Pantera - Vulgar Display Of Power

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.

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Comments (28)
  1. Still creepy-silent-screaming “Thing, Child, Toy, Fist, Scar, Break” at the gym

  2. Such an absolutely crucial game-changer.
    “Mouth for War” into “A New Level” remains one of the strongest opening 1-2 punches in hard music history.
    Thanks for this.

  3. That “bulletproof” sentence is rather unecessary and stupid.

  4. Nice article, but I’d have to disagree about Countdown to Extinction being “great.” It’s not even good.

  5. No doubt this is a great album, but I have a hard time listening to it today. It has the same problem Helmet, White Zombie, Biohazard, and Sepultura have; an unfortunate legacy inspiring over a decade of shit bands. Pretty much all hard rock and mainstream “metal” since ’97/’98 has been influenced by this sound, so it doesn’t sound as pummeling or unique as it once did. And the fact that fucking awful bands like Drowning Pool and Soil have tried their best to directly imitate Pantera doesn’t help.

    I actually think the Big Four of Thrash have aged better than Pantera. Even though Slayer thankfully has always been (and will always continue to be) Slayer, most of the other bands took detours that prevented their original sounds from becoming too stale or descended into such an absurd degree of self-parody that it helped people to realize what a good thing they once had (St. Anger?). The fact that we haven’t been forced to endure countless Anthrax or Megadeth imitators has helped to keep their work relevant (and really, Slayer never got much radio airplay to begin with), whereas Pantera clones have been littering the radio forever now.

    • I don’t mean to sound dismissive, but I don’t even know where to start with this. You’ve put forth some valid points, but expressed them in ways that nearly disqualify them.

      • Such as? I’m genuinely curious.

        • Dismissing a band’s legacy because of what it inspired is a total shame. Every great band has spawned wretched imitators, so instead why not praise it for the good bands who twisted the influence into something worthwhile. For every Soil/Drowning Pool/Spineshank etc., you could give credit for the success of a band like Lamb of God (controversial choice, maybe, but the stronger output far outweighs the bland, in this case.)
          It’s like dismissing AC/DC as a whole simply because of, I don’t know, Jet?

          Pantera didn’t really have the opportunity to age, so that point doesn’t really get off the ground.
          Still, Metallica transitioned because of skill limitations. Anthrax, while continuing to release records, struggled in transition as well because of lineup adjustments. Slayer released 2 records of original material in the 90′s, and one of those was nu-metal misstep Diabolus. While Pantera was continuing to somehow gain momentum with mid-career weird-yet-uncompromising/interesting stuff like The Great Southern Trendkill, Megadeth was dumping out Cryptic Writings and Risk.

          I don’t see how straying from an original sound to something stale is a credit. Plus, there is currently an entire “re-thrash” scene rife with imitators.

          Near 20 year old production might make it sound less pummelling, but i’d still put this performance up against just about anything: http://youtu.be/e2Yy__sxseg

          • I wasn’t dismissing the band’s legacy. I was pointing out something similar to what you said; they never really had a chance to age, or accrue a real legacy, because of all the imitators that popped up so quickly after their rise. I think the pre-early ’90s records by those other bands have aged better because of the fact that we’ve had time away from that sound (due to mediocrity, style changes, whatever) and can now better appreciate it. Yes, most of what those bands did after 1992 was pretty awful (although, I’d defend Sound of White Noise as a good record), I won’t argue that.

            My reference to an “unfortunate legacy” wasn’t meant to damn the band’s contributions, it was more of a commentary on how sad modern mainstream hard rock is. The reference to their pummeling sound wasn’t meant to be taken from a production standpoint, but rather pointing out how so many bands have imitated the dynamics of their songs, that something like “This Love” doesn’t necessarily stand out in the same way it once did. The same way so many Nirvana imitators have made “Teen Spirit” just another rock song, or most of the Ramones’ early catalog a series of quick pop-punk run-throughs. The band is still clearly superior, but the sound itself comes across as a bit dated.

          • That’s fair. I get what you’re saying. I’d still argue that Pantera has a tremendous and very real legacy, though.
            In terms of appreciating the pre-90’s output of the Big 4, yes, what they’ve since released certainly puts perspective on the strength of those records, but those bands at that time were also at their creative high points; flying by the seats of their collective pants in a genre that was at its most “dangerous.” The bands all peaked and came down right as metal was fading. But while those bands faded and tried to accommodate to trend, Pantera released 5 records in 10 years, each more difficult than the next.
            I do agree with you that not all of what those bands recorded in the 90’s was dreadful (yes, some John Bush era Anthrax is pretty cool, and Megadeth has some great stuff from the decade,) but none were as vital as Pantera.

            We’re just differing in opinion, which is fine. If mainstream hard rock is lame, I can’t blame a band that was only mainstream in name (due to magazine covers, individual virtuosity, being the most impressive American metal band over a 10 year span.) And I would suggest Alice in Chains, Korn, and Marilyn Manson as being far more responsible for what happened to modern rock.
            Pantera isn’t my “favourite band ever, bro!” but it was an important gateway, and I suppose my point is that its legacy doesn’t fairly represent what the band actually was (as seen in some of the one sentence comments below.)

    • Jonathan Espeche  |   Posted on Feb 26th, 2012 -1

      I have no problem listening to Pantera, Helmet, White Zombie, etc. I don’t hold good bands accountable for the crappy bands who consider them an influence. And Pantera is 10 times more pummeling and scary than any of the bands around nowadays. In the 2000′s Metal got taken from the disenchanted dirtbags that used to make it so good and given to clean-cut jock suburban kids in affluent neighborhoods with their false angst and date-rape mentalities.

  6. I was into Pantera for a while, and I still respect the hell out of this record. I don’t have as much of an ear for metal as I did as a teenager.

  7. Too bad they turned out to be racist assholes.

    • Lol, wow.

      Pantera was unfairly vilified in the press due to Anselmo’s frequent skinhead-esque look, their pride in being from the south and the frequent use of rebel flag imagery. Good ‘ol boys from Texas? Sure. But racists? No. A number of Anselmo’s lyrics to Pantera’s songs dealt with anti-racism/pro-humanity themes and the rejection of the views of generations past that were taught to hate one another by their forefathers. The first time I saw Pantera live they had both Rocky George of Suicidal Tendencies and Doug Pinnick of King’s X get onstage to jam with them, as they admired both of those bands (who incidentally, both happened to be multicultural/mixed race bands). For that matter, Pantera also openly worshipped Rob Halford and often referred to him as “god”. So no, as much as the press liked to cause controversy by painting Pantera out to be a bunch of white power gay bashing rednecks, that was simply never the case.

      For a great cover of Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign” featuring Dimebag and King’s X’s Doug Pinnick, check this out….it’s pretty damn awesome for a bunch of “racist assholes”.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6V3KnOKcMk

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  9. total game-changer. when this one first dropped my little teenage mind had never heard anything like it. i still think far beyond driven is the superior album, it was another creative leap forward for the band – forging forward once again into new metal territory. but vulgar display will always hold a special place in my heart for pretty much doing to my brain what that fist is doing to that face on its cover <3 <3 <3

  10. HAHAHAHAHAHA! You guys DID do it! Makin’ me proud, Sterogum. Anywhats…I’ve not listened to this album in a great age. I actually no longer own a copy. But it was massively important to me in 1992. Essentially, the “big” metal album that Metallica failed to make with “The Black Album.” There was a delicate balance created with this. The hardcore elements derived from Henry Rollins work with Rollins Band had not been twisted into the everyman-macho-jockcore-neanderthal idiocy that would very soon follow from this band and the literally thousands of “groove-oriented” post-thrash metal imitators. The end of “Mouth for War” even sounds like Voivod, fer chrissakes!

    In my old age, when I really want to revisit the spirit of heavy metal thunder, circa-1992, I always reach for Entombed’s godly classic second album, the massively influential and heralded, “Clandestine.”

  11. Can’t beat “A New Level”. Great piece, great album. Thanks guys.

  12. aw… i miss pantera. one of my first shows. and got me through the hell of growing up.

  13. I don´t listen to metal that much anymore but I love this album! I still remember the moment my grandma bought it for me in the store ( that was kind of strange, but hey I was 15). I lost my copy some years ago but listening to these songs again (especially this love) is great! Thanks for the article!

  14. R.I.P. Dimebag Darrell

  15. “Walk” is one of the best pieces of music ever recorded. Any genre. Period. The rest of their music, like most “metal”, even from bands I really love, is hit and miss for me twenty years later. A lot of it’s original power came from the age you were and what you were going through in your life at the the time you first heard it. Still, VDOP is definitely a top 50 all-time metal album. Maybe top 30. Which is saying quite a lot, actually.

    One thing I always loved about Pantera – they were a trio and they didn’t try to hide it. Their records were beautifully recorded, mixed and mastered in a way that allowed you to hear and appreciate all three players.

  16. In regards to a lot of the discussions going on above, a lot of douchefaced asstards have made and will continue to make great pieces of art. So long as their politics are not being thrown into my face IN their art, it doesn’t affect me. I don’t really have much more to say about it than that.

    • “Most of my heroes are monsters. Separating their personalities from their art, Miles Davis and Picasso have always been my heroes because they share one thing: they are restless” -Joni Mitchell

      Phil Anselmo isn’t a good example, but someone like Miles Davis is: you can let the horrific things artists often do ruin your taste for their work, or you can be awed by the ability of such conflicted people to create such beauty.

  17. Love it,pure and simple.R.I.P Dimebag!!!

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