Review Summary: Your reaction to this album depends on your stance re: the genre - my reaction was "Yuck". Bland, humourless songs that drip into each other. We have much to blame Pantera for, as this was probably a 90's blueprint for many bands that followed.
I was told to listen to this album by a friend, but metal is not a genre I really understand, or pretend to. Sure, I'll occasionally listen to a bit of Sabbath, or Alice in Chains, but Slayer? No way. I'm always told by metalheads how most of the real talent in rock washes up on the shores of metal. I suppose I can't deny that the guys in metal bands can play their instruments, and that they're very adept at say, zipping through a set of scales really damn fast.
However, I'm wired to hear metal in a certain way. That is, it sort of washes over me the way that something like Katie Melua does. It's not offensive - I don't get bothered by all the heavy riffs and theatrical gruff growling. Nothing about it can make me care enough to invest in it, and see it as anything but background noise. Just as Frank Sinatra has become the soundtrack to homeware stores, metal is the soundtrack to a trip to a stoner's flat, replete with Zeppelin posters and bongs.
So, what can I say about Cowboys from Hell, an album I've listened to twice in a row but still can't really get a handle on? Firstly, the production and sound is horrible. Dimebag's guitar tone is often described as having a chainsaw quality. I could maybe agree with that if it was a chainsaw made of tin. Shellac, for instance, have that distinctive, killer guitar that sounds like a cutting tool of some description. This is not it. It's more like your idiot friend furiously scrunching up a plastic shopping bag in your ear.
Phil Anselmo's vocals are pretty muddy, riding along under the bombast of that monotonous cacophony. He does the tough guy metal voice, interspersed with the odd hyterical falsetto to liven things up. I don't like it. Especially when he finishes a line with that extra downer tough guy-ness.
I think the title track is probably the least annoying, especially since it has a hint of fun. When music sounds this developmentally arrested, at least it should be energetically, balls-to-the-wall stupid. When these guys try to say something serious, it comes off as inane. Isn't this macho stuff supposed to be a blast?
One or two songs sport the deceptive ballady intro, which typically has nothing to do with the rest of the track. Well, that's not entirely true. Cemetary Gates is a pretty earnest power ballad most of the way through, interspersed with a weirdly ironic oddball riff. But really, they bleed into other with alarming regularity. I was grateful for the slow fade in of Medicine Man's drums, but this too quickly changed into the "chugga chugga chug cha" formation.
I think the most telling thing was when I tried to remember the character of each song after listening to album twice, I would click around randomly in the song progress bar in my media player. If you did it while switching songs, you couldn't really tell the difference - I swear the guitar solo of Medicine Man meshed perfectly with the one at 03:16 in Message in Blood.
The lyrics are pretty much what you expect - uniformly terrible. They sound like they're penned by someone who got stuck at age 18. Despite the common metal critiscism of other genres - fluff, pretentious, wimpy, etc - I often find metal is littered with self pity, big inappropriate words and clunky lines. It's kind of like someone throwing a fit because their dad won't lend them the car keys, instead of their girlfriend breaking up with them. Here's some choice lines:
"Overwhelming with euphoric lift/ to lure you to steal your gift"
"It swells my hatred/ Day by day"
"Ungracious bludgeonment/ that breaks the earth for miles" (I mean, seriously?)
" Those words that stare/ Into your soul/ And to yourself/ You will befall!"
" No one's fees/ Or synthetic deities/ Is where I belong/ My stand is the human race/ Without a label or a face/ So they can lick my sack"
I'll give this album a two for the ferocious display of technical ability, and the fact that I could make it through all the songs, something I can't always do with this genre. But really, I don't want to listen to music that is commendable on the same basis that a motherboard in an laptop is an impressive piece of engineering. I'd rather hear something that resonates with how a tool like a laptop helps you create and interact with your world. How you feel about this album probably has a lot to do with how you feel about "the Metal".