I’ve wanted to write this for years. You’ve probably been arguing with your friends over the content of similar lists for just as long. But doing a Top 10 never seemed appropriate while Pantera was still a going concern and releasing albums strong enough to trouble the structural integrity of any previously compiled, ‘definitive’ catalog of the band’s shining moments. Even when the boys called it quits, I fully expected the band to reform within a few years. It just felt like the musical chemistry of these four men was something you simply couldn’t replicate with other musicians, no matter how talented: proof that the whole, on rare occasions, could indeed be greater than the sum of its parts. But that won’t happen now. It’s incredibly sad that the brutal, senseless murder of guitarist Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott (1966-2004) is what has allowed us to mark the end of Pantera’s original output. But let’s set aside the tragic circumstances of Dimebag’s death, and celebrate the legacy of music he left behind instead. This is a Top 10 list. Blistering.com’s writing staff voted on the songs; I wrote the reviews up. Hopefully, this list will put a smile on your face. I was definitely smiling when I wrote it (when I wasn’t furiously headbanging along to the tunes). Enjoy. And if you find yourself wondering why we didn’t include your favourite Pantera song, don’t hesitate to send us feedback. If rules are made to be broken, then a humble Top 10 list can certainly withstand a little verbal abuse. -Jay Rajiva
1. ‘Strength Beyond Strength’ Album: Far Beyond Driven (Atlantic ‘94) Sample Lyric: “You’re working / For perfect bodies, perfect minds, perfect neighbours / But I’m helping / To legalize dope on your pristine streets and I’m making a fortune.”
This is it, a combustible whitehot lead shot to the guts, a bloody swift kickstart to Pantera’s difficult third album, Dimebag mirthlessly offering a tiny second on the power tool’s ‘low’ setting before the woodchips start to fly and the band explodes in beloved metal double-time. Unlike most Pantera track-ones, there is no buildup, no pause to let yer head get accustomed to this particular number’s headbanging cadence, only frantic, malignant, jugulating rhythm, Phil breathlessly bordering on hysteria as he sketches a manifesto for the new self-empowered satanist: equal parts drug-dealer, derelict and drugged-out anarchist, “bone, brain and cock” mowing down all who stand in his path. After three feverish choruses, the bottom drops out on our heroic scumbag, the boys slowing it down to a death march as Phil indicts enfeebled America and its spineless, supine president (that was Clinton in ‘94, kids). Shortly thereafter, Dime weighs in with a mocking little Crimsonian solo, no artful noodling, just the concentrated dregs at the bottom of the beer barrel, screech served on the sly after hours, a pint-sized portion of degeneracy before the chorus theme returns for one last punishing reprise. In retrospect, ‘Strength Beyond Strength’ was both the perfect anthem for the new ‘90s headbanger and the perfect way to set up any anthem that followed, its placement on Far Beyond Driven a straight tequila shot sans chaser, its logic a seductive mixture of Bacchanalian decadence and a bodybuilder’s unblinking tunnel vision, Phil exuding self-confidence and venomous contempt on the opening track of an album that would give any of us ample reason to do the same.
2. ‘Mouth For War’ Album: Vulgar Display Of Power (Atlantic ‘92) Sample Lyric: “Like a knife into flesh / After life is to death / Pulling and punching the rest of duration / No one can piss on this determination.”
Cut from more traditionally Pantera cloth, ‘Mouth For War’ opens with a percussive, slyly syncopated chord progression, the band holding its payoffs with tight fists, waiting carefully to discharge their deadly payload: an intro/chorus riff that vocalizes a new language of sadistic intent, a riff that speaks as much to Dimebag’s drill-like tone and incisive phrasing as it does to its constituent notes. This is the sound of men sawing, hacking and burning away the detritus of a previous generation’s hammed-up vanity projects, men spit-polishing the studded chrome on this gleaming new itch of a model for the ‘90s metal songwriter, a model the boys themselves would later revisit on ‘Slaughtered’ (verse/bridge) and ‘Drag The Waters’ (chorus). Yet the real toy surprise doesn’t come until 3:05: a nasty, tritonic upkick in tempo that throws quick, biting left hooks in a small, airless space, Phil barking on the heels of Dimebag’s proto-black contraptions, before our pugilist scores the TKO with a staccato, hardcore-flecked uppercut. Summation: ‘Mouth For War’ reaches back to early thrash for invention and eyebrow-raising malevolence, a startling redefinition of parameters that, in the tradition of Metallica’s ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ and Slayer’s ‘Angel Of Death’, formulated a whole new grammar and syntax of noise for a new generation of practitioners even as it became abundantly clear to the rest of us that this language was going to remain theirs and theirs alone.
3. ‘Primal Concrete Sledge’ Album: Cowboys From Hell (Atlantic ‘90) Sample Lyric: “I won’t take stock in a withered man / I am reaching into you / I’ll make you understand.”
Given its brevity (2:13) and placement on the album (track two, following the title track), ‘Primal Concrete Sledge’ perhaps lacks the physical and contextual tools to serve as a full-blown mission statement for Pantera’s major-label Atlantic debut; nonetheless, it does signal the gestation of a malicious new method of destruction for the band, above and beyond the glam metal of yesteryear. There is a laser-like focus evident here, all four men frantically hammering white-hot strips of steel into cruel new weapons, never really raising their heads long enough to indulge in any substantial musical diversions. Dimebag is still in the process of crafting an identity on guitar, his sound gated but lacking a bit of heft on the bottom end, his phrasing recalling Slayer on the two distinctly thrashy riffs that check in 1:04; the band also seems unsure of how much they should borrow from speed-metal (the solo is more a brief taste of shred than a real lead). For the verse, Phil offers a stuttering rap that charts his soon-to-be-standard narrative trajectory of discovering self-empowerment on the social margins, before roaring through a chorus the impact of which is only slightly lessened by some hilarious forced rhyming (what exactly is a “pro-devoted pledge”, and can you deliver one while riding a sledge?). But the secret strength of ‘Primal Concrete Sledge’ is Vinnie Paul, who, in his deployment of different snare-and-tom combo patterns, is already establishing himself in the metal-drumming aristocracy, his ingenuity and judicious use of power locking in with brother Darrell to fuel the song’s pounding progress. Exciting as a self-contained song entity, but even more exciting as a harbinger of things to come.
4. ‘Walk’ Album: Vulgar Display Of Power (Atlantic ‘92) Sample Lyric: “Be yourself / By yourself / Stay away from me.”
Kind of frightening, really, to imagine how close the Bud-light-drinking frathouse element whom Pantera accidentally courted with ‘Walk’ were to becoming the band’s main fanbase. A few more easily digestible anthems and a few less throat-scraping excursions into speed-metal territory and this alternate reality (shudder) might have come to pass. But ‘Walk’, strangely enough, is at once the ‘hit single’ of an album morbidly bereft of such lacunae and its own purifying antidote, not so much an anthem as a brake-squealing full stop to your expectations, jutting out gracelessly three tracks in, a song that strips the genre’s skin, flesh and bone to reveal the pumping heart and lungs of the beast, inviting you to throw out everything you know or guess about metal and just focus on lovely, brutish basics. It’s almost a metronome’s 4/4 time with a tight, dry, artless two-note riff to match, plenty of space audible between each bar and hook, while Phil jackboots, struts and swaggers a surprisingly focused and coherent lyric about those backstabbing friends whom he’ll show the door with pleasure. Essentially, ‘Walk’ succeeds by mining the base elements of metal repeatedly and lovingly, basking in the sort of self-evident, mid-tempo swingtime groove that puts a smile on any seasoned headbanger’s face, the smile widening once you realize the whole band is hammering this one out with the same childlike glee. At 3:01, Dime contributes one of his absurdist left-turn solos, really just having a whale of a time abusing his six-string, with splashy blues fills, random bridge noise, fingertapping, vibrato, delay, squealing bends, busting out the full third-and-short playbook of guitar heroics and sounding about twice as cockeyed as normal in contrast to the minimalism exhibited thus far. Eventually, that irresistible riff and chorus thump their way back into brain cells, spinal cords and clenched fists, leaving the song convulsed in death-rattle shakes, Vinnie Paul carefully finishing the hit over a slow, hypnotic, arrogantly sustained fade.
5. ‘Five Minutes Alone’ Album: Far Beyond Driven (Atlantic ‘94) Sample Lyric: “You’ve waged a war of nerves / But you can’t crush the kingdom.”
And here comes the roided-up, short-tempered big brother of ‘Walk’, not so much a new breed as a full-bore mutation of an animal already pretty damn dangerous without genetic manipulation and chemical enhancements. The intro/chorus riff is an embroidery, but an engaging one, Dime cunningly tacking a syncopated accent grave on the tail end of the measure, the boys pausing just long enough between bars to leave yer own head similarly poised between bangs, band and listeners sharing a brief, smirking moment of awareness of the song’s badassery before crashing back in. In verse mode, the game plan mutates substantially, straying from the ‘Walk’ path with a duffel-bag of sharp, stinging riff fragments, more concerned with rhythmic repetition than with (snicker) melody, Phil gripping the sharp edges with increasingly bloody hands. Lyrically, it’s an outing best kept in the shade, another of Phil’s tiresome ‘counter-racism’ charges against an unspecified antagonist, the track really more effective at snapping neck than communicating the (yawn) angst of the displaced white male. But man, those two snaky, head-spinning riffs that appear at 2:52 and 3:02 respectively are worth the price of admission alone, gorgeous metal moments that epitomize the magic of every night anyone has spent screaming, sweating and bleeding in a mosh pit. Dimebag’s solo, when it does come, surprises by being more of a textural gloss than a conventional lead, but it’s precisely the kind of gleaming, sheet-metal layer of factory perfection that works best over Vinnie Paul’s casual, self-reliant groove. The band bows out with the same ‘Walk’ing pimp-swagger, this time bolstered by a multitracked Phil calling and answering his croaking self in tones that articulate not merely the song’s micro-fury, but the whole unsettling aesthetic of its parent album.
6. ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’ Album: The Great Southern Trendkill (Atlantic ‘96) Sample Lyric: “You rob a dead man’s grave / Then flaunt it like you did create.”
Venturing into a slippery bog of experimentation that would eventually alienate a chunk of their original fanbase, Dimebag & co. borrowed from doom’s creepier outer territory to produce an album of schizophrenic song structures, swathed in gunmetal-gray, vocals functioning less as transmitters of lyrical content than as tonal sound sculptures of disembodied, prelinguistic rage. In hindsight, penetrating and transgressive, especially in ‘96, when Metallica and Megadeth were aiming for mainstream radio and even Slayer was moving toward a more nuanced songwriting style (well, Jeff Hanneman was). ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’ thus finds the band aggressively experimenting with the concept of musical collage, the song dial spinning arbitrarily from shrieking speed to brisk chugging and back again, the chorus a bowl of heavily distorted riff soup served in traditional Pantera style, while Phil contorts his vocal into even more disturbing paroxysms, hunching over and practically vomiting the words in involuntary heaves. At 1:54, though, this bizarre emetic abruptly disappears, never to return, as the band breaks down into a slow, relaxed groove, over which Dimebag lays down what may be his most underrated solo in the Pantera canon, working over every square inch of song space with ruthless aplomb, still bending and double-stopping his way into next week as the song perversely trails away without tying up its loose ends. An intriguing choice for a title track, given its idiosyncratic structure and compact frame (3:47), but strangely apposite as a symbol of the uncomfortable space of aggression that was increasingly coming to define Pantera’s ambitions and aesthetic sensibility.
7. ‘This Love’ Album: Vulgar Display Of Power (Atlantic ‘92) Sample Lyric: “I’d kill myself for you / I’d kill you for myself.”
Something of a relic from a bygone era, this one, a holdover in spirit from the band’s glam days: at times soulful, at times wistful, at times all those pretty words that on first read might sound all wrong within the band’s rapidly hardening body politic. But ‘This Love’ is crafty in presenting its nonmetallic components, never driving the hardcore metalhead away, but still exiling all things base and bestial from two uneasily sweet verses and bridges in which Phil croons (yes, croons) for his one-love-gone-wrong, his eternal paramour from which he must, for reasons known only to the Ronnie James Dios of the world, remain separated. That infamous chorus, exuberant like a gang-vocal singalong, just compresses nerves all over your body, its snarling call and response as unrelenting as the shuddering strikes of a battering-ram. Below the song’s conventional top half, there are many treats to be found: two different but equally nifty riff structures that tailgate the later choruses; a slow, grinding, delicious musical rumination on the aforementioned failed relationship; and an unexpected reprise of the main melody over which Dimebag provides the perfect noodling, bluesy, guitar-hero solo. But all these elements, within a generous 6:32 frame, are woven seamlessly into the song’s fabric, each new, repeated or embellished melodic motif dovetailing nicely, until Dimebag offers a smattering of chewy, delay-drenched licks over bare clean guitar to shut out the light. Essentially, a power ballad that shatters existing definitions of the term, persuasive, opportunistic and carnivorous, epic within its stated parameters, yet trim like a standard rocker: a metal predator lurking in the sheepfold.
8. ‘Slaughtered’ Album: Far Beyond Driven (Atlantic ‘94) Sample Lyric: “Brainwashed by me / Myself influence I / Bird-brained world-saver / A fake god rests dead inside you.”
A deep track on a difficult album, ‘Slaughtered’ is, to my mind, the point when your lightweight headbanger hits the ‘stop’ button on his chosen slab of music-playing technology, his ears no longer able to tolerate this acerbic buzzsaw of a sound, the band not helping matters with that nagging, chafing intro riff. The evidence of evolution isn’t structural so much as textural, Dimebag not really adding anything new, content-wise, to the metal vocabulary, but still squeezing his parched, vicious guitar tone through a thimble-size aperture of Terry Date production, making each power chord sting like sand shots to the eyes, expertly stacking his constructions over a stop-start Vinnie Paul groove. The other instigator is Phil, who wraps up his dry-lung rodomontade in a curious hybrid black-death vocal cloak, his low-end inflections sounding more bestial than human, forcing you to the disturbed realization that ‘Slaughtered’ is a winner not because of complex song structures or melodic choruses, but through the shimmering purity of its dissonance: a polemic rather than a conventional song, the album’s heart punch that sends unprepared souls running for the door.
9. War Nerve Album: The Great Southern Trendkill (Atlantic ‘96) Sample Lyric: “All the money in the world couldn’t buy me a second of trust or one ounce of faith in anything you’re about / Fuck you all.”
In keeping with the general experimental theme of its parent album, ‘War Nerve’ sews together wildly mismatched body parts to form the body of a metallic Frankenstein, skin grafts gleaming under cold white lights, the whole monstrous creation disfigured by the band’s gleeful surgeries. Time signatures vary determinedly: a skipping, snare-heavy verse, replete with a double-tracked Phil lambasting the press from both speakers, a refreshingly stock 2x4 riff that provides nice ballast to all the aggro discomfort around it, and a handful of progressions without clearly stated purposes, but which work precisely through the apparent carelessness of their placement. The ‘chorus’, really just a slow, dizzying interlude that allows Phil to continue his media attack without rhyme, meter or melody, is less a call to action than the inevitable collapse of the self-proclaimed übermensch, exhausted by his own fevered declarations, huddled with chattering teeth and trembling hands next to the toilet bowl. All told, ‘War Nerve’ fascinates because of the uncanny way its deployment of all the conventional metal manoeuvres parallels the perceptible degeneration of the narrator: drug-induced delusions of omnipotence, bursts of violence, inexplicable anger, adrenaline surges that give way to bleak depressive crashes, creating the strong impression that our anti-hero is barely able to survive within the very structures he claims to venerate.
10. Drag The Waters Album: The Great Southern Trendkill (Atlantic ‘96) Sample Lyric: “Your father is rich, he’s the judge, he’s the man / He’s the God that got your sentence reduced.”
It took me a fairly long time to appreciate ‘Drag The Waters’, mainly because on first listen, so much of its strength appeared to derive from earlier songs in the Pantera canon such as ‘Mouth For War’ and ‘I’m Broken’, the immediate or direct ancestors of this particular iteration of social corruption and decay. But the kicker, the payoff, the game-winning fade-away shot from the three-point line, is the way the band unhurriedly allows the track to unfold, not precisely advocating back-to-basics songwriting, but reminding all headbangers great and small to stop and smell the flowers once in a while. Dime really just gouges and chokes that chorus riff for all it’s worth, and it’s a beautiful thing to hear, almost a pure distillation of metal’s blues-based protomatter, recalling early Sabbath in patient, no-frills execution, and within the context of the album, a welcome respite from all the brilliantly unnerving contortionism. Ultimately, ‘Drag The Waters’ is a song that rests on a foundation of thick, brick-heavy bombast, the band peeling away your pretense, artful dodging, and professed veneration for the most unlistenable Emperor album you own to reveal your secret appreciation of a simple, well-played, relentlessly repeated metal riff. Go ahead and enjoy, you closet purist, and rock out without guilt or shame.