"Plenty of my guitars went down in flames. We smashed ’em and taped fireworks to ’em." How Damageplan gave Dimebag Darrell hope in a post-Pantera world

Damageplan in 2004
(Image credit: DiSanto/WireImage via Getty Images)

Pantera were in Dublin when the unthinkable happened. Twenty-four hours earlier, on September 10, 2001, they’d met in New York to fly to Ireland in preparation for the final leg of the tour in support of their ninth album, Reinventing The Steel, which had been released the previous year. But as they touched down in the Irish capital around noon on September 11, something felt wrong.

“I got off the plane and I had never felt such a cold vibe in my life,” drummer Vinnie Paul told me in early 2004, looking back on the events of that infamous day. “I went to my hotel, got checked in, and my tour manager called and said, ‘Are you watching TV?’ I said, ‘No, why – do they have the [Dallas] Cowboys game on?’ He said, ‘Turn it on!’” Vinnie clicked the set on in his room, just as an airplane smashed into one of the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center and burst into a blinding fireball.

“Whoa, dude!” Vinnie told him, feeling his stomach drop. “What fucking movie is this?” “This ain’t no movie, bro,” the manager replied, confirming Vinnie worst fears. “This is happening. And the tour’s cancelled.”

It soon became clear what was going on. What Vinnie had seen was the second of two planes that al-Qaida terrorists had flown into the World Trade Center. Soon, both towers would collapse, causing catastrophic loss of life.

With flights grounded, the four members of Pantera – Vinnie, his guitarist brother Dimebag Darrell, singer Phil Anselmo and bassist Rex Brown – were left stranded in their Dublin hotel for the next two weeks, feeling shellshocked and numb. Hours turned into days, and they hardly noticed. Vinnie and Dimebag Darrell hit the bar plenty, but not to party – to numb themselves even more. It seemed like the end of the world. It wasn’t, not quite. But it ushered in the beginning of the end of Pantera – and the start of a new chapter for Dimebag and Vinnie.

Metal Hammer line break

The events of September 11 didn’t directly lead to Pantera’s split, but they exacerbated the pre-existing tensions that surfaced partially from spending 12 years together with hardly a break between albums, and partially because of singer Phil Anselmo’s growing dependency on pills and heroin that he later said was his attempt to deal with an ongoing back injury resulting from the physicality of his performance.

“During those two weeks in Dublin, I didn’t talk to Phil once,” Vinnie told me in 2004, during a promotional campaign for Damageplan. “He turned into a recluse and stayed in his room. Finally we went home and two weeks later, he called me up and said, ‘I got all these side bands I want to put out. If you don’t want to help me get them out, I quit the band.”

Rex Brown was also in pretty bad shape due to the accumulated effects of excessive drinking, but neither Vinnie nor Dime was ready to pull the plug on Pantera. To them, that was a last resort. The brothers scheduled a call with their bandmates and everyone agreed to take a six-to-12 month break before making plans to return to the studio for the follow-up to Reinventing The Steel.

During the planned hiatus, Phil appeared on records with Superjoint Ritual, Necrophagia and Viking Crown, and worked on other underground projects that didn’t surface. According to Vinnie and Dimebag, Pantera’s management repeatedly contacted the vocalist and tried to schedule meetings between him and the rest of the band, but he blew them off.

“About a year of this goes on, and me and Dime look at each other and go, 'Dude, this is fucked,'" Vinnie told me in 2004. “After reading what he and Rex had to say about Pantera [in the press] and hearing them dissing us in interviews, we went, ‘You know what? I think this might be the end of this. We better start doing something because the only thing we know how to do is play music.’”

The inactivity was equally unsettling for Dime, who suddenly found himself questioning everything he had achieved as a member of Pantera. As a shredder immersed in a constantly morphing metal scene, he even pondered his continued relevance as a player, and wondered whether audiences were still interested in what he had to offer.

“I thought a lot about that stuff, and then I realised that you can do more damage to yourself thinking like that than you can with anything else that can fuck you up,” Dime told me in 2004. “I mean, dude, I was cookin’ along just fine, and then everything started to unfold with Phil, and it was like, ‘Holy shit, what’s going on here?’ But that’s just life. It’s constantly testing you, and it hit me one day that this was like a test to see if I’ve got the balls and strength to overcome all these things that were coming at me."

Rex Brown and Vinnie Paul in 2001

Rex Brown and Vinnie Paul in 2001 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Once the Abbott brothers realised they couldn’t just sit around waiting for Pantera to reform, they launched full tilt into the project that would become Damageplan. “With the last couple of Pantera records we kept getting more and more narrow-minded, not due to our preference in music, but because of Phil,” Vinnie Paul said in 2004.

“He was always like, ‘No, we can’t do that. We have to stick to our sound.’ So, with the new band, we said, ‘Well hey, let’s put everything we ever played in the past in there and then some. Let’s check out these new bands that are out now and get inspired again and move forward.”

Dime started writing riffs for Damageplan in 2003, though at first it wasn't easy. He would talk on the phone with his friend and Black Label Society guitarist Zakk Wylde on a nightly basis, drink in hand. But instead of cracking one another up with wise-ass comments the way they had always done in the past, Zakk found himself sitting quietly and playing armchair therapist.

“That was the only time I ever talked to him when he wasn’t a force of positivity,” Zakk says now. “Clearly, he was still upset about Pantera. They had worked so hard to get to where they did and then it all ended, and he basically had to start over again. He was like, ‘Zakk, what am I gonna do?’”

To help boost Dime’s spirits, Zakk sent his friend a famous shot of late Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads practising guitar in front of a mirror. “I said to Dime, ‘Whenever you’re feeling down, just look at this picture for inspiration’.”

The pep talks with Zakk were helpful for Dimebag. So was reflecting on the early days of his playing career. He realised he didn’t have to intentionally not write like Pantera. Instead, he approached the music with the kind of open mind he had before his band became famous.

“We started out as kids wanting to sound like Van Halen and Judas Priest,” he recalled. “We just did what we loved, and we loved what we did. And in the early days, we did stuff that had great melodies like Cemetery Gates and catchy riffs like Cowboys From Hell. That helped me to branch back out and helped me just be myself.”

Another factor that helped guide Dime’s songwriting was the addition of vocalist Pat Lachman. The Abbott brothers knew Pat from when he played as a guitarist in Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford’s solo band between 2000 and 2002. Though he was a natural fit for Damageplan, Dime was a little confused when Pat first told him he’d love to be involved in their new project.

“I said, ‘Uh, you know, I got all the guitars handled?’” Dimebag said. “And Pat said, ‘No, man, I can sing, too. Let me take a shot at it.’ So, we gave him a demo of [Damageplan song] Crawl without vocals, and three days later he FedExed it back to us, and it totally kicked fucking ass. So we gave him a couple more tracks, he nailed them, and it was on!”

With a vocalist locked down, and bassist Robert ‘Bob Zilla’ Kakaha also on board, Dimebag quickly finished the batch of eclectic tunes. Without seeking a record deal, Damageplan set up at the guitarist’s home studio in Dallas and started recording with Sterling Winfield, who had co-produced Reinventing The Steel.

Once Damageplan cranked the amps and started recording their new riffs, Dime’s mood dramatically improved. Starting in the summer of 2003, he returned to the sorts of pranks and antics he had displayed on a nightly basis in Pantera.

“I had to replace six doors and eight feet of Sheetrock [plasterboard] in the bathroom because we were partying nonstop and raising fucking hell,” he recalled in 2004. “Plenty of my guitars went down in flames. We smashed ’em and taped fireworks to ’em and lit them up.”

Towards the end of the recording process, Damageplan hooked up with a couple of guest performers, neither of whom were planned in advance. When Zakk Wylde flew to Texas for a guitar magazine photoshoot, Dime took him to the studio to hear some of the rough mixes. A minute into the lunging, harmony-laden Reborn, Zakk stopped banging his head and blurted, “Yo, bro, I wanna play lead on this motherfucker right there.”

“He had 10 minutes before he had to leave for the airport, so he goes and gets his guitar out of the car and comes back and starts fucking shredding,” recalled Vinnie. With barely enough time to pack everything up and catch his flight, Zakk did a couple of shots with the guys as Sterling cued up the delicate, acoustic Soul Bleed. Zakk slammed his glass on the table and jumped to his feet.

“He was all, ‘Holy shit, I gotta go and sing backup on that real quick! Turn the microphone on!’ He wound up missing his plane over the deal.”

The other guest, Corey Taylor, wound up on the album at the last possible minute. Stone Sour were playing Dallas and Dime hopped on the band’s bus to play Corey the record. When he heard it, he begged to be included. So, Dime sent him a recording of the tumbling, hardcore-paced Fuck You and Corey sent back a tape of him singing on the second verse, breakdown, and final chorus just in time.

“One of my favourite voicemails I ever had was from Dimebag right after I recorded Fuck You for the Damageplan album,” says Corey now. “It was this three-minute message: ‘Corey fucking Taylor, goddamn, you smashed this song of
a bitch. What do you want? Do you want more money? Do you want a TV?! Motherfucker, fucker, fuck yeah!’ And he just started singing the lyrics. I saved that voice message for the longest time.”

The finished record, defiantly titled New Found Power, covered a lot of ground across its 14 songs. It tapped into familiar sounds and grooves, enhancing them with fresh textures, styles and vocals that alternately ripped and soothed. The title track sounded like an outtake from Cowboys From Hell crossed with Chaos A.D.-era Sepultura, and Fuck You was straight-up old-school hardcore hate. 

Elsewhere, Pride included funk guitars, electro-production effects and a groove redolent of Incubus before blowing up Texas-style, while Save Me was early Tool filtered through latter-day Mudvayne, Blink Of An Eye was a stompier, Southern-fried Linkin Park (without the rapping), and Moment Of Truth got sludgy and brooding, with vibrato-laden vocals that resembled vintage Soundgarden.

“The bulk of it is in familiar territory – not a duplication of the past, but what it’s rooted in,” said vocalist Pat Lachman when I spoke to him at the time. “And there’s some extreme stuff on either side of it. We weren’t afraid to go off into other places that take a little more balls [to venture into] than being chained to what people expect from you.”

It didn’t take Damageplan long to get a deal for the finished album, signing with Elektra. New Found Power was released on February 10, 2004, reaching No.38 in the US charts - not as high as the last few Pantera albums, but a decent showing at a time when kiddie pop, pop-punk and the Strokes-led indie rock scene were the dominant musical styles.

The Abbott brothers were aware that they were more or less starting again from scratch now they no longer had the weight of the Pantera name behind them. But they relished the challenge of returning to small venues and working their way back up. Damageplan’s first shows were in April 2004 on the MTV Headbangers Ball Tour, which included Hatebreed, Drowning Pool and Unearth. Over the next nine months, they shared other bills with Slayer and Disturbed and The Haunted. Towards the end of the year, Damageplan were excited about wrapping up the New Found Power tour and returning home to decompress before continuing work on the band’s second album, segments of which were partially recorded. Tragically, they never made it that far.

On December 8, 2004, during the band’s concert at the Alrosa Villa club in Columbus, Ohio, Dimebag Darrell and three others were shot and killed by former marine Nathan Gale, who was himself shot by police officer James Niggemeyer.

The impact Dimebag’s shocking murder had on the metal community was instant and widespread. Tributes poured in for a man who was seen as one of the greatest and most influential guitarists of his generation, and an icon within the metal scene.

Dimebag’s death understandably marked the end of Damageplan. When Vinnie Paul returned to music two years later, it was with a new band, Hellyeah, alongside moonlighting Mudvayne singer Chad Gray. Few fans revisited New Found Power in subsequent years, not because it wasn’t a good record, but because it was a painful reminder of the tragic and pointless way in which Dimebag’s life had ended.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, Damageplan’s sole album holds up well. Dimebag and Vinnie - who passed away in 2018 – were able to bounce back from Pantera’s acrimonious end to create something that found them attempting to break out of their comfort zone without abandoning their identity. The biggest problem Damageplan faced during their brief existence was that they could never quite escape the shadow of Pantera, though it wasn’t for lack of trying on Dime and Vinnie’s part.

“I realise that me and Dime have been very influential over a lot of bands over the years," Vinnie told me back in 2004. “We hear our sound in tons of new bands, and we still feel like we bring something to the table that’s very relevant. We wanted to steal some of those old elements back and also take a little from what these newer bands do. So, we did everything from old school to new school. I feel like we’ve earned the right to do that. And I think we did it right.”

They did. It’s just a damn shame they never got the chance to do it again.

Jon Wiederhorn

Jon Wiederhorn is a veteran author, music journalist and host of the Backstaged: The Devil in Metal podcast. He is the co-author of the books Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen, My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory, and author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. He has worked on staff at Rolling Stone, MTV, VH1, Guitar Magazine, Guitar.com, Musician.com and Musicplayer.com, while his writing has appeared in TV Guide, Blender, SPIN, Classic Rock, Revolver, Metal Hammer, Stuff, Inked, Loudwire and Melody Maker.