Pantera: how an ex-glam band from Texas redefined metal

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The first time Scott Ian heard Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell back in 1991, he didn’t know what it was. Standing in the crowd at a Living Colour gig at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre, waiting for the headliners to come on, the Anthrax guitarist heard the song’s now-familiar juddering intro coming over the PA. 

“It immediately caught my ear because it sounded like it was on a loop or the CD was skipping,” he recalls. “Then that riff kicks in with the drums and I’m listening to this thing going, ‘What the fuck is this? This is really heavy!’ It was amazing. I had no idea who it was. In the next couple of days, I heard it on KNAC Radio in Los Angeles and they announced it as Pantera from Texas with Cowboys From Hell. I was like, ‘Oh my god!’”

Scott Ian and Pantera had been friends for several years when the Texan band released their breakthrough album. They all met for the first time back in 1986 when Anthrax were on their first US headlining tour and played a show in Dallas. Dimebag Darrell’s girlfriend Rita Haney approached Scott and invited him and his bandmates to come down to a show Pantera were playing, at a much smaller venue down the street, after their own gig was over. By the end of the night, Anthrax and the fledgling Pantera were jamming the former’s Metal Thrashing Mad together onstage and an unbreakable friendship was forged. But even bearing his fondness for Pantera, Scott was hugely surprised to witness the band’s transformation into groove metal revolutionaries. 

“Musically, they were always great because their musicianship was insane,” he notes. “The first time we saw Dime, it was obvious he was something special. It was just that the songwriting didn’t match the attitude on their early records. They didn’t sound like this band from Texas that we knew could run circles around everyone else. Obviously Darrell played great, but the records weren’t very good, in my humble opinion, ha ha!” 

Famously, of course, the first three Pantera albums are virtually unrecognisable as the work of the band that would go on to make Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display Of Power. Inspired by their love of Van Halen, Kiss and, to a lesser degree, Southern rock and the burgeoning thrash scene, Metal Magic, Projects In The Jungle and I Am The Night exhibited little of the originality or intensity that would make the band global superstars, but they did showcase a very young band – Dimebag Darrell was barely 14 when they played their first bar gig – that was furiously putting in the hours required to become convincing contenders. 

“We played four, five, six times a week in Texas, when we were in high school,” says Terry Glaze, Pantera vocalist on those first three albums. “We were able to learn our craft. In Los Angeles, you might get to play a 15-minute set so it’s all about presentation. But growing up in Texas, it’s all about playing four or five or six sets. You might play 70 songs a night. So you really learned how to play your instrument.”

“Oh yeah, they were animals back then,” agrees Scott. “Especially down in that area of Texas and Oklahoma, they had a circuit going on down there and those guys were playing constantly in clubs. Those guys were nonstop for years before Cowboys came out, so it’s not like it was some overnight success. But I think everyone would agree that when Philip joined, that’s when they truly found themselves and became the band they wanted to be.”

A rough-hewn but charismatic replacement for Terry, Phil Anselmo joined Pantera in 1986. The new line-up’s first effort, Power Metal, emerged in 1988 and certainly hinted at greatness to come without truly stepping away from the band’s glam-tinged roots. Something magical happened over the next two years, however. Released in the summer of 1990, Cowboys From Hell was much more than just the next step in a promising new band’s evolution. Pantera had mutated into an unstoppable, ultra-brutal eight-legged machine, marrying the precision and savagery of thrash to an instinctive sense of swing and groove that is often attributed to the Abbott brothers’ love of ZZ Top. Whatever this new sound was, it gleefully ripped people’s heads off and, nearly three decades later, the sound coined on Cowboys… is now a major part of metal’s vocabulary. Back then, it changed the game and heralded the arrival of some true, new heavyweights. 

“After Cowboys… you could just sense it, hanging out with those dudes, that something had changed,” says Scott. “It’s not like they were being boastful or stuck-up, but there was a confidence there that certainly hadn’t existed before that record. Before, they were always so grateful that anyone gave a shit to come and see their band play, but now there was definitely a swagger. It was just a case of ‘Listen to the record these guys just made!’”

If Cowboys From Hell was the catalyst, 1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power was the ultimate, jaw-shattering show-stealer. Buoyed by their upward ascent, Pantera further refined their sound, stripping it right down to its vicious, muscular essence. The crushing Mouth For War, the bug-eyed war cry of A New Level, the platinum-plated groove metal anthem Walk, the ferocious Fucking Hostile, the grimly melodramatic This Love, the thrash blitzkrieg of Rise… the first half of Vulgar… still makes most other metal records sound half-arsed, and the second half is very nearly as good. Back in 1992, as metal was beginning to enter its most troublesome era, Pantera were haughtily ignoring grunge and making balls-out metal that resonated with a huge global audience.

A long-time friend of Pantera, King Diamond moved to Dallas from his native Denmark in ’92. On arriving, his first musical endeavour was a now-legendary show at Savvy’s Bar in Fort Worth, Texas on New Year’s Eve of that year, performing three songs (two Priest covers and his own Omens… and it’s all on YouTube!) with Dime, Vinnie and Rex as his backing band. From then on, King attended every show his new friends played in Dallas. Having witnessed the Vulgar… era from close quarters, King has some insight to what made the band so special.

“Seeing them back then, every time they played, each person in the band was a powerhouse on his own,” states the legendary Dane. “They couldn’t fail if they played together. Those four guys complemented each other perfectly. You don’t often find that. They had so much confidence but they were so relaxed about it. I could see how they had the audience by the balls, how brutal Phil was and how incredibly skilled everyone else was. Even when it looked like they were out of control, they had this focus.”

“The band were a reflection of their personalities,” says Terry Date, Pantera’s producer from Cowboys… until The Great Southern Trendkill in 1996. “It was extreme ability and musicianship combined with the fact that they were so intensely loyal to their fans. They gave everything to their fans. That, and being innovators and taking that style of music to a different level and in a different direction by adding that groove.”

The usual path for a newly successful rock band to take is to veer into more commercial territory. Pantera were never going to do that. Instead, 1994’s Far Beyond Driven was an insanely aggressive and uncompromising record, almost entirely bereft of positive vibes and full of extreme metal chaos and the darkest, nastiest of lyrics. But such was Pantera’s popularity at the time, this most remorselessly intense of 90s metal albums shot straight to Number One in the US charts in March 1994. In an era when metal was supposed to be struggling, the Texans were proudly scaring the shit out of the mainstream.

“Metallica were still selling out arenas, but by the mid-90s it was hard time for us, Megadeth and Slayer,” Scott Ian remembers. “Grunge was the only thing that mattered and we were all being labelled ‘old bands from the 80s’! Ha! But Pantera carried the torch for metal all through the 90s. They were riding high on the back of Vulgar… and then Far Beyond Driven came out. There wasn’t any bullshit about the charts back then, like there is nowadays. They entered the charts at Number One having physically sold more than anyone else in the country. To do it with a record as extreme as that was completely unheard of.”

Although Pantera would never again scale the commercial heights of Far Beyond Driven, their status as the metal band of the 90s was beyond dispute when the decade drew to a close. Pantera’s final album, Reinventing The Steel, was released in 2000 and now seems like a slightly subdued finale from a band that knew they had been the best in the business – not to mention metal’s official saviours – for a long time. But despite the band’s regrettable split and the tragedies that have followed, Pantera’s reputation, their legendary status and the unassailable bond that existed between them and their fans have all strengthened and grown over the years. Like Sabbath, Priest, Maiden and Metallica before them, Pantera made music that transcended scenes and genres by simply being the real goddamn deal.

“As a band, they embraced everything,” says Sepultura’s Andreas Kisser. “They could do a song like Van Halen or Metallica or they could do a song like Slipknot or Sepultura. They could do everything and the only thing linking it all together was them. They had that special chemistry and a very unique guitar player that you’ll never see the like of again. I feel lucky to have known them and to have played a little part in their lives. We’re gonna keep listening to Pantera loud for the rest of our lives.”

“You’re lucky if you’re remembered this time next year, but people will be playing Pantera’s music forever,” states Terry Glaze. “The combination of what they did and the art that they made, it’s just undeniable. I’m just so lucky that I got to be there for a brief moment.”

“The magic of Pantera is that it all came straight from the heart,” King Diamond concludes. “They didn’t overthink what they did, it came from deep inside and it hit the right nerve. People could just relate to it, the brutality of the whole thing but also the skill level in the musicianship. They were brutal, honest and very, very skilful. To create a band like Pantera, they were the only ones who could do it. They had everything.” 

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.