A friend stated yesterday (coincidentally or not, on the 8th anniversary of Dimebag Darrell's murder) that glam-era Pantera was better than the Cowboys in Hell (sic) years. With the band's '80s embarrassments still safely out of print, I'm sure that it's hip to say that they're Pantera's best records. But it's also completely wrong.
The "Cowboys from Hell" title is almost ubiquitous with Pantera now, for good reason. How many modern musicians get honorific nicknames? There isn't anything quite up to the Killer, the Boss or the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. The Cowboys from Hell might be as close as we've gotten. A lesser band wouldn't be able to make that title stick, or even sound cool, but Pantera were experts at the implausible.
22 years on, Cowboys from Hell still gives a charge. It's not nearly Pantera's best record, and it's distractingly frontloaded when it plays out. But in some ways Cowboys captures them at their peak. Phil Anselmo delivers some of the most versatile metal vocals in recorded history here, hitting the high notes like the scion of Rob Halford. He's worlds away for the self-consciously macho growler he'd become. Hearing Vinnie Paul's drumming in 1990 must have been like hearing Eddie Van Halen in 1978--his musicianship would reshape metal, if enough folks could figure out what he was doing, learn it and put their own variation on it. Groove metal has been run into the ground in 2012, with Paul's current band at fault in part, but still no one employs a bass drum and a crash cymbal quite like him. That's why some folks can still sit through 30 seconds of a Hellyeah song.
Every metalhead knows at least two songs from Cowboys from Hell--the title track and "Cemetery Gates." The latter gets played at Dimebag tributes every year, especially on December 8, but even without the boneyard-inspired lyrics it serves as arguably Dime's best memorial. If anyone has an isolated guitar track, please post it in the comments section.
I was surprised to find out today that it's Pantera's longest song, at a short seven minutes (how many Led Zeppelin and Metallica songs are longer than seven minutes? I can't keep track.) If another band has stumbled upon that chorus riff, they probably would have drawn it out for the entire song.
Still, my favorite song from Cowboys from Hell is "Primal Concrete Sledge." Outside of a sole Poison Idea cover, Pantera's punk influences are nearly inaudible. More likely, they raised themselves to the Skynyrd and KISS records that hardcore kids turned up their noses at. Yet some of those faster and shorter concepts seeped through to Pantera, or at least enough for them to unleash blistering songs like this one. Phil Anselmo even calls it "a song of unity" in the video here, thousands of miles away (both musically and graphically) from Operation Ivy. Here's Pantera in 1991 at Monsters of Rock in Moscow, possibly hastening the crumble of the Soviet Union.