You cannot understate the significance Pantera had within 90s metal. While traditionally inclined heaviness faced overthrow from grunge and nu metal, the Texan powerhouse were the only big American band to keep the faith. Their 1992 magnum opus Vulgar Display Of Power ensured that shouting vocals and immense solos maintained a place in hard rock’s musical language, before followup Far Beyond Driven pushed those extreme sounds to the top of the US album charts.
In 2023, though, it’s inordinately difficult, as a journalist, to sing the praises of Pantera.
January 22, 2016, remains one of the blackest days in modern metal history. Then-former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo deciding to get onstage, throw a Nazi salute and scream “White power!” was not only a heinous act in its own right; it then bogged the scene down in years of in-fighting and excuses over what should be a universal stance by now: Nazism is bad. That metalheads couldn’t agree to condemn Anselmo for his actions (nor identify that it was not a one-off excusable as a dumb mistake) represents the very worst of this community.
Seven years later, Anselmo’s undergone something of a public rehabilitation. The singer reformed Pantera in 2022 – 19 years after their implosion and just four after their last surviving founder, drummer Vinnie Paul, passed away – to begin a campaign of tours and festival headline sets. Reservations about supporting Anselmo’s major-league return were gradually drowned out by enormous crowds roaring over witnessing groove metal’s gods live again (albeit with Zakk Wylde and Charlie Benante replacing the deceased Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul, respectively). Next year, this “new” Pantera will make their UK debut at the 2024 Download festival, and people got more pissed about Fall Out Boy and Queens Of The Stone Age not being “metal enough” to headline than they were about a man with Anselmo’s history gracing British rock’s biggest stage.
This broad acceptance of Pantera’s comeback would be understandable if Anselmo had spent some of the past seven years atoning for his actions. Yet he seemingly hasn’t. When footage of the frontman’s “white power” outburst started doing the rounds on YouTube, he both refused to apologise and drummed up frivolous excuses.
Anselmo claimed he was making an in-joke about white wine being backstage at the show – until Machine Head’s Robb Flynn, who was also present, said there wasn’t any. Eventually, with scrutiny intensifying, Anselmo released a YouTube video where, to his credit, he said sorry, despite still clinging to the uncorroborated narrative that it was a misguided backstage joke which made its way into the public eye. Then said video got taken down and the excuses resumed.
In October 2016, the singer returned to self-defence, saying there would never be another apology and that his actions, though “abhorrent”, were merely a “reaction” symbolic of his “dark” sense of humour. He then claimed in a December Eddie Trunk interview that he was making a dramatic response to hecklers calling him racist in the audience. Footage of Anselmo in a drunken shouting match with audience members at the show surfaced online in 2023, but whether or not they were calling him racist is inaudible. And, in any case, answering accusations of racism with a white supremacist gesture onstage is the dumbest thing Anselmo could have done. Nor does it explain his previous trangressions.
Anselmo then gave a deeply troubling interview to Loudwire in January 2017. In it, both he and his interviewer appeared to sweep his misdeeds under the rug, taking aim at online criticism and cancel culture for their perceived hypocrisy.
And that’s it. What a noble redemption, right? There have been pockets of people refusing to accept Anselmo in the years since, most notably when Pantera’s planned performances in Germany this year were cancelled following pushback. However, that rejection was answered by comment sections filled with people prepared to accept the singer as a changed man with minimal evidence.
All this points us to the most likely and chilling possibility: bookers and fans are re-embracing Anselmo not because he’s seen the error in his ways, but because Pantera have brand power and people want to mindlessly mosh to the riff of A New Level.
Thus the age-old “Do we separate the art from the artist?” debate comes into play. Many will doubtlessly leap to Anselmo’s defence because they grew up adoring Pantera and, if that’s your perspective, that’s your perspective. But, also bear in mind: “art vs the artist” goes both ways. In the same way Pantera’s impact shouldn’t be wiped from the history books because their singer’s thrown Nazi salutes, people do not have to accept that Phil Anselmo is a new, better person just because he’s singing Five Minutes Alone under his old band name again.