If Pantera had their way their debut album would no doubt have been Cowboys from Hell. Their 1990 breakthrough first introduced the four-piece to the mainstream metal community and helped to usher in a new type of music as the hair metal scene of the eighties had slowly begun to die out and grunge was yet to dominate the world. But Pantera themselves had been a part of that same genre, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dokken and Stryper during their early days, despite the melodies often having more in common with Judas Priest than Ratt.
Yet during this era Pantera would also perm their long hair and wear tight leather, an image that other acts like Vixen and Lita Ford had also adopted. The eighties was, after all, a flamboyant and extravagant decade and public tastes leaned towards men in makeup and spandex. Even other emerging metal acts like Sepultura boasted a similar image to Pantera during their rise to stardom but as the so-called hair metal genre became a victim of its own success metal fans were ready for something new and exciting.
Pantera had first come together in 1981 as a group of high school students who desperately wanted to emulate their heroes; KISS, Van Halen and Iron Maiden. The initial line-up consisted of Terry Glaze and Darrell Abbott on guitar, his older brother Vinnie Paul on drums, Tommy Bradford on bass and Donny Hart on vocals, yet within a year they had been reduced to a four-piece, with Glaze replacing Hart as the frontman and bass being filled by Rex Brown. The Abbott brothers had been raised in a music-orientated household due to their father, Jerry, who had strong associations with the country scene.
Sensing his sons’ potential he helped to form an independent label called Magic Metal Records and produced the band’s first three albums – Magic Metal, Projects in the Jungle and I Am the Night – at a small studio in Pantego, Texas. Following the release of the latter it became clear that Glaze had different ideas surrounding the future of the group than his three bandmates, who wanted to move further away from the hair metal scene and into darker and heavier territories.
‘I loved playing in that band and we were good. It wasn’t the two hours on stage, it was the other twenty-two hours of the day where we wanted to kill each other,’ Glaze would later explain to Full in Bloom. ‘I loved the music. It was just getting along when we weren’t on stage…I gave ’em two weeks notice before I left and that was not good. Because as the last couple of dates came up I guess I was hoping that we would work it out, but they were not interested in working it out. And as it got closer and closer to my last day it became colder and colder.’
Glaze eventually left the group in the spring of 1986 and soon the Abbotts began auditioning for a new singer. Among the hopefuls was Matt L’Amour, who would instead chose to work with Diamond and David Peacock, while both Hart and Glaze once again tried to join the band. Enter Philip Anselmo who, despite having only recently turned eighteen, had already performed in two local groups, Samhain and Razor White. After an evening at the Abbotts over a bottle of Tequila, Anselmo was invited to join the group and the final line-up of Pantera commenced work on their fourth album.
Anselmo had first discovered them during their numerous performances in his hometown of New Orleans. ‘I did a very similar circuit. Their reputation was somewhat legendary,’ he told Billboard in 2014. ‘They were considered the band that would be signed to a major label and they would be the next big act to come out of the South. But things didn’t really get interesting for me personally until Terry quit and they were searching for ‘that guy’ to take his place. Then I started to check out the records.’ The immediate respect between the group and young singer was mutual. ‘From the first time the guy walked in the door, we could just tell he had this aura,’ Brown told Livewire. ‘There was testosterone just fucking flying. When he came in the fold we rehearsed in Dime’s mom’s front living room with amps on twelve and there it was.’
The singer also recalls that moment when he was accepted by his new bandmates. ‘The first day I met the guys we ended up back at Dime and Vinnie’s house, when they lived with their mom. We listened to some new demos that they were doing and it was pretty obvious that it was very, very aggressive compared to the other records. So people might look at the Power Metal record and snicker under their breath but I pretty much defy any guitar player out there to this day to play the Power Metal riff correctly and with as much vigor as Dime. It’s an insane riff, man. But either way, we had a conversation that first night about the direction we were going in and what they were looking for. And they were all aboard the heavy metal express and the idea of moving in a heavier direction.’
A year earlier Darrell – who by this point was known professionally as Diamond Darrell – and Vinnie Paul had made the acquaintance of Marc Ferrari, lead guitarist of Los Angeles-based hair metallers Keel, who had arrived in Texas to promote their second album The Right to Rock. The brothers had given him tapes of their first two records and he immediately sensed the potential, despite the crude production and lack of direction.
‘I started working with Pantera back in 1985. They came out to a Keel show in Texas and it was evident back then just how talented these guys were,’ recalled Ferrari in an interview with Sleaze Roxx. ‘They recorded the song Proud to Be Loud which was originally intended for Keel. I went down there to produce the vocal on that track and I wound up playing rhythm guitar on that and also lead on We’ll Meet Again, which is also on the record. I happen to be lucky to have cross paths with those guys. Like I said, even then you knew great things were to come for them.’
Ferrari soon became close friends with the band and often partied with them, while also attempting to bring them to the attention of the metal press, eventually suggesting the group to Gold Mountain Records, who had signed Keel in 1984. Yet creative differences between the foursome and label became an immediate issue, with the executives insisting that Pantera try to re-brand themselves as a group similar to Poison, Bon Jovi and the countless other hair metal bands that were earning Platinum status during this time. Despite the deal falling apart Ferrari agreed to help in any way he could and offered to produce their next album Power Metal.
‘Thrash metal was the big thing at the time, with bands like Anthrax, Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer all releasing killer thrash metal records in ’86 and ’87 and it seemed that if you didn’t have some kind of thrash element to your songs you were going to be left behind,’ Brown would later explain in regards to the new direction that Pantera would take following the release of I Am the Night. ‘As close-minded as the Abbott brothers were they listened to the stuff that Phil put on in the vehicle and it would make a really big impact. They had no choice anyway. When we were driving Phil was always in the front seat being the DJ and so bands like Voivod, Venom, Soundgarden and a lot of Mercyful Fate – that kind of stuff – appeared on our radar and definitely influenced how we viewed our own sound, even if it only registered on a subliminal level.’
Dimebag and I would listen to Hell Awaits and he started to get it
One important element that would inspire the heavier sound than the band would take would be Anselmo’s obsession with Slayer and meeting guitarist Kerry King. ‘Kerry would call all the time and when he would have downtime, off time from the road, he would fly in and come hang out with us and this was around the time where I was beating my head against the wall desperately trying to turn the guys in Pantera on to heavier music and Slayer was the paramount band,’ Anselmo told Talking Metal. ‘I was saying please give them a chance and sure enough Dimebag and I would listen to Hell Awaits and he started to get it and feel it…I positively know that Dimebag and Kerry King sitting down with each other opened up Dimebag’s eyes and really eventually the rest of the guys’ eyes to the power of the thrash rift and the magic of it and really influenced us to push our own music over the edge and all props to Kerry King there.’
The material that would be recorded during these sessions at Pantego Studio in Texas had already been written before Anselmo had joined Pantera and so Glaze’s influence could still be felt after his departure. Once again Jerry Abbott was on hand to help, working as the engineer alongside Vinnie, while Ferrari oversaw the production aspect, adding a more developed and professional sound compared to the band’s earlier releases. While the group had distanced themselves from their roots they had yet to fully realise their potential and so the songwriting and performing was somewhat reminiscent of Judas Priest, while elements of Queensrÿche, who had recently released their acclaimed concept album, Operation: Mindcrime, could also be felt.
Another clear influence was W.A.S.P., particularly on the track Hard Ride, which opened with a guitar riff somewhat reminiscent of Wild Child, the opening number from W.A.S.P.‘s 1985 classic The Last Command. As a show of appreciation for all of Ferrari’s help, both inside the studio and as a friend, the band agreed to include one of his songs, Proud to be Loud, which he had written during the sessions for Keel‘s self-titled fourth album but had not been included on the final release. Despite the comparisons made to hair metal due to the band’s image the music on Power Metal the inspiration of thrash was undeniable, most notably the title track which felt closer to the sound of Anthrax than Mötley Crüe.
‘Our first album with Phil on vocals and although a lot of people like to say that we were playing a glam-style of music, I think that’s a total misconception,’ stated Brown in his memoir Official Truth, 101 Proof. ‘Although the image we portrayed may have looked like other hair bands the music we were playing was much heavier and showed more of a thrash metal influence from bands like Slayer and Metallica. It was still funded by us – we paid for all the studio time at Pantego Studio produced by the old man. We all felt this need to move our career up to the next step because we were still selling records and merchandise from the back of the car, which was very DIY non-professional.’
While in later years the album would be re-evaluated by fans at the time of its release the impact of Power Metal was inconsequential and did little to further the band’s success. In truth 1988 was a year dominated by a succession of high profile rock releases that would include albums from the likes of Iron Maiden, Poison and Metallica, although the year would ultimately belong to two artists…Bon Jovi would release their multi-platinum New Jersey, while Guns N’ Roses would ride on the wave of success of their debut album Appetite for Destruction with a succession of hit singles that would include their signature tune Sweet Child o’ Mine.
Despite the media’s focus on Pantera‘s nineties output, in recent years members have been asked about the possibility of Power Metal receiving a remastered and expanded re-release. ‘Honestly if people got passed the image and what not of the bar band hair bullshit that was going on in the late 80s you would pretty much realise that it’s a pretty solid metal record all around in the vein of Judas Priest and really Dimebag, some of the riffs on that record are brutal and I say to any guitar player out there good fucking luck trying to play those riffs,’ Anselmo told Metal-Rules. During a conversation with Billboard the frontman also discussed the band’s approach to recording, ‘All those guys were insane perfectionists. You gotta remember those were the days of actual tape. There was no Pro Tools or anything like that. So them being very meticulous in the studio could be almost maddening to a certain degree.’
Power Metal would mark not only Pantera‘s last hair metal record but also their final album on an independent label. The following year they were finally ‘discovered’ and signed to Atco Records, a division of the Atlantic Recording Corporation and in 1990 their first true classic album Cowboys from Hell was released. As the band gained momentum and enjoyed both commercial and critical success they tried to distance themselves from their hair metal beginnings, with Power Metal often disregarded as an inferior earlier offering and none of its songs appearing on any subsequent compilations. ‘Power Metal is much heavier than anything we’d done before,’ stated Brown when looking back on the album over two decades later. ‘The record would go on to sell a hard-to-ignore forty-thousand copies on Metal Magic Records – our own independent label and it was no surprise when the major labels started looking closely after that.’ Two years later Pantera would become overnight metal sensations yet it would take many years before fans would return to Power Metal and rediscover its raw-yet-undeniable charm.