Phil Anselmo- vocals
Dimebag Darrell- guitar
Vinnie Paul- drums
If there was ever an album to provide a kind of pleasant (but still mildly infuriating) confusion in the listener's mind, 'Vulgar Display Of Power' is it. Firstly, consider the Pantera context, and the fact that : the 1980s were spent reproducing some quite frankly awful 'metal'; 'Cowboys From Hell', essentially the first album of a second life, depicts the members pulling stupid cliche Bill and Ted poses in typical 'Wyld Stallyns' clothing: the band's general reputation was that of redneck Texans. The context thus does not really prepare a person for this album. Cover art ignored, the music on 'Cowboys From Hell' does suggest a heavier side, but nothing this brutal. 'Vulgar Display...' is an exceptional album of incredible force which not only takes heavy metal forward a whole notch but also contains elements which would not have been associated with a Pantera of the past.
Deliberate or not, the slight pause of silence at the start works perfectly: time to brace oneself for the crunchingly distorted opening riff of 'Mouth For War'. Already the sheer violence with which Dimebag Darrell plays his guitar is clearly audible, setting the tone for an album which is, by design, unerringly aggressive throughout. However, it is when Phil Anselmo introduces himself to the proceedings that any thoughts of softness are completely dispelled, as his harsh vocal style is the absolute antipathy of melodic singing, and subsequently the perfect mode of articulation for the aforementioned aggression. Just how Anselmo keeps up this vocal performance throughout not only a song but a whole album is mind-boggling: indeed, any attempts to imitate his style results in a strain on the throat that cannot be healthy. Yet this really acts as the most overt expression of what this record is about
: although clearly endowed with vocal chords which can handle such abuse, Anselmo is forcing his words through a raw, almost bestial rage which sets it apart from anything existing in the mainstream up until that point.
As Vinnie Paul's slow, steady beat underpins Darrell's ugly, rising riff in 'A New Level', it becomes evident that dynamics are yet another factor which has been considered in this new formula, as on several occasions, most notably during 'Walk', Paul and Rex adopt a much slower, almost sludge styled pattern, which, when coupled with Darrell's at times discordant guitar work, bring a dark and ominous feel to the soundscape. Although this pattern repeats itself, the structure of the songs and interplay between the musicians keeps all of the songs impressively fresh, with the exception of the two attempted 'ballads', 'This Love' and 'Hollow'. Although by no means bad songs per se, they stand out like sore thumbs with their more old-school metal stylings, and, crucially, their words concerning love and friendship, however pessimistically done, simply do not fit comfortably into the track listing.
Despite the substantial input of Paul and Rex, there were always two main talents in Pantera, and on 'Vulgar Display...' they both put in career-defining performances. Mention of Darrell's hard, vicious riff and chord work has already been made, but his series of solos compliment it as sublime examples of virtuosity. While maintaining the standard metal element of speed, the range of effects and styles used within the solos on this album are incredible. Tracks such as 'F*****g Hostile' and 'Rise' are subjected to solos which are simultaneously unpleasant and genius in their execution. Pure Kerry King acceleration is not enough for Darrell: the search for innovation finds the guitarist arranging solos in strange fast/slow/fast sequences, most clearly apparent on 'Live In A Hole's almost progressive changes of pace.
The second major player is of course Anselmo, who's selection of lyrics for this album are nothing short of astonishing. Looking vaguely like Ed Norton's Derek Vinyard from 'American History X' and possessing a similar dangerously perceptive intelligence, the Los Angeles front man provides a metaphorical kick in the face to anyone who claimed he was merely a dumb tattooed singer with a dumb tattooed heavy metal band. Anselmo decides to stand outside the traditional sentiments of describing man's struggles in life as testosterone drenched, epic adventures. What is found instead is a focused and aware socio-political commentary which is more Zack de la Rocha than James Hetfield. Despite ever present accusations of racism which surround Pantera (arguably not helped by chorus lines like 'You're no good/For no one' in the midst of songs about the black race) it cannot be denied that at a significantly large proportion of this record Anselmo has created a piece of mind which is by turns intimidating, self-righteous and ferociously stimulating. Lyrics such as 'Closed mind playing the part of prison cells' ('No Good')'To see, to bleed, cannot be taught/ In turn your making us f*****g hostile' ('F******g Hostile') and 'Taught when we're young to hate one another/It's time to have a new reign of power' ('Rise') approach an intellectual quality that Pantera never really came close to again.
Darrell and Anselmo would go on to have irreconcilable differences, but their partnership here creates an experience of uncompromising strength and bullish expression, which few metal bands have matched since. Quite simply, these songs are exactly what they claim to be- a vulgar, wholly magnificent display of power.
RECOMMENDED TRACKS: Rise/ F*****g Hostile/ No Good