metal band and proud to be that. So maybe that's why people might say we were the "top heavy metal band."But once again, at the same time, in the underground, there were really some very heavy metal bands - whether it was black metal or death metal. You cannot deny the "metal" part of it. As far as commercially selling big, perhaps we were the top metal band aside from Metallica, who during the '90s, kind of fell from grace a little bit. But maybe it's not for me to decide. Maybe it's best that everybody else has chimed in on this.
Mike Portnoy [Ex-Dream Theater drummer]: Pantera had released Far Beyond Driven and entered the charts at #1, which was a huge statement for metal. But really, they were it. I remember Sepultura had Chaos AD and Roots around that time, you had Machine Head - I was a big fan of the Burn My Eyes album at that time. But other than Sepultura and Machine Head - and most specifically, Pantera - I remember the times were changing and metal was about to go through a tough period. Anthrax and Megadeth and Slayer - and especially Metallica - were about to go through a mid-'90s period where they were experimenting with change.
I remember joking recently that 1997 and 1998 were the worst years ever in the history of metal! If you look at everybody's albums from those years - from Load and Reload to Queensrÿche's Hear In The Now Frontier and Megadeth's Risk - every metal band's albums in those years... even Dream Theater's Falling Into Infinity, I thought that was our weakest album. All the popular '80s and early '90s metal bands were putting out their weakest albums in the mid-to-late '90s. Pantera - God bless them - were the only thing holding it together for real metal. And then eventually, it came back around.
Zakk Wylde [Ozzy Osbourne guitarist, Black Label Society singer/guitarist]: When you look at athletes and certain teams - the Steel Curtain or whoever - the whole thing is Pantera hands down... you have good guitar players, great guitar players, and then you have the "game changers." Whether it's Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani - you have guys that change the game. They're beyond great. The whole thing is Pantera, without a doubt, as much as they liked Metallica or Slayer or Sabbath, their spin on it, between the groove and the precision and the brutality and the musicianship, and then Phil's vocal delivery, and what Phil brought to the table... it's just so funny - with Vinnie, we were doing the Soundwave Fest [circa 2014], and there's 100 bands in one day. And we were walking around, I'm hanging out with Vinnie, and afterwards, we were at the bar. I go, "Vin, let me put it this way. I don't know if any of these kids have any Sabbath or Zeppelin records in their collection. But I know they got a whole shitload of Pantera! I don't even know if they've got Metallica or Slayer records in their collection. But I know all they have is Pantera albums in their collection."
I mean, every singer wanted to be Phil. It's all Phil-isms that are up there - down to the shorts, the shirt, the way they stand, the way they put their hands up, the way they put their foot up on the monitor. Everything like a cover band. And the only thing missing would be a phenomenal guitar player like Dime. Everything was there... obviously the guitar players can't solo, they don't have the chops Dime had. But I was just laughing. I go, "Vin, I'm just asking brother, because I love ya - are you getting residuals off this fucking festival?" [Laughs] I go, "It's a fucking Pantera-fest!" I mean, me and you would be sitting on the side of the stage, I'd be looking at you, and me and you are like, crying laughing. It would be like a festival where all these kids are coming around playing guitar, they've got a Les Paul slung low, they have either a bullseye or some fucking thing on it, and they've got the bell bottoms on like when I first came out with Ozzy, with their legs far apart and they're headbanging side to side. And that's all it is - everyone's doing that. No one's playing Strats, no one's playing Flying V's, it's just a bullseye Les Paul and I'm going, "Man, this is pretty fucking funny man." [Laughs] It's just fucking ridiculous. Every band was doing that, and not even "put a new spin on it" or anything.
Because let's be real - that's how you learn. I mean, to make a "Black Label cocktail," it's a mixture of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elton John, Neil Young, and the Eagles. And if you want a "Pantera cocktail," it's Sabbath, speed metal, and Phil liked all that underground death metal, and then Vinnie and Dime liked early Metallica records and Slayer, and then they just bent it, crumpled and twisted it, and then eventually, it came out like Pantera. And eventually, you write a song, and you're like, "Zakk, I directly got this from "In The Light" by Zeppelin or whatever." And I go, "That's funny. If you never told me that, I would have never known that. Now that you tell me, I can see where you got the inspiration." And then you eventually mutate it and turn it into its own thing, just like Zeppelin was listening to all the old blues records, and they bent it and twisted it. But the spirit is still there.
Rob Halford [Judas Priest singer]: When Pantera broke through with Cowboys From Hell, it was a very exciting, potent time in metal. You have this unbelievable guitar player who was doing things that no one else was doing. Just a basic four-piece making such a noise. And the fact that we were able to take the band out with us to Europe for the first time, nobody had a clue about Pantera. And remember as well, this is just about the time when the Internet is kicking in, so prior to that, the only way you communicate is with magazines. So the word was spreading in the underground metal scene in America.
But outside of there, they were completely unknown. And I used to stand on the side of the stage and watch them walk out and play, and the Priest audience would be looking, and they'd fire up "Cowboys From Hell," and they'd just be sheer stunned. In shock and awe. By the time they'd finish their set, they had everybody in their back pocket, because everybody knew they were witnessing the birth of an incredibly powerful, important, great metal band.
Jeff Waters [Annihilator guitarist]: We were on the bus [when Annihilator shared a tour bus with Pantera, when both bands opened a European tour for Judas Priest], and we would have these little silly band meetings. And so would they. It would be like, "Hey guys, we want to have a meeting. Can you guys go to the front of the bus for just ten minutes?"
Once, I was lying in my bunk, which was near the back lounge, and I heard Pantera sitting there, and this was an eye-opener after I look back and they had their success, thinking, "Wow, these guys sat in the back, and intentionally targeted three bands. Metallica - Vinnie had the 'Lars drum sound' completely down. The soloing was going to be more of a 'Van Halen kind of direction.' And the rhythms were going to be Sabbath and Metallica." And these guys really were very intelligent and planned this thing out. And it was nothing wrong with it, because these were great bands that they were trying to incorporate. And they were brilliant at incorporating these sounds - without sounding like a rip-off or a cover band. It was just brilliant. They targeted their sound from their favorite bands, and they did it.
Devin Townsend [Vai singer, Strapping Young Lad singer/ guitarist, solo artist]: I see in hindsight the effect that Pantera had. I don't think I realized how influential they were at the time. And my personal experience with Pantera was that I thought they were awesome and I saw them a whole bunch of times. But they weren't like a real catalyst for me in many ways. I remember when I first heard Vulgar Display Of Power, it was right around the time I was into Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and all that '90s stuff - which I really did like. Jane's Addiction particularly. But when I heard Pantera, the production was just so dry that I remember thinking, "Wow, this is the heaviest thing I've heard" - in terms of a commercially viable hard rock record. Because at the time, there was Grave, Bolt Thrower and all these underground sort of things, but Pantera was very much mentioned in the same breath as Alice in Chains or Soundgarden. And it was just so much heavier, that if it had any influence on me at the time - which I'm sure it did - it was based more on the production. Of, "Wow, that guitar sound does this to the speakers. That frequency range on the kick does this."
Lonn Friend [Rip magazine editor, host of "Friend at Large" segment on Headbangers Ball, host of Pirate Radio Saturday Night show]: We used to talk around Rip like, "Well, Pantera's the next Metallica." And the hardcore guys would say, "Pantera is not going to do a Black Album." Nobody who had seen Pantera live or had gotten to know the band thought that they were going to cater to MTV or make a record that would get them played on the radio. And believe me, they had forces that were pressuring them to do exactly that. "Come on man, you need an 'Until It Sleeps.'" And those guys, that's that genuine Texas... it was the brothers, so much about the brothers, where they came from, playing Kiss records in their room. Vulgar Display is a really important record. That's when they really upped their live show, too. There was always mayhem involved in that band, too. There were two camps - there was the Abbott brothers and there was Rex and Philip.
Phil Anselmo: It's ridiculous [in response to being asked about the term "groove metal," which has been linked to Pantera]. I know that we had a groove and all, but it doesn't delete us from heavy metal. We were - I think - one of the only bands at a certain point in time in the '90s that were the bands that were selling X amount of records or being amongst bands that were trying to be pushed into the spotlight at the time, like Limp Bizkit and all that shit, that I thought we were very different from all of those bands. All that nu metal and rap metal shit. I felt like we were much more the genuine article as far as just straightforward heavy metal music goes. No matter how you wrap it or slice it, Pantera always had a bluesy feel to it, if you really listened to it and you listened to Dimebag's riffs. And it seems like one element of what we did got taken and pushed over-the-top, and really it's riding on the E string and various rhythms, which is about 1/15th of what Pantera was about as a whole band.
Rex Brown: I don't want to say we were the biggest metal band in the world of the '90s. But we were damn sure close to it.
June 28, 2018
To order Survival of the Fittest: Heavy Metal in the 1990's, click here.
Interview with Phil Anselmo
Interview with Rex Brown
Interview with Judas Priest
Interview with Jeff Waters
Interview with Zakk Wylde
Fact or Fiction: '90s Metal
Excerpt from the book Shredders
More Song Writing