Pantera’s Vulgar Display Of Power: inside the album that saved ’90s metal

Vulgar Display Of Power
(Image credit: Atco)

It was 1992. Machine Head and Stone Sour formed. Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were co-headlining US stadiums when James Hetfield suffered third-degree burns in a pyro accident and Axl Rose incited a riot in Montreal. Rage Against The Machine released their self-titled debut album. Nirvana were selling around 300,000 copies a week of Nevermind. And Pantera delivered up the ultra-heavy Vulgar Display Of Power.

From Dallas, Texas, Pantera had started as a glam crew, beginning in 1981 by covering Kiss and Van Halen songs. Their first three albums – 1983’s Metal Magic, Projects In The Jungle a year later and, finally, I Am The Night (1985) – were very much rooted in the big hair genre. But there was to be a radical shift. 

In 1987, vocalist Phil Anselmo joined founder-members (and brothers) Diamond Darrell (guitar) and Vinnie Paul (drums), plus Rex Rocker (bass). A year later, the Power Metal album shoved the band more towards the thrash scene. And this was taken to another level when, after signing their first major label deal with Atco, Pantera reinvented themselves with 1990’s breakthrough album Cowboys From Hell

By this time, Rex Rocker had become Rex Brown, and Diamond Darrell was now Dimebag Darrell. The record, moreover, established Pantera’s reputation as a new force on the metal scene. 

“On Cowboys From Hell we got the opportunity to tour with some really kick-ass bands, including Judas Priest, Exodus, Sepultura, Suicidal Tendencies and Prong,” Vinnie told Metal Hammer years later. “And that really drove us to another level. We saw our music kicking ass, and I think that catapulted us into what we did with Vulgar Display Of Power.” 

What Pantera now had to do with the follow-up to Cowboys… was build on the momentum that had driven that album to capturing the imagination of the metal hordes. As producer Terry Date says, “Pantera wanted to make the heaviest record of all time.” 

Pantera in 1991

Pantera in 1991 (Image credit: Niels van Iperen/Getty Images)

The band chose to record at Pantego Sound Studios, which was owned by Jerry Abbott – Vinnie Paul and Dimebag’s country musician/producer father. “When we started working on Vulgar…, Phil and I found these really cheap loft apartments that were right across from the studio,” Rex remembers. 

“We made this little hole in the fence, so we could walk right from our apartments to the studio. Rita (Haney, Darrell’s girlfriend) had one of these loft apartments, too, and Darrell and Vinnie were still at their mom’s house, but they had vehicles so they could get around. 

"Me and Phil were still broke, so I bought myself a bike. I used to ride up to this place that was like a 7-Eleven, and we knew a guy that was working up there, and he’d leave us beer and sandwiches so we had something to eat when we were done working.” 

The band were so eager to get this right that work even started without their producer. “We had the songs A New Level, Regular People (Conceit) and No Good (Attack The Radical) demoed before Terry came in,” Vinnie said. “We wanted to get a headstart. We had even begun work on getting the tones, and they were pretty good, but when Terry showed up, we really finetuned it. 

“To us, heavy metal had to sound like a machine. So we worked really hard to just be this abrasive saw. The guitar had to have a buzzsaw sound to it, the drums had to have an edge to them, and I just remember Dime and Terry Date spending many, many hours in there just being very meticulous about getting the guitars ‘ass-tight’, as they put it. 

"Once we got the tones dialled in, the three of us wrote the music during the day, and then Phil would come over from his apartment and hear something. He’d be like, ‘Wow, dude, that is so badass!’ And then we would finally take a break and go out to a nightclub, and then come back to hear what Phil had done on top of it. We worked together as a team like that, and we really had that all-for-one, one-for-all mentality.” 

Pantera at the Foundation Awards in 1991

Pantera at the Foundation Awards in 1991 (Image credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

But this was Pantera, and while they worked with a focus and energy, they also partied with equal commitment. “We used to play this game called Chicken Brake,” remembered Vinnie, “where you suddenly grab the fuckin’ emergency brake and the whole car would come to a screeching halt. One night we took Terry’s rental car and we were hauling ass down the highway in the pouring rain, and all of a sudden Rex thinks it would be funny to reach over and hit the chicken brake. 

"I was doing, like, 60 miles per hour, and when he hit it the car went into a 360˚ spin, and spun and spun and spun, and then it just came to a stop in the middle of the highway. We both just looked at each other pale white and went, ‘OK, that didn’t happen…’, and kept going. 

“Later that night, we went out for drinks, and we were really ripped when we got back. We went through this neighbourhood and ran over every fuckin’ mailbox. I don’t know how we didn’t go to jail, or blow the radiator out! But we pulled up in front of the studio. 

"And Terry comes running out and sees the headlights on his car all busted out, the fucking front end was all bashed in. There was steam coming off the motor. And he never yelled at us like he did that night. He’s going, ‘Man, I’m gonna have to pay for this and the fuckin’ label’s gonna fire me!’ And we were like, ‘Dude, just chill. We’ll take care of it. We’ll make enough money on this record to pay for it.’”

Two months into recording the album, the band got an offer they couldn’t turn down – the opportunity to open for AC/DC and Metallica in Russia. They grabbed the chance to do this, and it proved to be a triumph. “We went on at two in the afternoon, and it was definitely the most unbelievable, huge stage I had ever been on,” exclaims Phil Anselmo. 

Dimebag performing in California in 1992

Dimebag performing in California in 1992 (Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect via getty)

“Staring out into the crowd was blinding. It wasn’t a crowd; it was a fucking ocean. But there were no real nerves there and once we got onstage, man, we just fucking clicked. We were a fucking machine. We were ready for war and we were bringing it to you. 

“We flew home, and went back in the studio with a bit more swagger in our step, and the music just bled out of us. I was on the most positive kick I’ve ever been on. When I wrote lyrics like, ‘A new level of confidence and power’, it was fuckin’ true, man!” “One of our favourite things to do at the studio was this game called Twist And Hurl,” said Vinnie. 

“You’d drink one of these little bottles of beer and guzzle it until you finished it, and then you had to spin and throw it at this stop sign; if you hit it, you won. And we’d do that just about every night. We’d drink tons of these little beers, so we had ammunition. 

“And then one night we did it, and these flashlights popped up through the trees and there were, like, five cops there ready to arrest us. I don’t know how we talked our way out of it!” The idea for the album title came from Phil, although it took him a while to realise that he’d actually got it from a line in the movie The Exorcist

“The phrase ‘Vulgar Display Of Power’ jumped out at me, and where it came from didn’t hit me until later. And then I was like, ‘Oh, it’s from The Exorcist!’ Nice line there, William Peter Blatty [who wrote the novel and screenplay]. 

“We told our label we wanted a picture of something vulgar, like this dude getting punched in the face [for the album cover]. Then the label brought us the first version of the album cover, which was a boxer with a punching glove, and we were like, ‘Wrong, dude. It’s gotta be street.’ They got it right with the second version. One of the people at the label told us this dude was paid $10 a punch, and it took 30 real punches to his face to get the perfect image."

Pantera in 1993

Pantera in 1993 (Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

The album was released on February 25, 1992, and was the first from Pantera to chart, reaching Number 44 in America, where it has now sold more than two million copies. In the UK, it made it to number 64, and has sold in excess of 100,000 copies. Pantera had finally arrived as a significant metal force on the widest possible scale.

Said Vinnie: “All I can say is it was one of those unique times when the band was still so hungry. We were making $150 a week (per diems). We weren’t making a pay cheque. We were just doing it, because we loved music and had fun jamming together. We were a team. We were brothers.” 

Says Phil: “Being onstage and playing songs like Walk, Mouth For War and motherfucking Fucking Hostile… whoa shit, man. That was a powerful statement. The aggression, the intensity, the stripped raw and bleeding emotion of those songs connected with the audience in a dangerous way. We had a blast playing them, because they were more real to us and I think – no, I know – the people watching knew we were the real deal.” 

With hindsight, this has become one of the most iconic and inspirational metal albums of all time. A totem for so much that has happened since. Nobody is more aware of its significance than Phil Anselmo, who looks back with a reverence close to awe on what he helped to achieve. 

“When we did Vulgar Display Of Power, I never said, ‘OK, I’m out to make one for the books.’ Of course, we wanted to set personal goals and make ourselves a happy band, but I guess I’m still finding out what kind of an impact that album had. 

“Two whole generations have gone by since then, and so many variations of music have come and gone. And I still see kids who are 14 to 20 years old but just rabid Pantera fans, because their dads were rabid fans, and that’s what they grew up listening to in the house. 

"And that just blows me away. And I can hear actual Pantera riffs in a lot of today’s bands and yesterday’s bands as well. When that started happening, I think that’s when I realised the impact we had made."

And it’s an impact that resonates right into the 21st century.

Pantera in Australia, 2001

Pantera in Australia, 2001 (Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Image)

If Vulgar Display Of Power was a stunning high, then what followed in 1994 was an ever bigger success. The band’s next album, Far Beyond Driven, debuted at number one in the US. Pantera even got a Grammy nomination for the song I’m Broken

But things started going wrong. The quartet played at the Monsters Of Rock Festival at Donington in June 1994, yet weeks later Phil was charged with assault, after hitting a security guard who tried to prevent fans from getting onstage. By 1995, Phil’s use of heroin and alcohol had become so excessive that it drove an irreversible wedge between him and the rest of Pantera. 

A year later, The Great Southern Trendkill emphasised the growing gulf between singer and band. While the musicians recorded in Dallas, Phil did his vocals at Trent Reznor’s studio in New Orleans. Still, it did reach number four on the US charts, and matched the sales of Far Beyond Driven

However, when the singer overdosed on heroin in June 1996, it shocked the rest of Pantera. His continuingly erratic behaviour made the relationship even worse. The live album Official Live: 101 Proof kept things ticking over, getting to a respectable number 15 in the US, but after the release of Reinventing The Steel in 2000, the band appeared to be on their last legs. 

Although it reached number four in the US, sales dropped to just over 500,000 – and within a year it was effectively over. A European tour was cut short by the events of 9/11, and plans for another studio album were scrapped. Pantera officially broke up in 2003, amid bitter accusations. 

The shocking murder of Dimebag Darrell in December 2004 and the death of his brother Vinnie Paul in 2018 means that we will never see the band back onstage in all their glory.