Can it really be twenty years since Texan heavyweights Pantera released their brutal seventh (third if you don’t count the glam ones) studio album? Following in the wake of Metallica‘s phenomenal commercial success in the early 1990s, record companies were desperate to sign ‘the next Metallica‘, an unfortunate phrase that continued throughout the decade and popped up whenever an extreme metal band were on the verge of breaking through to the mainstream; Sepultura, Carcass, Entombed, Machine Head, Biohazard and Paradise Lost were all tagged at one point but in truth the only metal band who even came close to capturing the zeitgeist of the times was Pantera. However, after 1992’s “Vulgar Display of Power” album showed a band on the verge of smashing the mainstream with their brand of heavy-but-slickly-produced sub-thrash metal – a reputation backed up by some killers shows supporting (and apparently destroying) a commercially-peaking Megadeth on their “Countdown to Extinction” trek – Pantera didn’t do the expected thing and go all ballady and radio-friendly; on the contrary, they went even heavier and “Far Beyond Driven” was all the better for it, debuting at number one on the US Billboard 200, making it the first extreme metal album to do so (and it would be a whole five years before Slipknot did the same with their debut album).
Is there really a need to review this album in the conventional way? Probably not, as all you need to know is that this is the one with ‘I’m Broken’, ‘5 Minutes Alone’, ‘Becoming’, ‘Strength Beyond Strength’ and their tripped-out cover of Black Sabbath‘s ‘Planet Caravan’ – all songs that, ‘Planet Caravan’ excepted, pretty much stayed in their set for the rest of their career. However, “Far Beyond Driven” wasn’t just about the hit singles as buried deep within the album’s tracklisting were tracks like the schizoid “Good Friends and a Bottle of Pills” – where singer Phil Anselmo recounted what he had done to your girl over drummer Vinnie Paul‘s rhythmic kick drums in his most intimidating southern drawl before letting rip with a tirade of screeched obscenities – but the real jewel in the album’s crown was the hard-hitting ‘Shedding Skin’, a more structured variation on the ‘Good Friends…’ formula that built on the dynamic interplay between Anselmo, Vinnie Paul and late guitarist Dimebag Darrell‘s cast-iron riffs before exploding into a blur of guitar solos and drum battery before coming to an abrupt halt. Everything you need to know about Pantera and where they were at in 1994 is there in that one song.
The second half of the album is a little less consistent than the first, with tracks like ’25 Years’ and ‘Use My Third Arm’ not hitting the same dizzying heights that the band reached on the first half. Still devastating, those tracks give credence to the criticism that the album sounded a little bloated when put up against it’s two predecessors but in truth there are flurries of greatness amongst the barrage of drums, guitars and barked vocals – the drumming in ‘Use My Third Arm’ really is quite remarkable and showed that Vinnie Paul was more than capable to compete with the thrash metal likes of Dave Lombardo or Iggor Cavalera – although as whole songs there was less to latch on to and they weren’t as memorable as those opening classics.
In terms of ranking Pantera‘s output it would be pretty difficult to deny the overall brilliance of “Vulgar Display of Power” – a true example of a band capturing lightening in a bottle – but “Far Beyond Driven” remains their most important album. In retrospect we can look back and see that the seeds of the band’s eventual demise were sown around this time, with Phil Anselmo resorting to heavy drinking and drug use during the subsequent tour due to back injuries. Indeed, anybody who was at Donington Park on the day that the live set on the second disc was recorded would have witnessed Anselmo‘s usual stage antics being somewhat muted by his physical condition, but the sheer aggression with which he delivered his vocal attack was never in question. The live set is a great reminder of how furious and precise this band could be and is a more honest representation of the live Pantera experience than the seemingly more polished “Official Live: 101 Proof” album that followed a few years later.
To be honest, if you already own this album – which, of course, you do – then the only real deciding factor in buying it again is for the Donington live set, as the remastered album tracks don’t sound a whole lot different to what they did twenty years ago. That isn’t meant as a negative, more of a testament to producer Terry Date’s skills in making such a downtuned and brutal racket sound so focused and clear, and you only need to look at the tracklisting on the second disc to realise that yes, you do need to own this. This was Pantera‘s moment and twenty years on it still sounds as vital and brilliant as it did then. Brings a tear to the eye to know we’ll never witness their like again, but we’ll always have the music.