Pantera - Cowboys From Hell (1990)Release ID: 2875
A shuffle playlist in my hotel room this past week threw up 'Heresy' from this record and I have ended up playing the whole record through in my head before getting home and playing the CD. In the 90's this record occupied a near constant place in the top 4 of my 'most played', alongside 'Painkiller', 'Arise' and 'Seasons in the Abyss' it got span to death over nearly the whole decade. There was so much that appealed to my established taste at the time yet also equal amounts of new and enticing sounds to absorb, all delivered with a fervour and ferocity that was literally breathtaking. In so many ways, playing this for the first time was like listening to something that was nothing like anything I had heard before, yet at the same time there was enough reference points to breed the necessary amount of familiarity for me to engage with it instantly.
Although this does not retain the top slot in my favourite Pantera list, it holds enough nostalgia and tangible feelings still of the initial awe of the discovery to always have an important place in my evolution through the genre.
There has always been a real sense of cohesion to me about the sound of Pantera. They are like some well oiled machine with just enough AI in it's computer parts to deliver flare and panache instead of just routinely processing the same parts over and over again. Whether it is the shrill wailing of Anselmo, the chunky stick work of Vinnie, the rumbling current of Brown or the insane string wizardry of Dimebag you focus on, they are all there together as a unit. Yes, for me the overarching memory post-listen is those fucking riffs, but the structures they form part of are also key to their impact.
I enjoy the darker side of the album's sound. 'Medicine Man', 'Message in Blood' and 'The Sleep' stand out as a trio of tracks that add a real depth to an album that given its relentless approach could otherwise lose you towards the end. Pantera seem to "grow" with the progress of the record which is rare in most releases that have frequented my headphones since the 90s.
Does it stand up well as a singular release some 29 years later? Not quite for me, even with the memories these 12 tracks hold for me I can't avoid the need for a couple of tracks to be trimmed ('Heresy' and 'Shattered') to really cement five stars in the rating for this review.
While this may be Pantera's 5th album, it's their first real thrash metal album, leaving behind the glam metal that they produced throughout the 80s. And what an album it is! The band found this sound out of nowhere, with Dimebag Darrell's unique guitar sound being the backdrop for an awesomely grooving machine. Whatever you think of Phil Anselmo, he's an incredible metal vocalist. Add to this Vinnie's crunching drums and Rex Brown holding up the low end and you've got one monstrous band that would crush all before them. At least they would for a few years anyway.
Seriously heavy riffs are combined with more shredding ones, slower structured tracks are combined with shorter brutal ones, this album is damn entertaining from start to finish and full of great musicianship and song writing. Highlights for me are the title track, Cemetery Gates (of course), Primal Concrete Sledge, Medicine Man, The Sleep and the Art of Shredding, but there's nothing resembling a bad track on Cowboys from Hell. I can put this on today 18 years later and it still gets me moshing around like a mad man. Really glad I saw them live a couple of times in my youth before Dimebag's tragic death.
Hearing about a successful band reuniting without but in honor of their two fallen founding members is a nice time to finally witness what the hype was about with Pantera's Cowboys From Hell! This is their 5th album and a mighty change from their once-unknown heavy/glam metal to the freshly developed groove/thrash metal that would make them burst in popularity. Metallica made a similar attempt with their own fifth album in sort of the opposite approach, switching out of thrash into mainstream heavy metal, and they were already popular underground before expanding globally. For Pantera, their groove twist in the speed/thrash template has left many hits and a few sh*ts...
The production is heavy yet clean, though later albums from the band and the genre would be heavier. The late Abbott brothers have really taken the stage with their respective instruments; Dimebag's guitar has thick tone but not too heavy, and Vinnie's drumming has a thrashy pace without too much aggression. Rex Brown's bass is close to audible, and vocalist Phil Anselmo is professional at his singing range from clean to aggressive, even making the heavier songs sound tame in a beautiful way.
The title track already shows traces of the post-thrash fury the band would shine with. "Primal Concrete Sledge" fits their groove metal development much further with the heavy riffs, powerful chords, and simplistic rhythms that they would have in later releases, though it might cause some love from thrash fans and hate from groove haters and people accusing the band of being a metal ripoff of Red Hot Chili Peppers. "Psycho Holiday" has Metallica-sounding riffing, minus the epicness and speed, plus the repetitive rhythms that lack variation. Despite its flaws, that song is still decently listenable. "Heresy" has faster speed than what Metallica and Megadeth would abandon slightly later on, along with politically driven lyrics.
"Cemetery Gates" is the album's ballad-like song, an excellent one, and the band's longest at 7 minutes. After a stellar acoustic intro, the power increases especially in the vocals and shredding soloing. That song was covered by many bands, including Between the Buried and Me on their cover album The Anatomy Of. Another one of the few fast furious speed/thrash tracks here in "Domination". The shredding "Shattered" has a lot of Judas Priest vibes, including when Anselmo makes his attempts to sing as high as Rob Halford, along with Dimebag's guitar cutting like a chainsaw.
However, that's the start of the filler second half of this album, starting with the odd flop that is "Clash with Reality". Honestly, the sounds of pop rock and thrash end up clashing each other in a forced mix that sounds lost. "Medicine Man" sounds fun though a little too goofy. Same with "Message in Blood" with its murder themes. "The Sleep" is also fun-sounding yet forgettable. However, "The Art of Shredding" makes up for all those mistakes with one more offering of dense thrashy riffing and shredding.
All in all, I understand this album being the bridge between their once-elusive glam years and their famous groove era. Although this sounds inconsistent with its mix of classics and duds, Pantera was done sounding like Van Halen and preferred an Exhorder-like direction. May the two fallen Cowboys From Hell rock on in metal heaven.... RIP
Favorites: "Cowboys From Hell", "Primal Concrete Sledge", "Cemetery Gates", "Domination", "Shattered", "The Art of Shredding"
Often mistaken for Pantera's debut album, 1990's 'Cowboys From Hell' saw a complete rebirth for the band, after four previous releases as an 80's glam band, they changed their sound to a heavier, more groove-based metal, did away with the spandex and hairspray, and with a big record label backing them, they really were a whole new band! And hell, you'd be forgiven for thinking so! I'd been a fan of the band for years before I ever knew they released albums before this one! Aw... the pre-internet days...
Hailed for keeping metal alive in the 90's, and highly regarded as the kings of what is known as "groove metal", as influential as this band would go on to become, I sometimes feel that a lot of the praise heaped upon 'Cowboys...' is almost hyperbolic. It's not a bad album, in fact it's very good, but I guess maybe it's become so highly revered by metal fans that when I came around to hearing it it'd been just a little bit overhyped.
Guitarist Dimebag Darrell, who would go on to become one of the most famous guitar players in metal, pumps out riff after riff, with the rhythm section of Rex Brown on bass and Vinnie Paul on drums perfectly giving the music it's famous groove. The icing on the cake is vocalist Phil Anselmo, who's brutal yet melodic singing can be enjoyed by thrash metal fans trying to cling to the 80's sound, or the more hardcore audience of the early 90's. Pantera had a versatile sound that helped them appeal to so many people.
With some groove-laden classics such as 'Cowboys From Hell', 'Domination', 'Psycho Holiday', 'Shattered' and one of the bands most famous songs, 'Cemetery Gates', it's easy to see why this record is so beloved! However, for all the good songs on offer here, there are a couple of absolute stinkers that plod along aimlessly, filling up space that would have been better left empty. And that's why, for all the love this album has received over the years, I can't see it as any more than "good".
But hey, a good album is still an album worth getting.
Let me set the scene for you. It’s mid-1990 & a fourteen year-old boy (admittedly a very good looking one) sits in his bedroom in Sydney late at night with his headphones on listening to the radio with a cassette player set to record the show at the same time. The track changes & a chuggy throb starts up that’s unlike anything the youth has ever heard before. A guitar appears & starts playing a palm-muted melodic run then all of a sudden… IT HITS! The whole band kicks in & starts slamming out one of the tightest, chunkiest grooves metal had ever heard to the time. It's fair to say that the young man’s ears have more than pricked up by this stage but what’s this? The guitar solo comes in unaccompanied in a similar way to his idol Eddie Van Halen. And Jesus Christ this dude can shred! He’s got chops for days, weeks & years! And those vocals! They exude a powerful hardcore attitude but still maintain a strong sense of melody. The boy would replay this song repeatedly over the next week until the late night metal show returned the following week. This time we had another inclusion from this supposedly new band Pantera but it was a heavy metal inspired ballad with soaring vocals & dive-bombing guitar solos like none he’d heard before. This ongoing week-to-week process would go on for some time before the boy felt the need to pick the full album up through tape trading & he would give it a good ol' thrashing over the next year or so. Pantera would release their breakout sixth album in 1992 & would subsequently change the world with their story going down in metal history for all eternity.
I imagine that this would be a fairly familiar story for many of us but it’s one that I remember vividly. It was immediately apparent that there was something different about Pantera’s “Cowboys From Hell”, an album that most fans assumed was their recorded debut until they’d learn otherwise. You see Pantera had begun life as a decidedly run-of-the-mill heavy metal band with an unusually talented lead guitar virtuoso in their early teens under the guidance of Darrell & Vinny’s record-producing father. They’d release four albums between 1983 & 1988 that would drift a long way under my radar before finally discovering a new sound & taking it to the world. The resulting “Cowboys From Hell” album not only showcased that new direction to the world but it would also signal somewhat of a changing of the guard for a thrash metal scene which was starting to decline in the wake of the fast ascending grunge phenomenon that would completely explode the following year. But listening back now it’s hard to deny that “Cowboys From Hell” was very much a transitional album too as the tracklisting doesn’t completely embrace this new sound (known as Groove Metal) at the expense of past glories. I think it’d be more accurate to suggest that it incorporates it as the primary source of creativity while blending it with more familiar sounds. As a result, I find it hard to deny that this is as much a thrash record as it is a groove metal one with the remnants of Pantera’s Judas Priest worshipping US power metal experimentation still showing their head on quite a few occasions.
I think it’s important to note that if I had of rated this album back in the day I would likely have scored it a bit higher than I have here but it’s also worth mentioning that I’ve somehow managed to shun it completely for a good couple of decades which seemed kinda strange too. When listening to “Cowboys From Hell” with new ears now though it’s certainly not a perfect record & I can easily see why it wasn’t the soundtrack for my youth that it was for so many others. You see it hasn’t aged as well as I’d hoped. The production sounds kinda dated now, particularly the rhythm guitar tone which left so many jaws on the ground back in the day. It’s also easy to forget that there are three or four weaker tracks amongst the twelve on offer. No weak ones mind you, it’s just important to recognise that it wasn’t all hits. I have to admit that the whole groove metal thing isn’t really my cup of tea & that’s reflected in my opinion on some of the supposedly classic tracks on the album. Songs like the title track & “Domination” don’t smash me like they do/did other metal fans. I certainly like them (& I adore the guitar work in particular) but they aren’t going to see me reaching for my elite scores. Those are reserved for the tracks that steer away from the new groove metal sound with thrash metal anthem “Message In Blood” being the clear album highlight for me. It’s interesting that it’s also one of the least popular tracks on the album but that’s not unusual for me. The other track that completely slays is the classic heavy metal ballad “Cemetery Gates”. The main riff has clearly been inspired by Randy Rhoads era Ozzy Osbourne & is one the greatest in the history of metal in my opinion, particularly when used in conjunction with Phil Anselmo’s wonderfully emotive chorus hook. What an amazing climax Darrell & Phil created at the end too!
The new groove metal sound is best championed on the title track, “Primal Concrete Sledge”, “Clash With Reality”, “Medicine Man” & “The Sleep”. “Heresy”, “Message In Blood” & “The Art Of Shredding” are pure thrash metal though while tracks like “Psycho Holiday”, “Cemetery Gates” & “Shattered” give hints towards US power metal & even your more traditional heavy metal. The fact that you can very easily differentiate the different songs & parts of songs into their various categories tells you that Pantera’s sound was still a work in progress at this stage. It was a very impressive work in progress of course but I wouldn’t say that “Cowboys From Hell” is where we see groove metal being truly defined. That would have to wait for Pantera’s 1992 sixth album “Vulgar Display Of Power”, a record that I’ve now decided I appreciate a touch more than this one after all these years. There can be no denying the power of this band as a unit though. The rhythm section were as tight as you’d find & when they hit on one of their classic grooves it draws a physical response from the listener. For me though I’d suggest that there’s not a lot of depth to some of the groovier material outside of that head-nodding, body swaying thing that happens. I find songs like “Heresy”, “Domination”, “Clash With Reality” & “The Sleep” to be more of a pleasant experience than essential listening. Phil’s vocal performance still has one foot in the higher register Rob Halford camp most of the time & I wonder whether my knowledge of his screamier & more aggressive hardcore-inspired future is seeing me subconsciously craving a bit of that when listening to “Cowboys From Hell” these days.
Ultimately it’s very hard to be critical of this record as it sounded so fresh at the time & changed the metal landscape forever in several ways. While my score is still a good one it’s definitely limited by my musical comfort zones. I think I might need to revisit some of Pantera’s later works over the next few months to see how those records have been treated by time too. I suspect that I might find at least one of those to overtake the two early 90’s big boys at this point in my life.
For fans of Soulfly, Sepultura & Exhorder.
Another one of the biggest shocks of the 90’s. Sleaze metal losers Pantera decide to reinvent themselves as some sort of cowboy metal saviors, become about 3 times as heavy and start cranking out sludgy mid-tempo riffs as if they’d been doing it all along. The drumming, despite being the same guy as always, takes on a much different flavor here, making way more use of double pedals, Thrash beats and occasionally some technical prowess as well. Phil’s vocals evolve from the generic Glam croon of the last album into some rancid, dehydrated desert monster hell bent on ripping your face off.
All in all it’s just one of those huge wtf transitions that somehow went from the worst aspects of machismo in music to the best. There is little substance here, but there’s some great fun and ass kicking music that was without peer in 1990.
For Pantera, Cowboys From Hell may as well be there freshman album because it saw the band ditch their 1980s power metal influence in favour of something that resembled thrash metal, but not fast or sonically aggressive. That right everyone, it's the birth of "Groove Metal"!
Now while Groove Metal has had its time in the spotlight during the 1990s and early 2000s as the prominent, mainstream subgenre of choice, Cowboys From Hell is still very transitional. This album still has grooves that are highly reminiscent of the early power metal era Pantera. These are mostly found on the albums promotional singles: "Cowboys From Hell", "Domination" and to a lesser extent, "Cemetery Gates". By comparison the extreme chugging of "Psycho Holiday", "Heresy" and "Medicine Man" are very forward thinking for their time.
I'm not going to lie, for an album as iconic as this, I would have expected to be better produced than this. The volume mixing is incredibly offsetting. Like how "Cemetery Gates" is mixed much quieter overall, leading into its fade out ending, but is then immediately followed by "Domination", which is much louder all around. The two songs in consecutive order sound like they were composed for two separate albums. And not's even including the unsettling nature of some of these instrumentals. Dimebag Darrell's guitar is very sloppily mixed from one song to the next. At one moment, the guitar is drowning Anselmo's vocals and at the next, Anselmo is all you can hear! And I can't not talk about the awful reverb effect in the percussion that absolutely ruins the iconic headbanging drop/riff on the outro of "Domination".
I'm sure that there are countless remastered versions of this album that is now in its thirtieth year in circulation that can fix many of these problems that i have with it. Because the "grooves" themselves are sticky as hell! The explosiveness of "Primal Concrete Sledge", the iconic riff that wraps up "Domination". I still really enjoy the title track and all of the pinch harmonics and other guitar effects that Dimebag incorporates throughout the record. One thing that I really enjoy from a songwriting point of view is the absence of a rhythm guitar during the solos. I do not know how prominent of a songwriting tactic this was before Pantera, but my goodness! The space in which Dimebag has to breathe in tremendous, and is anchored by some very good bass work. Unfortunately, it does not last; "Message in Blood" and "The Sleep" are serviceable tunes that do nothing to further develop the sound from the first half of the record.
Phil Anselmo's vocal presence on this album is very rough. It's more of a quasi sung, but it contains a lot of natural rasp and is harbored by some Chuck Schuldiner esque shrieking. As Pantera would double down on their Groove Metal sound on later records, Phil's vocals would become more stable and would rest in a very comfortable scream. I like how he uses his full vocal range throughout the album, even incorporating some "clean" singing on "Cemetery Gates", which would help influence some of Pantera's superior "ballads" on later albums.
I'm not gonna lie to you guys, I still enjoy this album quite a bit. And while the overall production is all over the place and does hold the record back, that's not the reason why I am not as high on this album as so many others. My opinion on Pantera as a whole has been skewed over the last fifteen plus years since the passing of Dimebag Darrell. Pantera have been gifted the status of "heavy metal gods" by countless fans of this band as well as by mainstream metal press. That also somehow included a "free of criticism" pass. I have gotten into more than one triggering argument with fans of this band for daring to critique the band and this specific album. To be honest, I'm kind of burnt out on Pantera. Not just by their music, but also their fans who relentlessly shove it into my face how great of a band they were and that Dimebag was a legendary guitar player, etc.
Throw on top of that the questionable antics that Phil Anselmo has continued to get himself into over the last few years, and those same fans will not call him out for it is kind of disgusting. Pantera's legacy is secure within the annals of heavy metal history and they served their purpose. Their brand of fist clenching, aggressive thrash metal is just what teenage adolescents needed (such as I was when I discovered it) and also helped pave the way for a completely new genre of heavy metal. But for me, that rodeo has passed.
Chug Chug Chug Chug Chug
It's funny, after finally going through most of Metallica's discography in full for the first time, coming back to Cowboys From Hell presents some mixed feelings. Pantera's similarity to their chugging counterparts Metallica is uncanny sometimes, even though they drew influence from many other Thrash bands. They have a rawer, debate-ably more aggressive sound to them, replacing the Metallica theatrics and more complex songwriting with more guitar solos and even more riffs. Back in 1990 this brought aggressive metal back into the limelight after the original Thrash bands of the early 80's were beginning to die out.
Pantera definitely hit the sweet spot of their niche with Cowboys From Hell, with each riff being absurdly crunchy, their vocals being somewhat questionable, and the album's longevity being sadly short. If you wake up and want to listen to some Pantera, you're listening for the riffs, plain and simple. That's all fine and good, they have some great ones, but that's about as deep as the music goes for the most part. There are some interesting tidbits in tracks like "The Sleep", but the replay value on this or any Pantera album is pretty low. With almost an hour of run-time...that's a lot of riffs to sit through.
Sure, Pantera catapulted the Groove Metal genre into the metal world, but I don't put that in too high of regard. There were plenty of riff-based metal bands before this album and even though the different, syncopated riff structure made it stand out, Cowboys From Hell and Pantera as a whole just don't hold up as one of the greats for me. Doesn't mean the album is trash by any means, they've got a couple of great tracks on here, but as a package I'm not a huge fan.