Music History

What Makes Pantera So Special?

What was it about Vinnie Paul and his group, Pantera, that kept fans on the hook?
What was it about Vinnie Paul and his group, Pantera, that kept fans on the hook? Frazer Harrison/Getty
This week, Metallica announced a 2023 concert in Arlington with Pantera. Not surprisingly, metalheads went insane. It's been years since the founding players in the band died, but the mourning period doesn't seem to expire, and fans will wear black to AT&T Stadium for two dates in August.

But what is it about Pantera that inspires this kind of fan longevity?

The Pantera success story is one that is rarely repeated. It started in 1981, when brothers and KISS Army members “Dimebag” Darrell and Vinnie Paul Abbott teamed up with vocalist Terry Glaze to make glam metal in the same vein as one burgeoning band called Van Halen, who at the time were generating some buzz with the help of Gene Simmons and playing sold-out shows on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Looking back, the music the Abbott brothers made with Glaze was not different from what other copycat bands like Faster Pussycat and Dokken were doing, but along with bands like Winger, Pantera was one of the earliest glam metal bands to start in Texas.

After recruiting bassist Rex Brown, the glam Pantera buckled down and belted out three albums: Metal Magic, Projects in the Jungle and I Am the Night.

The works generated considerable buzz locally, but nowhere else.

By 1986, Glaze seemed to be the only member who did not grow at least somewhat weary of this style. Even before albums like Motley Crue’s Girls, Girls, Girls and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, glam metal was simultaneously stagnant and excessively gaudy. Glaze left, and the band held auditions for a new vocalist.

Enter Phil Anselmo, a New Orleans native who was heavily influenced by the Big Easy’s punk scene. When Anselmo and other NOLA punks heard albums such as Venom’s Welcome to Hell and Melvins’ Gluey Porch Treatments, they were inspired by a unique synergy between hardcore punk and heavy metal.

The rest of the world was following suit as well. As Anselmo joined Pantera, fans were just about to be hit with a wave of thrash metal in the form of Slayer’s Raining Blood and Metallica’s Master of Puppets. Simultaneously, crossover thrash bands like Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, Suicidal Tendencies and Corrosion of Conformity were sharing bills with established punk stalwarts like Circle Jerks and Bad Brains.

Amid this sea change, Pantera released its first album with Anselmo, 1988’s Power Metal, which neither completely abandoned the glam metal proclivities of past releases nor complacently resorted to them without any reinvention.

Power Metal had traces of Anselmo’s musical repertoire in it, but they were faint compared to those found in the band’s next release, 1990’s Cowboys From Hell. The album saw a near-complete abandonment of hair metal and an embrace of thrash metal. Tracks like “Heresy” were an explicit homage to the Bay Area thrash metal undercurrents, while “Cemetery Gates” was probably as close the band has ever gotten to sounding like Metallica.

But what truly made Cowboys From Hell stick out above the thrash metal copycats was how uniquely Texan it was. Listening to the album, you just know it was recorded by people who were in the same music scene as Stevie Ray Vaughan. You get the sense that at least two of the members at the helm of it all saw ZZ Top play at the Tarrant County Convention Center when they were just embarking on a musical discovery.

Through it all, there was a groove to it, and that is why Cowboys From Hell is considered one of the first “groove metal” albums ever.

Equally uncompromising and authentic were the band members themselves, who always stuck to their roots and never forgot where they came from.

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Thankfully, that groove never went away even, as the band got even heavier in later releases.

In 1992’s Vulgar Display of Power, the single “Fucking Hostile” channels the hardcore punk style of Agnostic Front (one of Anselmo’s biggest musical influences) while maintaining some bluesiness in the process.

It’s a truly impressive feat, and even on what is arguably Pantera’s heaviest album, 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill, the groove still persists. As the band’s career progressed, both the heaviness and the grooves grew more uncompromising and authentic by the release cycle.

Equally uncompromising and authentic were the band members themselves, who always stuck to their roots and never forgot where they came from.

In 1996, when Pantera was scheduled to embark on a co-headlining arena tour with White Zombie, Anselmo insisted on having New Orleans scene fixtures Eyehategod open — not exactly a band name that corporate promoters would feel comfortable printing on flyers and certainly not a band whose music was palatable to the majority of fans who saw them. But Anselmo wanted to pay it forward to fellow NOLA punks, and so he did.

At the same time, the Abbott brothers were exploring their deep-seated affinity for country music by frequently listening to David Allan Coe. Three years after the 1996 tour, they started a country-metal fusion band with Coe and Pantera bassist Brown called Rebel Meets Rebel. (Just pretend that the Confederate flag stuff didn’t happen.)

It seemed that Anselmo’s New Orleans roots were incongruent with the Abbotts’ Texas roots. Not that there was a rivalry between the two regions, and not that this was the only thing that led to Pantera’s eventual dissolution, but it seems that Anselmo’s Orleanian creativity eventually clashed with Dimebag and Paul’s Texan sensitivity.

Perhaps it explains why the Abbotts were compelled to start Rebel Meets Rebel, just as Anselmo was compelled to pay more attention to his side projects, Down and Superjoint Ritual, in the years leading up to Pantera’s 2003 breakup.

Creative voices can truly conflict in hideous ways, but they can also mesh to create something unique and lasting. The creative voices of Pantera just so happened to do both, and thank God they did.
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.

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