27 Years Ago: Pantera Find Their Voice With ‘Cowboys From Hell’
The first Pantera album to capture the sound most people associate with the band today was actually the group’s fifth record, Cowboys from Hell, which came out on July 24, 1990. Inspired by a love for Metallica and classic Judas Priest, guitarist Dimebag Darrell (then known as Diamond Darrell) and drummer Vinnie Paul strived to achieve a sound that cut with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel and the destructive power of a chainsaw. But the album wouldn’t have been nearly as heavy and scathing if vocalist Philip Anselmo hadn’t insisted on bringing a hardcore mentality and an ultra-heavy thrash perspective into the band.
“I showed them the f--king path, man,” Anselmo told me in 2010. "It would be a lie to say anything different. Dimebag came over to the first house I lived in in Texas in early ’88 and I said, ‘Look here. This is what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna smoke this bowl and you’re gonna sit down and listen to a song.’ And he was like, ‘Okay.’ So we smoked a bowl, and I proceeded to put on the vinyl version of ‘At Dawn They Sleep’ from Slayer’s Hell Awaits. He sat there and stared at the turntable and by about the middle of the song that big curly head started to move a little and groove, and by the end of the song he’s like, 'Damn, son, that’s bad-ass!'"
The first song Pantera wrote for Cowboys From Hell was “The Art of Shredding,” which they later recorded on a demo along with “Cowboys From Hell” and “The Sleep.” “Psycho Holiday” and “Heresy” came soon after. “We were on fire,” Paul says. “We wrote all three of those songs in the same two-day jam session. And they really energized everybody and re-focused everybody. Once we laid those demos down and people started hearing them, they became really serious about wanting to sign the band.”
After numerous rejections, Pantera finally inked a deal with Derek Shulman at Atco Records after his A&R man Mark Ross saw Pantera play a birthday party. Ross was in town to see another band when his plane was grounded by Hurricane Hugo. With nothing on his schedule, he called Shulman, who suggested he see if Pantera, a band he had his eye on, were doing anything. In the middle of the birthday gig, Ross disappeared and Pantera figured he lost interest and left. As it turned out, he couldn’t wait to step out of the club to call Shulman and tell him how great Pantera were.
The most enduring song from the record was the title track, which was built on a guitar part Darrell came up with while messing around with a four-track recorder. “The crazy noise at the beginning was just a Dime thing,” said bassist Rex Brown. “That’s what he was hearing in his head so he made a loop of that to play over. I just remember it was f--kin’ very repetitious and very f--kin’ annoying for a long while. And that ‘Cowboys From Hell’ intro is a little form of in-the-box scaling. We were always down the street watching all these great blues guys come through because Vinnie and Darrell’s dad [Jerry Abbott] was an engineer at Pantego studio. We’d sneak down there and sit way underneath the board listening to all this great stuff. And I think that’s where Dime got the idea for that intro to ‘Cowboys.’ He started it as a kind of modal exercise because he would practice it forwards and backwards.”
Pantera spent six months writing Cowboys From Hell, which was heavily rooted in thrash with hints of NWOBHM in songs like “Shattered” and “Heresy.” As much as the band wanted Cowboys From Hell to showcase their heaviness and agility, they also wanted to imbue the record with a Southern vibe that was latter dubbed the power groove.
“We always felt like our musicianship enabled us to be more than just a thrash band,” Vinnie Paul says. “A lot of thrash bands are sort of limited in what they can do, and we always felt like the groove thing was something we didn’t want to lose even though we got heavier. We just felt like a lot of these other heavier bands that were out were missing that groove. So we really focused on that because we really wanted people to be able to move to the music. Being from Texas, we were always fans of ZZ Top and bands that had really big grooves.”
With part of Cowboys From Hell written, Pantera entered Pantego Sound to record the album. They originally wanted to work with Max Norman, but that didn’t work out. “We were such huge fans of Ozzy’s Diary of a Madman and this band Malice and they were all produced by Max Norman,” Paul says. “We were head over heels. We had to have Max Norman. So he flew to Houston to see a gig and he loved the band. We were all set, ready to go. But our recording budget only allowed for $30,000 for the producer. About two days before we were supposed to start recording with Max, he got offered $50,000 to go do Lynch Mob. So he calls us up and said, ‘Guys I gotta take this. I need the money. I’m out.’ We were like, ‘What the f--k?’ This guy was one of our heroes and we always wanted to make a record with him and suddenly he’s gone. So Mark Ross calls us up and goes, ‘Okay guys, we gotta find another producer. I got this guy named Terry Date who just finished doing Soundgarden and Overkill.’ And we were like, ‘Man, I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Well, let’s find out.’”
Date developed a strong bond with Pantera and worked with them through 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill. The symbiotic trust between band and producer enabled Pantera to sound as heavy as a granite tabletop or as melancholy as a gloomy day without seeming contrived or detracting from the band’s heaviness. While Date wasn’t directly involved in writing of the experimental ballad “Cemetery Gates,” his influence likely rubbed off on the song.
“I played a whole lot of the strumming stuff on the front of that and a lot of the alternate picking,” Brown said. “Me and Dime were just sitting around in the back of the studio and we said, ‘Well, let’s try a little something else’ and came up with that. We went back to where Vinnie and Terry were working and we said, “We got something here that we want to do before ‘Cemetery Gates’ that’s gonna be really cool. So we played it on our acoustics and they dug it, and then we made it into a two-minute section before ‘Cemetery’ actually came in. And you hear the loud thunderous thing. That’s eight grand pianos stacked [together] that I played backwards on tape. You speed the tape up and then when you turn it back around it makes this big crescendo.”
As much as “Cemetery Gates” added to Cowboys From Hell, Anselmo wasn’t feeling the track and still considers it a weak link on the album. But everyone else wanted him to sing the song so he stepped up to the plate. “This is where compromise came in a lot,” he said. “Remember, Pantera didn’t really lock in and fully find its sound until Vulgar Display of Power and after that we were f--king possessed. So there was a big part where the band would want to write something melodic and they knew I could actually sing. Being as hard headed as I was about the whole heavy metal thing, sometimes I would be apt to shortchange myself and purposely not sing when I could have. But at this point in the band I felt like I had 'Heresy' and ‘Psycho Holiday’ in there, so okay, I’ll do ‘Cemetery Gates.’ And by the way, I did know the Smiths had a song called ‘Cemetery Gates.’ I just thought it would be ironic to call it that. So yeah, ‘Cemetery Gates’ was a big compromise musically at the time, and if you think about it, in the career of Pantera you didn’t hear us play that song much live. It got to the point where it wasn’t necessarily us anymore.”
When Cowboys From Hell was released, the first song the public connected with was the title track, which helped Pantera reach No. 27 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and No. 117 on the album chart. With “Cemetery Gates,” the band expanded its fanbase, and tours with Exodus and Suicidal Tendencies helped prove the band was one of the most crazed and exciting live acts in metal. The final single from Cowboys From Hell was “Psycho Holiday,” but by then Pantera had their eyes set on making an even heavier and more uncompromising album than Cowboys From Hell.
Pantera’s major label debut went gold in September 1993 and platinum in July 1997. A 20th Anniversary CD featured two bonus discs; one was made up of live versions of the songs and the other contained all the album demos.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
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