Pantera - Vulgar Display of Power (1992)
I absolutely loved this album as soon as I heard it back in 1992 and I still do 17 years later! It was the first CD I bought (along with Ministry's Psalm 69), so I guess it holds a special place in my collection, but it's more than that. It's simply a pumping album of extremely crushing thrash metal with a huge dose of grooving riffage. Pantera had left their early glam metal period behind long before this release, but the sheer ferocity of Vulgar Display of Power was truly something to behold.
Each member of the band plays like they have a bone to pick with the world. Dimebag Darrell's riffs were so completely unique, and he had an incredible ability to switch between totally shredding riffs and chunky brutality with ease. Phil Anselmo's vocals are simply awesome and if his unadulterated aggression doesn't get you pumping your fist with energy then nothing will. What's even better is the fact that when necessary, the guy can really sing, which is not something that can be said for most metal vocalists.
Other than the sheer power, the other thing this album has going for it is variety. Just as on Cowboys from Hell, the guys managed to squeeze in heavy slower tracks (Walk, By Demons Be Driven), super-fast shredfests (Fucking Hostile, Rise) and semi ballads that amazingly don't suck (This Love, Hollow). It all adds up to an album that never gets boring and can be listened to in its entirety without ever losing that mad grin. Highlights are all over the place, but my personal favourites are Mouth for War, Fucking Hostile and the truly crushing By Demons Be Driven. Essential for anyone into metal basically!
The legendary Vulgar Display of Power. The TRUE original tough guy metal album, and the bottom line set for all of Groove Metal. Does it live up to the hype? Well, yes and no.
Vulgar Display of Power is actually one of the first metal albums I’d heard, thanks directly to three of its songs inspiring music in Doom. Back then, Phil’s harsh vocals bulging with testosterone were too tough for middle school me. I couldn’t handle the masculine aggression in that creature, but the riffs were awesome enough to get me to stay until my ears were able to withstand the full-on assault of his drug infused gorilla arms. The music was practically seeping with bull semen and stale alcohol, the guitar tone a disgusting buzzsaw drawl, and the drums hitting like concrete. The cover represents the music well.
The album jumps between aggressive Thrash beats and sharp riffs to plodding, sludgy groove sections; this pretty much set the standard for Groove Metal to follow as Thrash’s slower brother. For me, the Thrash bits are the best part. Songs like “Rise” are perfect example of unrelenting aggression. The pure Groove tracks like “Walk” do very little for me, and it’s that aspect of the album that makes it weaker than Cowboys from Hell to me. However, slower numbers “This Love” and the devastating “Hollow” are super unique and very well-done examples of Pantera’s slower side.
So why do I say “yes and no” as to whether this album lives up to the hype? Well, because across the span of many websites and circles, Vulgar Display of Power is actually not rated insanely high, usually sitting around the “great album, but no masterpiece” numbers. And that’s exactly what it is, simply an unprecedented, flawed, off-center punch in the face like no other. It is unabashedly itself; no masterpiece, but a very vulgar display of power that you can’t look away from, and will certainly never forget.
We all know the story by now & probably have for more than 25 years. Two teenage brothers with a music producer for a father start a glam metal band & record a succession of arguably substandard albums in daddy’s studio before taking a drastic stylistic u-turn in which they’d manage to single-handedly invent the groove metal subgenre & become one of the biggest metal bands in the world. 1992’s “Vulgar Display Of Power” album would not only consolidate the concepts that had been presented on Pantera’s 1990 breakthrough album “Cowboys From Hell” but it would also see their new sound receiving further refinement & definition in a clear statement of intent. In doing so, it would become the benchmark for the groove metal subgenre for decades to come & would also influence the creation of a number of additional subgenres which would focus on different elements of the Pantera sound.
Despite the subsequent tragedy that would put any chance of a Pantera revival to rest, their story was somewhat of a fairytale which made them an easy target for people that were looking for a reason to question the merit of their seemingly overnight success. Tall poppy syndrome is rife in the global metal scene & they would have to deal with the ongoing backlash from former fans who would turn on them purely because they’d gained popularity. There were also those that would abandon their idols due to their distaste for their many copy-cats & the subgenres they’d pioneer. It’s all more of an image thing in my opinion & I can still remember feeling a bit of pressure to understate my passion for Pantera’s music with my schoolmates once they hit the big time & were the talk of the schoolyard. But the truth is that I had a strong connection with the band for several years. I’d picked up on “Cowboys From Hell” very early & had given it a good old thrashing prior to the release of “Vulgar Display Of Power” which would be a regular in my home stereo & Walkman along with the follow-up “Far Beyond Driven”. But strangely, at some point I must have lost touch with Pantera because it’s been decades since I last explored their highly regarded “Vulgar Display Of Power” record & I have to admit that I’m keen to see whether it still stands up today.
The album would be the band’s second for Atco Records which was a subsidiary company of the huge major label Atlantic Corporation. There’s little doubt that this major label support was a significant factor in both the exposure that Pantera would receive & also the quality of the product they were able to produce. Having said that though, I’ve never thought that the cover artwork for those first two breakthrough records was anything to write home about. Sure, Pantera’s music left many feeling like they’d received a swift & unexpected punch to the face but the image has always seemed kinda dumb to me personally & it’s for that reason that I never thought about purchasing a “Vulgar Display Of Power” t-shirt to tell you the truth. If you wanted to pin point the major negative connotation that people had with the band during their glory years it was that they were a bit of a yobbo band for unintelligent meatheads to get violent to & I honestly think that the album cover has contributed to that concept along with Phil Anselmo’s drunken chest-beating. The band’s logo looks like it was created on a Commodore 64 with a dot matrix printer too.
The recording of “Vulgar Display Of Power” would once again see renowned metal producer Terry Date overseeing the project in conjunction with drummer Vinny Paul. The band & label were obviously very happy with the result of the “Cowboys From Hell” sessions so it would seem to have been a bit of a no-brainer. Terry had already accumulated a strong metal resume by the time he became involved with Pantera with his list of credits including artists like Metal Church, Dream Theater, Overkill & Soundgarden, although his horizons had looked even brighter since with Overkill’s “Horrorscope”, Dark Angel’s “Time Does Not Heal” & Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” having further propelled his reputation & ensured that he was in high demand by metal musicians for many years to come. And you can easily see why too because “Vulgar Display Of Power” offered everything you could want from a professional 90’s metal production. Everything sounds super crisp & full of life with a very guitar-heavy mix & a lot of depth in the drums. Vinny’s kit definitely has a fair amount of click to it but the toms sound like deep tubs of infinite weight & his kick drum combines beautifully with Rex’s warm bass sound. Dimebag’s guitar tone is crushingly thick & makes full use of the mid-range scoop technique that was so popular at the time with bands like Metallica & Overkill. Overall, it’s a very 90’s sounding record & is as polished as you could want from a major label release. I don’t doubt that the quality of the production has had a noticeable impact on the album’s success.
So if “Vulgar Display Of Power” is the record that truly defined the groove metal sound, what exactly did it do differently? Did they simply take the musical style of Exhorder’s two-track demo tape & run it through a major production budget with a name producer or give the early groove metal sound that White Zombie’s sophomore effort had pushed a bit of meat on its bones? Well I have to admit that I was possibly one of the first people to raise the Exhorder comparisons & I came to that conclusion without ever having heard or read about similar theories elsewhere. I didn’t just pluck the idea out of nowhere so it must have some merit to it but there’s a lot going on here that indicates that Pantera were the sum of many long-term influences & not simply cashing in on another band’s sound. I mean there are a lot of different elements at play here & when you actually lay them all out in front of you it becomes very clear as to why Pantera would become so successful during a period when the rest of the metal scene would be forced to evolve or fade into obscurity. Pantera simply seemed to have all bases covered. To elaborate a bit, the basis of the classic Pantera sound comes from a combination of three main elements in my opinion; all of which were as close to sure-fire winners as you’re likely to find in the early 90’s market. Firstly, you’ve got a very strong Black Sabbath influence that focuses heavily on the power of the riff. I’m mainly thinking about the “Master Of Reality” & “Vol 4” era Sabbath & Pantera has picked up a lot of their heaviness & groove there. Particularly in the way that they employ some of their melodic riffs whilst never sacrificing on overall heaviness. They often remind me of some of those classic stoner metal riffs that Sabbath started to employ across those albums, especially when combined with a wah pedal. Check out the bridge riff in “Live In A Hole” as a prime example. The other classic metal influence that’s pretty easily identified is that of Ozzy Osbourne’s Randy Rhoads period solo albums & not only in the lead guitar work. Some of Dimebag’s riffs are pretty clearly inspired by Randy’s more angular & melodic riff work with the verse riff from “Live In A Hole” being a prime example.
The second major component of Pantera’s makeup is the thrash metal one which is perhaps a little less prominent than it was on “Cowboys From Hell”. The band have always stated that they were heavily influenced by the likes of Metallica & Slayer. I don’t hear much Slayer in “Vulgar Display Of Power” but the Metallica influence is very obvious in both their faster, thrashier moments as well as the mellow first half of “Hollow” which reeks of your more commercial Metallica works like “Nothing Else Matters”. “Fucking Hostile” is pretty much entirely based on Metallica’s thrash sound with even the guitar solo sounding remarkably like it could have been lifted from “…And Justice For All” while the faster parts of “Rise” instigate similar feelings. The most brutal track on the tracklisting however (& unsurprisingly my clear favourite) is “By Demons Be Driven” which seems to lead the way for Fear Factory’s precision industrial metal assault later in the year but my point was that two of the three major components Pantera had built their sound on came from the most widely celebrated names in metal music in Black Sabbath & Metallica which was always going to be a good platform to work off.
The third component is just as important though. Particularly given the time that “Vulgar Display of Power” was released. The early 90’s had seen the grunge & alternative rock movement completely wiping out a lot of metal’s commercial aspirations with many of the big names electing to dilute their sound in a bid to stay relevant. Pantera took a slightly different but much more effective approach by sneakily finding ways to incorporate the best bits from many of the biggest alternative acts & it’s surprising just how much of this can be found on the album. I actually think that the seamless implementation of this element of their game enabled them to be embraced by the alternative scene at the time while a band like Anthrax or Motley Crue might not have been, despite similar endeavours, & I have to wonder how much Terry Date had to do with it given his history with bands like Soundgarden, Mother Love Bone & Screaming Treea. Take a listen to the clean verses from “This Love” for example & tell me they don’t sound like Alice In Chains. Or perhaps investigate “No Good (Attack The Radical)” whose verse takes a stab at a funky Faith No More groove before crossing over into a sound that seems far too similar to the one we’d hear from nu metal bands like Korn in the coming years. Yep… Pantera weren’t just trying to fit in with the alternative scene. They were influencing them back too.
Probably the biggest revolution that the band was responsible for was the use of the rhythmic bottom string chug riffs that would sprout a number of off-shoot subgenres. Nu metal is the obvious one but how about djent? I have absolutely no doubt that Meshuggah built their sound from the off-beat Rush-inspired chug riffs like the verse of “A New Level” or the chorus of “Live In A Hole”. How about the rap metal subgenre then? There are certainly some riffs included that share a similar quality to those that Rage Against The Machine would take to the top of the charts later on in 1992 & check out the solo in “By Demons Be Driven”. Sound much like something Tom Morello would use? What about metalcore? There’s no denying that chunky groove-oriented breakdowns & aggressive (but still somewhat) melodic hardcore style vocals became all the rage after this record blew up. And finally, where would the wealth of US groove metal bands like Machine Head be without riffs like the chorus of “A New Level”. In fact, come to think of it, if you chucked some guttural death metal vocals over that chorus it’d basically amount to genuine death metal.
BUT! Would any of this have even been possible if this was Pantera’s debut album? I don’t think so. I actually think that a major ingredient in the band’s success was the musical maturity they’d gained after almost a decade in the scene. I mean it’s extremely unlikely that a bunch of kids could pull all of those influences together & present them in such a well-developed package without the assistance of extensive composition & recording experience. After all, the performances here are absolutely fucking phenomenal. The rhythm section are super tight with the kick drum & bass guitar sounding like a single entity. Vinny’s beats are certainly ultra-heavy but they never lose that underlying groove that gave Pantera a touch more accessibility than their competition & he & Rex really set the perfect platform for the main attraction to do his work. To be honest, I think Dimebag Darrell was the most unique lead guitarist the world had seen since Randy Rhoads as he’d developed his own style in a completely self-taught, non-theoretical fashion without the rules that are generally followed by classically trained axe-men & for that reason he was able to develop skills that no one had even dared to attempt. To top it off, he had truly mastered his craft by this stage in his career. Randy’s influence is undeniable. As was Eddie Van Halen’s for that matter & all three possessed some sort of x-factor that left me feeling that you could simply point them out the way to the stage, stand back & watch the magic. A mark of just how talented this bloke was can be seen during the solos where he’s unaccompanied by any additional guitar tracks. Not many metal guitarists could get away with that & it certainly helps that he’s got such a killer rhythm section to back him up. I don’t think you can buy the sort of synchronicity that comes with growing up together whilst learning your instruments.
Vocally, we can see Phil Anselmo continuing a transformation that began on “Cowboys From Hell”. This time he’s dropped a bit of his more melodic side & has focused much more intently on raw anger & vitriol. I actually think Phil took the art of aggressive metal vocals & made it acceptable in a commercial sense with this record. He was able to achieve this by leveraging his louder-than-life attitude & in-your-face appearance which offered huge appeal for all of the battlers out there who now wanted working day heroes who rejoiced in their imperfections in a similar way to the grunge movement. It was just what people wanted after the glitz & ponce of the glam metal dominated 1980’s & his hardcore punk look & persona certainly helped him to gain further crossover appeal.
To be honest, “Vulgar Display Of Power” doesn’t exactly sit in my comfort zone from a stylistic point of view. I don’t mind the groove metal sound but it’s never been something that I’d actively go out of my way to chase down. Pantera is a bit different because, as I’ve shown here, there’s a fair bit more on offer both musically & technically. In saying that though, I’m actually surprised that I couldn’t get my rating up higher than I have given that the album contains riffs of the standard of the main riff in "Mouth For War" (which is one of the greatest in the history of recorded music in my opinion). Almost every track is of a very high quality with the possible exception of closer “Hollow” which suffers from a horribly cheesy first three minutes before making a good recovery in the back half thanks to a superb Dimebag metal riff. But I don’t think there’s quite enough genuine highlights to give me the consistent shivers I require for my higher marks. I guess the likes of "Walk" & "Fucking Hostile" have never quite hit me as hard as they did for most fans. It’s really a taste thing more than a quality one as it’s hard to complain about a record that’s so beautifully executed. Pantera had genuinely acquired “a new level of confidence & power” & it shows very clearly with an album that’s unlikely to disappoint many metal fans regardless of your genre preference.
For fans of: Exhorder, Lamb Of God, Machine Head