Review Summary: A fascinating portrait of a band broken by inner tensions.
If there's anything I'd say right off the bat, it's that I've never heard a record quite like The Great Southern Trendkill.
Ever since 1990, Pantera had been working to perfect the groove metal sound, making it sound angrier and heavier with each passing album. Forsaking their glam metal roots and finding their place in the metal landscape, they followed in the footsteps of Metallica's initial 80s thrash sound (primarily because they were dismayed at the band's self-titled 1991 record) and made things heavier and more distorted... and of course groovier. No matter if you were/are a fan of the band or not, there should at least be respect for their tight unified sound with classics like Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power. What I mean by that is that the band had a specific focus; they knew exactly what they set out to do: to make disgustingly heavy and pummeling metal music that was aggressive as hell. However, things changed by the time 1995 came around; singer Phil Anselmo started taking heroin and proceeded to distance himself away from the other band members. The chemistry of the band was being altered, and it seemed fitting that they'd take some interesting risks with The Great Southern Trendkill; well, the result still wasn't anything like I thought it'd be.
The music is not only possibly their angriest, but easily the most grim and downright hellish. Fast thrash/groove metal collides with downtrodden acoustic numbers and unusually sludgy guitar work; whether it's the raging anti-tabloid anthem "War Nerve" or the haunting power ballads "10's" and "Floods," there's a distinctly hollow vibe throughout the entire experience. Obviously Pantera's darker side is nothing new; Vulgar Display of Power gave us "Hollow," and Cowboys From Hell gave us songs like "Cemetery Gates" and "The Sleep." Far Beyond Driven certainly had its moments as well, but this album marks the first time that almost the entire record is dominated by such a depressing atmosphere. That's not to say that there aren't the typical Pantera staples, however; for instance, the title track is a pummeling opener that benefits from an extended Dimebag solo and one of Anal Cunt vocalist Seth Putnam's guest screaming performances. This song and the two that come after it form a great opening punch that mixes varied songwriting with the band's typically angry attitude. Performance-wise, the rhythm-section musicians have considerably less time to shine; Dimebag and Phil pretty much run the show as bassist Rex Brown and drummer Vinnie Paul just seem to be the backbone of the experience and not much more. It's really a shame because Rex and Vinnie brought out a lot of creativity in previous records, particularly with Vinnie's rapid fills during the band's faster numbers. When you get down to it, Phil's vocals and the overall atmosphere are really what make this whole thing so fascinating.
This is one of those albums in which the "bigger picture" matters a great deal in how effective it is. When you look at the album's individual parts like the members' performances or specific songs, the experience does seem a bit lackluster compared to previous records. However, it's the way everything's presented as one collective experience that elevates The Great Southern Trendkill a great deal. The way sullen vulnerability and raw anger collide with each other makes for an experience unlike any I've ever heard, and while there are filler tracks like the generic thrasher "Living Through Me" or the plodding groove of "13 Steps to Nowhere," the flaws ironically make the record even more effective. Just as the status of the band was unstable and beginning to fall apart, it's expected that an album based around this fact would indeed be rough around the edges. But aside from that, let's talk about those two other things that makes it so memorable: that grim atmosphere and the vocals. Between the hollow acoustic numbers like "Floods" and "Suicide Note Pt. 1," as well a sludgier number like "10's," it's clear that some odd experimentation was done to the Pantera sound this time around. These songs are arguably more effective than the aggressive tracks, particularly because of Phil's vocal diversity. For the longest time, Pantera fans associated Phil's style as dominated primarily by macho posturing and extremely frequent screams; while these traits definitely get featured in this album as well, his more tender and depressing moments displayed in the ballads prove him (and the band, for that matter) as more than just one-dimensional. On "Suicide Note Pt. 1," for instance, he avoids yelling or screaming and instead opts for a low, brooding vocal performance that depicts the sorrow of the song's lyrics. And that's perhaps what's so great about this record: the atmosphere, as well as the separated nature of the band by this point, created a completely unique Pantera album that combined the group's past fury with an extremely grim atmosphere. As I said before though, this record is best listened to as an entire experience rather than for its individual songs. It truly is a fascinating portrait of a band broken by inner tensions.
going through the usual emotional turmoil in late high school, this album struck deep. what i find so interesting, however, is that i kept coming back to it in college. i started seeing it the way your review portrays it. it's the sound of the mythical Pantera coming undone and because of that, it's a much more unique experience than their other records.
that being said, it drags (PUUUNNNNNSSSSSS) pretty often