Review Summary: The Oracle at Delphi stated, "Man, know thyself and you shall know the Universe". Pantera's statement on the GSTK is simple...
For the sake of context (and self indulgence), let's wind our clocks back to the 80's; a time that saw heavy music gain enough grass roots clout to explode into the pop-culture stratosphere before degenerating into the coke-sniffing, high-kicking, hair-teasing pool of excrement that Steel Panther fans wish had never ended. The masses told themselves this was rock n'roll until grunge arrived to bring a moment of credibility to popular music before the record companies and MTV found a way to market that as well. When the early nineties hit, North American metal bands found that their followings had dwindled, as the kids buying tickets to their shows changed to the new flavour of the month, leaving the ranks of die-hard fans to sit and wonder why their favourite bands were trying to cater to the new sounds of the time.
Enter Pantera: the mid-nineties were a time when heavy music had retreated to it's lair to lick it's wounds. The Brothers Abbott and their intrepid side-kick Rockin' Rex had been rag-dolled trying to catch the successive waves of the hair-metal and thrash crazes, and finally stumbled onto a promising sound after adding non-Texan Phil Anselmo to the fold. The ego had landed and their days as teens playing Metallica and KISS covers became fodder to forge a new weapon, a heretofore unheard of combination of groove-heavy thrash music with hardcore vocal approach. Pantera's sound rapidly progressed from Whiskey-Fueled-Glam-Thrash (Cowboys From Hell, circa 1990), through to High-On-Rollins/He-Thrash (Vulgar Display of Power, circa 1992), and finally saw them fully cement their own style with 1994's Far Beyond Driven.
After taking their first major break from touring in 5 years, Pantera returned to the studio to craft what this reviewer believes to be one of the great American metal opuses of the decade, The Great Southern Trendkill.
The title track opener is the auditory embodiment of getting punched in the face, and Anselmo comes out swinging at the pop culture that has infiltrated heavy music. From the second the band tears into the GSTK, a fresh new feeling pervades the pummelling waves of static and aggression. That feeling is desperation. This is a band who seems to know that their time was running short and who had things to say, most notably vocalist Phil Anselmo. Anselmo went home to New Orleans during GSTK's recording to seek the solace of old friends and to cover up his growing addiction to heroin. He recorded the vocal tracks in Trent Reznor's studio (a notorious heroin user), and formed the side project Down (a slang term for heroin). His lyrics on this offering are rife with references to hard drugs and hard living, rather than hard drinking and hard bodies. Phil is livid with the media and American society in general, and seems to feel that the only honourable thing to do is to is to drop out of mainstream society and live an alternative lifestyle. This sentiment is one of the unifying themes of the album, and is explored in painful grimy detail in the tracks Living Through Me (Hell's Wrath) and Underground In America. Phil has always performed his vocals like a caged tiger dragging a swollen set of balls, but this time something is different. Anselmo's lyric from VDOP's No Good (Attack The Radical), "You'd better listen to a man who knows what he's saying" finally rings true. Besides the call-outs and rants against the system, there is a raw vulnerability in moments (such as the drug-addled self loathing of 10's or Suicide Note Pt. 1) on this album that give the all the rage legitimacy and purpose.
The guitar tones featured on Pantera albums are always fit to strip the paint off of walls, and the bar has been raised again. Darrell's playing is diverse and runs the gamut between multi-tracked technical ecstacy, and sludgy, single note de-tuned chugging like Buzz Osbourne on speed. As with Anselmo's lyrics, his playing at certain times in the past could be classified as "gimmicky", but on this release, each tone and note feels fresh and relevant. On Suicide Note Pt. 2, Dime releases an unholy wave of distorted hell-noise, the likes of which have never been used to such effect on a mainstream metal album. On Floods, the album's masterful centre-piece, the band indicates its songwriting maturity. The listener feels the waves rising as Phil laments humanity's foolhardy march to the apocalypse. The suffocating flood culminates as the skies break open and Dime's most critically acclaimed solo begins, we are swept away before the storm dies down and we are left with the musical equivalent of the spirit leaving the body.
The band had achieved a level of cohesion here which few bands ever reach. Each sinew of the muscles flexed by the considerable brawn of Rex and Vinnie's rhythm section is bent on the colossal task of pushing the battering ram that is the Great Southern Trendkill up the sandy slopes to Hotel California, rather than getting greased up and strutting the Sunset Strip. "F-You" attitude abounds, and there are vicious grooves to be found throughout, but they play a supporting role to the the vocals and the overall atmosphere rather than being the main attraction. The collective wisdom from the life experience of the band seems to be distilled into the final cut, Sandblasted Skin. The riff from the preceding track is folded back on itself and after a crash course in counter-culture and despair, the brave listener is rewarded with a skull-splittingly heavy mantra. A battle cry for anyone who has sought to find solace in self image or in being part of a scene. Look within to find what matters, the rest is inconsequential, in short… SANDBLAST YOURSELF!