Review Summary: The best damn Pantera album ever created.
It's hard to face the fact that Pantera used to be a glam metal band, and a forgettable one at that. During the 80's, Pantera hadn't fully developed their sound yet and instead played cheesy music that would feel right at home with the Sunset Strip. It's exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, and so when 1988's Power Metal was released, it was easy to hear a change in the band's sound and attitude. Songs were getting faster, the vocals more gruff, the guitars more distorted, and the arrangements more carefully constructed. All of this leads up to the band's first official release with this new sound fully developed, 1990's Cowboys From Hell, which just so turned out to be the band's best record.
What's interesting to note about the album is that it was stuck between the band's classic/glam metal period and their future groove metal sound, so you'll hear elements of both. Essentially, it's the best of both worlds, creating a sound that will have something for everyone. Do you want groove metal? Listen to the title cut and "Psycho Holiday." Want a dose of speed metal? Listen to the power-thrash of "Shattered" and "Heresy." Want some soft acoustic guitar work to help digest the album? Well then, there's the legendary ballad "Cemetary Gates" and the haunting "The Sleep." The variety is pretty remarkable, and Dimebag Darrell's guitar work ensures many memorable riffs to headbang to in the process. On top of all this, the musicianship is machine-gun tight and takes absolutely no prisoners. The rhythm section of bassist Rex Brown and drummer Vinnie Paul is precise as can be, while vocalist Phil Anselmo and guitarist Dimebag Darrell (known as Diamond Darrell back then) take the spotlight with frightening ease. Anselmo switches vocal styles fluidly, going from thrashy Hetfield-style gruffness to soaring wails that many metal vocalists could only dream of hitting (see: the end of "Cemetary Gates"). And what really needs to be said about Dimebag that hasn't been already? He goes f*cking nuts here, mixing Southern grooves with extremely charismatic leads and tasteful shredding. Whether you're a fan of his playing or not, there's no denying the electric energy and presence he has on the record.
Unlike Vulgar Display of Power, which deals more with unity and strength in numbers, Cowboys' lyrical themes mainly illustrate desperation and mental conflicts. There are themes of paranoia, the state of mind when on drugs, and -- of course -- love. It's unclear whether these are personal issues the band was having at the time, but it's interesting to see these topics being explored by a metal band from that time period. It's certainly disappointing to see Vulgar Display of Power and other future releases downplay the lyrical quality that this album had.
The only flaw -- and it's sort of a nitpick -- is that despite the aforementioned variety, a few moments sound like filler in the midst of such high-quality material. "Domination" comes to mind pretty quickly; while the solo is well-done and the chorus is extremely energetic, the portion after said solo is extremely bland and repetitive. The breakdown just goes on for way too long and Darrell's chaotic leads on top of the riff aren't enough to really save it.
Other than the occasional flaw, however, the album as a whole is extremely high in both quality and personality. Thank God these guys left glam metal behind, because otherwise we wouldn't get such great albums as Cowboys From Hell or Vulgar Display of Power. The band deemed this their first "real" release, and that claim makes a lot of sense in hindsight. Even if you're not a fan of Pantera's later material, I'd suggest picking this album up; it sees them in the middle of their style-transformation, and captures the greatest moments of both eras of their sound.