Thursday, July 21, 2022

Still Spinning: Pantera, "Power Metal"

The announcement of a Pantera “reunion” tour in 2023 leaves me with a lot of mixed feelings. Obviously, a true reunion is impossible, and I really hope that they ultimately spin this tour as a tribute to guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell and drummer Vinnie Paul Abbot rather than a return of the band. While I’m a huge fan of guitarist Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society) and drummer Charlie Benante (Anthrax), they’re not the late Abbot brothers and this is not Pantera. That said, it would be great to hear those songs live again, and, yeah, I’ll probably go. But the announcement brought to mind another record that I’ve meant to write about for a long time, the album that featured the debut of vocalist Phil Anselmo: 1988’s Power Metal:

Normally, when I write in the Still Spinning series, they’re records overlooked by fans – but in this case, it’s a record that was buried by the band itself. In the 1980s, a very young Pantera released four albums. Their first three, Metal Magic (1983), Projects in the Jungle (1984) and I Am the Night (1985) featured vocalist Terry Glaze, with Anselmo joining for the fourth. When Pantera made its major label debut on Atlantic with Cowboys From Hell in 1990, it was with a much heavier and thrashier sound than the previous four records, which ranged from glam rock to Judas Priest-influenced heavy metal. With their newfound following of heavier music fans and the hair metal scene of the 1980s waning, Pantera did their best to cover up and ignore the existence of those first albums.

I remember reading an interview with Dime in a guitar magazine where the writer mentioned in passing that they had six records (at a time that I only knew about Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power), and I had the guy at my local record store (remember those?) scouring all of his sources to try to find them. They had pretty much been erased everywhere, and eventually, I gave it up as a lost cause. Of course, a few years later the internet would come along, and everyone knows you can’t keep a secret there.

Honestly, I’ve always thought it was kind of a shame that they didn’t own up to them and give us some official releases once they were outed on the Web, because some of the stuff on those records is not bad at all. Well, Metal Magic is pretty bad, but Dimebag (then known as “Diamond”) and Vinnie Paul were both in high school when it was released and were really still copying their influences, particularly Kiss, at that point. As the albums progressed, they began to develop a little more edge through I Am the Night, which has far more in common with Priest than most hair metal acts.

Then, Phil Anselmo came onto the scene, and things began to move toward the heavy end of the spectrum more rapidly. On Power Metal, his first album with the band, you can already hear the sound that would shape their Atlantic debut and the groove metal that Pantera would morph into over the years. Anselmo brought a much more aggressive vocal style, though still a far cry from the screams and snarls of Vulgar Display of Power or Far Beyond Driven, and the Abbott brothers wrote music to match it. And, it’s a really a good record.

I’ll start at what is, literally, one of my favorite Pantera tunes, “Hard Ride.” Everyone laughs when I say it, but I mean, legitimately, it’s up there with “Becoming” or “Cowboys From Hell.” The song opens with a cool and dramatic flourish that drops right into a ripping hard-rock riff. Yes, lyrically, it’s a typical 1980s sex song that was supposed to be double entendre, but really wasn’t. But man, that riff gets me every time, and if I’d heard it in 1988, Pantera would have instantly moved near the top of my list of favorite bands. Anselmo’s vocals stay in the cleaner top of his range, but we hear just a little bit of the gruff to come on the chorus. It’s one of Dime’s simpler solos, but he does put his whammy flourish on the end. I can’t help it. This song just gets my head banging.

Now, back to the beginning. Power Metal opens with “Rock the World,” a full-on 1980s metal anthem about raising your fist in the air. It has a big guitar riff and a chest-thumping chorus with Anselmo wailing over backing-gang vocals from the rest of Pantera. Then the riff for the title track blazes out, offering the first glimpse of where the band would head with Cowboys From Hell. It’s a pure 1980s speed-metal track, finding Anselmo delivering his best Rob Halford impression. In places, it’s not very different at all from something like “The Art of Shredding,” which appeared on Pantera’s major label debut, and the riffing toward the end of the song hints at the more groove-oriented thrash that would show its face on Vulgar Display of Power.

The mood changes again on third song “We’ll Meet Again,” a dark rocker. Rather than the riffing of Dime, this song rests on the rhythm section of Vinnie Paul and bassist Rex Brown, then known as “Rex Rocker.” Anselmo delivers the verse in a quiet, deep spoken style that he’d use a rougher version of later on songs like “No Good (Attack the Radical).” The chorus harmonies go fully back into 1980s mode, reminding me a bit of Lillian Axe, and Dime’s Eddie Van Halen influence really shows through on the solo, which is one of the better ones on Power Metal. Honestly, I would have loved to hear what the later version of the band might have done with this song.

The picture of where Pantera was going next really shows through on “Over and Out,” which I believe they continued to play for a while after Cowboys was released. The song is very thrashy with lots of shifts and turns, and once again puts me in mind of something like “The Art of Shredding.” Following what I’d call one of the most recognizably Dime solos on the record, the song breaks out into a full-on Slayer-style thrash run. It’s probably the most aggressive song not only of Power Metal, but of the band’s entire pre-1990 catalog.

That outburst is, interestingly, followed up with a very 1980s hard rocker in “Proud to be Loud,” written by Keel guitarist Marc Ferrari, who also produced it. But, it’s a damned good 1980s rocker. The band continues to walk the balance between the speed and fury of Judas Priest and the excess and partying of ‘80s rock on tracks like “Down Below” and “Death Trap,” and close Power Metal (at least as far as I’m concerned) with the appropriately titled “Burnnn!” As suggested, it is indeed a soaring blazer with plenty of lyrics about following your metal heart and having no regrets.

There is one final song on the record, “P*S*T*88,” but the less said about it, the better. It’s an absolutely inane 1980s sex song with perhaps some of the worst chorus lyrics of the time, and that’s saying something. Perhaps with different subject matter, it wouldn’t be a bad song, as there is some interesting guitar work on it. But, hey, a lot of us were horny young men in 1988, so I’ll forgive it, especially with the strength of the other nine songs on Power Metal.

If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t checked out those early Pantera albums, they’re of course available on YouTube, and worth a listen. Most of them have at least something interesting going on – and Power Metal, well, I’ll put it up there with their best work. My bootleg version sits right alongside their five major-label records in my playlist and is superior to at least a couple of those in my opinion. It’s different than what would come later for sure, but maybe not so different as you’d think.

I’ve always wanted quality releases of those first four records, but for whatever reason, the Abbotts seemed to be embarrassed by them. There’s definitely nothing to be embarrassed by here. If I could have one request for something to help hype up this reunion tribute tour, it would be to finally get official versions of these albums, or at the very least, Power Metal. Will it happen? Probably not, but a guy can dream.

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