If you ask fans of Pantera what the group's first album was, they'll likely answer Cowboys From Hell, their 1990 release.
Uh, no. Wrong. Despite what even the band apparently would like people to think, Pantera put out four independent releases prior to 1990. The reason these are pushed aside seems to be because the style of music Pantera was playing at the time was nothing like the spine-crunching riffs that Phil Anselmo and crew would come up with in their heyday. (Also, Anselmo didn't join the band until their fourth indie release, Power Metal.)
For the first part of their recorded history, Pantera was fronted by vocalist Terry Glaze, though the core of the group -- guitarist "Diamond" Darrell (as he was then known), bassist Rex and drummer Vinnie Paul -- remained the same. Their debut release, Metal Magic, features ten songs written in a conventional style of hard rock popular at the time, and while interesting to listen to from a historic point of view, is often nothing extraordinary. (For the record: I'm reviewing this from MP3 files, as the original four indie releases are long out of print.)
Even in the early days, one can hear potential greatness in "Diamond" Darrell's guitar work, though his innovative style of soloing was still developing. On tracks like "Rock Out" and "Metal Magic," you can hear the beginnings of the take-no-prisoners style he would become known for.
In a sense, one really can't complain about the style of metal Pantera tackles on Metal Magic. Yes, it's conventional for the genre, but not many bands were taking real chances at this time. Pantera's style on this tape is a mixture of Motley Crue and Dokken (in terms of some of the slower numbers), in itself not an unpleasant mixture.
Complaints? I have a few. First, while Glaze is not the greatest vocalist in metal history, I'd have liked to have podded up his vocals a bit more in the mix. Maybe it's that I'm working from what sound like ancient files, but often his singing doesn't come through as strongly as I'd like it to. Second, while there are many moments to get genuinely excited about on this one, there are equally as many formulatic numbers. Tracks like "Biggest Part Of Me," "Latest Lover" and "I'll Be Alright" fail to stand out as anything other than ordinary.
Yet Metal Magic does rightfully suggest that bigger and better things lay ahead for Pantera. Tracks like "Rock Out," "Widowmaker" and the title track definitely display promise, even for a first effort and by 1983 standards, and are impressive.
Now, maybe listening to this after the events in Columbus, Ohio clouds my judgment -- after all, to say anything negative about "Diamond" / "Dimebag" Darrell is akin to giving the Pope the finger. But I'd like to think that I'd have said the same things about Metal Magic had I been handed the cassette in 1983 - or even last year. The former members of Pantera may not want their fans to remember their "glam" days, but Metal Magic convinces me all the more that the indie albums should be rediscovered.