Metal was going through a dark time in the nineties. Hair metal was out of style, thrash bands were being dropped like crazy, and Seattle’s grunge scene was becoming… oh, you’ve heard this story before? Then you’ve definitely heard of Pantera. Either that, or you’ve been living under a rock for the last 15 years. Back at the beginning of the decade, however, the band had just given up on their hair metal days, and most of you probably didn’t even know who they were (me neither!). Though they had experimented with hard rock/thrash metal on 1988’s Power Metal
, Cowboys From Hell
was grittier, rawer, and decidedly more powerful than anything they had done yet. In addition, this was the second album to feature singer Phil Anselmo, and Pantera’s major label debut. While still being a very good album in its own right, the band would peak two years later with the monumental Vulgar Display Of Power
album. Anyways, onto the review.
There is obviously a lot to like here. At this point, every member of the classic Pantera lineup had come into the fold, including Phil Anselmo (vocals), Dimebag Darrel Abbot (guitars), Vinnie Paul Abbot (drums), and Rex Brown (bass). Most noticeable is the superb riffage, courtesy of the legendary Dimebag Darrel (RIP). Though most of the guitars on the album are coated in a dense, destructive distortion, even his few clean passages are brilliant. Take one listen to the riffs in the title track or Shattered
, the former of which you all have undoubtedly heard (with good reason), and you’ll know exactly what I mean. Anselmo’s bark is arguably the most criticized aspect of the band, but he is at his peak on Cowboys
, as well as the album that would follow. His grunts and growls complement the bands brutal southern-style metal quite well, and he can really sing when he needs to, namely on the album’s two ballads, Cemetary Gates
and The Sleep
. While both of these are astounding (if unexpected) tracks on an album like this, Cemetary Gates is absolutely breathtaking. It is by far the best song on the album, and is worth buying the entire album for (though, in the age of downloading, this really isn’t necessary!). Rex is, well, your stereotypical metal bassist. Don’t expect a whole lot there. He is by no means bad, but he’s turned down and pushed into the background for pretty much the duration of the album. Vinnie Paul, though most definitely not the quickest or most technical drummer ever, has something about his playing style that amazes me. The drums just groove so well, and they never get in the way of the rest of the song. Surprisingly enough, you’ll actually find yourself air drumming during certain songs (Psycho Holiday
comes to mind). And speaking of groove, that’s one of this album’s true selling points. Though it may be used less than on subsequent releases, the southern metal groove Pantera became known for is used to its fullest on this album.
See all those bolded songs up there in the paragraph before this one? They’re all incredible songs. And they’re not the only ones. Heresy
is also excellent, as is the bombastic Domination
, which features the best vocal work on the album and one hell of a solo. But one of the main drawbacks of Cowboys
is the filler. Keep in mind, the songs are still decent, but they sound exactly the same as the rest of the album!
One thing that the nineties leading metal band did not excel in was songwriting. Message In Blood
, Primal Concrete Sledge
, The Art Of Shredding
, and especially Clash With Reality
add very little, if anything, to this album. Medicine Man
is a strange, atmospheric type song that Pantera has never tried to replicate. While its not exactly bad, it doesn’t seem to be welcome in an album like this. Another minor problem would be some of Phil’s vocals. As previously stated, I like his growls and even his clean vocals, but the balls-stuck-in-a-trash-compactor wail that he calls a falsetto is just painful to listen to. These screeches are most evident in the otherwise solid Heresy
. Though I’ve heard them compared to the likes of Rob Halford quite often, Anselmo misses that lofty mark by a mile.
Now I’ll lay out a rather controversial opinion, and the main reason I don’t seem to enjoy Pantera as much as others: Dimebag’s solos. While it is obvious that he had an incredible amount of talent and could shred like few others, there are some aspects of his playing that I just don’t care for. First and foremost is his tone. There is no thickness or depth to it, only noisy, squeaky treble. It’s hard to enjoy a solo, even a well written one, when it sounds like that. As for the ballads, he nails the Cemetary Gates
solo, but the same cannot be said for The Sleep
. Not only is the tone unwanted anywhere near a ballad, but pinch harmonics and whammy bar wankery plague what could have been one of Pantera’s best songs. In fact, similar problems can be found in almost every solo on the album. I’ll be the first one to admit that the shredding on this album fits a lot of the time, but there are very, very few melodic lead licks in the solos, and there are so many places where they could be used to great effect. As I’ve said, his rhythm work is spotless, but the solos are spotty. Even The Art Of Shredding
(which, by the way, could have benefited from removing the vocals and making it just that: a song full of what this band did best) could have used a little more melody, but the ferociously fast song at least finishes the album off with a blast.
Review Summary: Pantera’s first major label release is a quite good, focusing more on a lot of amazing songs than a consistent album. A few tracks go nowhere, but most are destructive cuts that are reason enough to buy an album on their own. The band is vicious, and Phil is not only fitting, but oftentimes spectacular (except when he tries that poor excuse for a falsetto). Dimebag turns in a flawless rhythm performance, and a few awesome solos. Unfortunately, these solos are bogged down by extremely poor tone and lack of diversity, the latter of which could be said of the whole album. Despite it shortcomings, however, Cowboys
is still a solid album from one of the biggest bands in metal’s long history.
Cowboys From Hell