In February 1992, the state of metal was in a certain weird flux. Glam-metal was still fully entrenched on the AOR airwaves, but now it was sharing airtime with all this new quote-unquote alternative stuff that all the kids were raving about; you’d hear Nirvana back-to-back with, like, Trixter all the time. And as for the harder stuff, the Big Four thrash titans of the ’80s were all going through their own transitional moments. Six months earlier, Metallica would release their Black Album, finding their greatest-ever commercial success by slowing their tempos down and switching to a more traditional sort of riff-rock. On a smaller level, Megadeth would do the same thing a few months later with the nutty-but-subdued (and great) Countdown To Extinction. Slayer were still Slayer, but their run of undisputed classics had just ended. And Anthrax were just about to fire classic-era wailer Joey Belladonna, replacing him with the more generally nondescript John Bush. That was the landscape when a bunch of Southern dirtballs released their greatest-ever monument to hostility and pretty much changed the map.
Vulgar Display Of Power, which celebrates its 20th anniversary tomorrow, was the moment Pantera figured out exactly what they were doing. Pantera had started out as a vaguely glammy thrash band who gradually turned harder after they replaced their original singer with New Orleans tough guy Phil Anselmo in 1987. The band’s 1990 album Cowboys From Hell, itself something of a classic, was the one where they found the style that would define them: A crunchy bottom-heavy groove that nodded toward speed-metal theatrics but put more emphasis on deliberate locked-groove marches rather than flights of virtuosity. And Vulgar Display Of Power is the album where they absolutely perfected it, transforming themselves in the process into the sort of hugely popular cult band that sells out arenas without a shred of radio play.
The cover art of Vulgar Display, an extreme close-up of a fist in the process of disfiguring a face, was a pretty perfect summary of the album’s sound, especially as it contrasted with the baroque, fantastical hellscapes that adorned so many other album covers. The album has moments of straight-up speed-thrash, but it’s dominated by thundering midtempo grooves that were perfect for moshing, something that was actually new to kids at big metal shows back then. In his shaven-headed, direct, barely-tuneful bluster, Anselmo seemed powerfully influenced by the simian intensity of New York hardcore bands like Agnostic Front. And in their bruising low-end, the rhythm section seemed to internalize the elemental thud of 808-driven rap, though they never showed any sort of overt influence. (The album would leave a huge mark on the rap-metal bands that took over a few years later, though Pantera themselves, to their credit, openly hated all that stuff.) It was like the band had internalized every sort of punishing, cathartic music out there and had melted it all into one aggressive, relentless chest-thump.
Of course, there was still plenty of craft at work on the album. When he wanted to, Anselmo could actually sing, as on the atypical pained-melodic closer “Hollow.” But even a quasi-ballad like “This Love” doesn’t waste too much time on sensitivity; it drops the hammer and becomes a brutal stomp-chant on the chorus. Dimebag Darrell’s guitar solos were as explosive and technically ridiculous as those of his thrash peers, but they also made melodic sense and stuck to their songs’ grooves. And the album is just perfectly sequenced, which you can hear in the way the juddering chaos that ends “A New Level” melts into the awesomely direct battering-ram opening riff on “Walk” — easily my favorite Pantera song of all time, and not just because hearing it meant that Rob Van Dam was about to kick a steel chair into someone’s face when RVD used it as his entrance theme in ECW.
Pantera’s lyrics weren’t about goblins or wizards; they were about fighting. Or rather, they were about being willing to fight at all times, confident that you could take on anyone who was fucking with you. As such, they reflected the anti-glam fetishized realness of the grunge moment while completely opposing the crippling self-doubt that characterized so many grunge lyrics. For a couple of million awkward teenagers, the album worked like something of a motivational self-help tape; listening to it, you felt bulletproof. (Though the band, of course, weren’t bulletproof, as Dimebag’s freakily tragic onstage death a decade later proved.) At that moment in 1992, the teenagers of the world needed a band who made them feel bulletproof. Pantera were the perfect metal band for their era, and Vulgar Display Of Power is the best album they could’ve possibly ever made.
As Vulgar Display Of Power turns 20, what memories does it drudge up for you guys? What’s your favorite song on the album, or your favorite memory that it brings up? Leave your answers in the comments section below, and check out some videos from the album.