In an era when heavy metal is about as hip as breakfast cereal, Pantera is white-hot. Metal may have died a fiery death in the late Eighties, but these neometal cowboys rose from the ashes and became the toast of a new underground.
With only four major-label albums under their belt, Pantera has sold eight million units worldwide. The band's current video, "3 (Watch It Go)," garnered the No. 1 slot on Billboard magazine's music video chart, beating out such mainstream giants as Fleetwood Mac and Yanni.
Pantera's steady success -- all the more remarkable in an industry with the attention span of a three-year-old -- is due in large part to its faithful fans. "Metal has been deemed uncool by the music industry," contends drummer Vinnie Paul, calling from the group's tour bus in Spokane, Washington, just after a sold-out show. "At one time it was the coolest thing on the face of this earth. I don't care if it is ever again, as long as our fans keep buying our records."
Chances are they will. Paul and his bandmates -- singer Philip Anselmo, bassist Rex Brown, and guitarist Dimebag Darrell -- do what they can to repay their fans' loyalty. "We just go out of our way," notes Paul. "Today we were out at the mall and some kids came up to us and said they were dying to go to the show tonight. We took care of 'em, no problem."
Last summer before setting out on the Ozzfest tour (it featured a welter of heavy hitters, including Ozzy Osbourne and Type O Negative), Pantera paid their fans the ultimate tribute: a live album.
"People were always coming up to us saying they wanted a live record," says Paul. "After four studio albums and numerous bootlegs that were [of] poor quality and which cost as much as $100, we decided to record a live album for our fans. And instead of going for a box set or something that would cost a lot of money, we put out an album that would be affordable."
Culled from the band's past three years of relentless touring, Official Live -- 101 Proof (Eastwest) features a cross-section of songs from Pantera's roadshows, as well as two insanely aggressive new studio cuts, "Where You Come From" and "I Can't Hide."
Produced by Paul and Darrell (brothers, despite their stage names), Official Live is a high-fidelity example of the group's straight, no-chaser metal. Listening to "Suicide Note Pt. 2," it's easy to picture cowboy-from-hell Anselmo lumbering across the stage like a crazed animal, screaming his throat ragged. Or during Darrell's impassioned guitar solo on "Walk," you can almost see him leaning on his whammy bar and then spitting into the wings.
As Paul once said: "We've always been real honest about what we do. We have always taken our music directly to our fans. Our deal -- what we do -- is a live deal. It's what we do fucking best. The fans are so much a part of that. There's a circular energy when we play that goes back and forth. Our story wouldn't be complete without a live record."
Part of Pantera's charm is its old-school adherence to its ideals. "We're a very traditional, very standard rock band," explains Paul. "We've got a real drummer, guitarist, singer, and bassist." Indeed, while other bands strive to become the flavor of the month, continuously reinventing themselves to fit in with the latest fashion, Pantera refuses to cave in to passing trends.
Midway into Official Live, Anselmo announces, "This song goes out to everybody who never gave up on the heavy music, ever. Everybody who ignored all these weak-ass fucking trends, all these pussy-whipped fucking ideas, fuck 'em. 'Cause you know why? The trend is dead!"
Nevertheless Pantera took heat in 1992 for hopping on the remix bandwagon by turning over the master reels of three songs to industrial-dance knob-twirlers Justin Broadrick (of Godflesh) and Jim Thirlwell (who's done mixes for Nine Inch Nails and White Zombie, among others). Paul claims the songs were done before remixes became popular. "Those songs were cool to listen to," he insists. "I guess you could say they were danceable if you're into slam dancing and moshing. But I can't picture a VJ on MTV saying, 'Yo, here's Pantera's latest dance song.'"
Of course Pantera hasn't always been the heavy hitter it is now. Before establishing the band as the kingpins of the new metal underground with Cowboys From Hell (1990) and the gold-selling Vulgar Display of Power (1992), the quartet played cover tunes in small bars throughout the South.
But Paul's and Darrell's father, Jerry Abbott, a country songwriter whose material has been recorded by Buck Owens and Emmylou Harris, urged his sons to write original tunes. The pair took the suggestion seriously and in 1983 formed their own record label, Metal Magic.
During the Eighties Pantera released four rather embarrassing glam-metal nuggets on Metal Magic. The first three, featuring a singer-guitarist named Terry Glaze, boasted song titles such as "I Am the Night," "Rock Out!" and "Heavy Metal Rules!" The band looked and dressed accordingly: teased hair, lipstick, T-shirts without sleeves. Needless to say this glorious chapter in Pantera's history is kept as tightly sealed as a CIA cover-up.
When Anselmo arrived on the scene (he was undoubtedly hired for his long, flowing, bottle-blond mane), Pantera was wrapping up its glam days with the album Power Metal (1988). It was then that the band members returned to their, uh, roots.
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Predictably, the senior Abbott wasn't thrilled with the new sound, which reeked of Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest. "My dad used to hear the distortion on Philip's vocals, and he'd say, 'I don't get it,'" recalls Paul. "So I'd say, 'Dad, when Elvis came out, your parents hated him too, right?' And he'd just nod his head and say, 'Yeah.'"
Lyrically, Pantera did a 180, ditching airhead anthems ("Pussy Tight") for real-life themes ("Walk," "This Love"). As Paul told one reporter, "Our music is not about fucking corpses. It's stuff that happens to everybody. Philip writes straight from the heart -- he writes songs about his personal experiences in life or things that the band has collectively gone through. And that's why a lot of people really can relate to the lyrics, because they go, 'Man, I've lived that, I've done that, or my friend is going through that.'
"This is one band where we've always strived to remain the same people we were before we got big. The pressure of becoming some big rock icon has never been there for us." Still, Pantera is proud to rule the metal roost. Crows Paul, "Pantera in our own right, [we] are the kings of heavy metal."
Pantera performs with Anthrax and Coal Chamber at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 4, at the West Palm Beach Auditorium, 1610 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $21. Call 561-683-6012.