Cowboys From Hell
Atco Records, 1990
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/01/1998
I remember the first time I heard Pantera; I happened to get my hands on a three-song promo disc from their then-new release Cowboys From Hell while I was in college radio. The energy of these songs blew me away (at this time, I was a "recovering" headbanger, having just discovered the wonders of alternative, blues and reggae); this was a breath of fresh air compared to some of the metal I had heard in my life.
Eight years after its release, Cowboys From Hell still features some great music, but it also shows a band very much in the process of discovering who they were. The uncertainty shows more often than I'd like to hear, something that ends up diminishing the power of the album.
Vocalist Phillip Anselmo often sounds like he's pulling out his vocal chords with a weed-whacker, happily scream-singing the lyrics. However, he shows on more than one occasion on the album that he knows how to sing properly, and delivers the goods almost consistently. Bassist Rex and drummer Vinnie Paul both provide a solid rhythm backbone to the band. This leaves Diamond Darrell, a guitarist who doesn't often show the flash a lead player should, but also doesn't seem to often display the chops a rhythm guitarist needs. Far too often, Darrell's rhythm lines seem to be single-string progressions; the times he does choose to throw in a power chord or three, his rhythm lines noticably improve. (For that matter, his solos are much better on the second half of the album.)
The songs themselves aren't half bad, though it does seem near the end like Pantera is padding the album out with... well, "fluff" isn't quite the word for metal, but it will have to do. Songs like the title track, "Psycho Holiday," "Cemetery Gates" and "Primal Concrete Sledge" all portray Pantera as one of the most intense bands to hit the scene in a long time - even in the gentler, acoustic moments of the opening portion of "Cemetery Gates".
And although the overall musicianship improves on cuts like "Shattered," "Medicine Man" and "Message In Blood," the second part of the album features the most lackluster songwriting in the bunch. To put it bluntly, some of it tends to bore me - I mean, how often can one throw the double bass and distortion-laden E-chord down without things becoming a bit stale?
In retrospect, this is indeed a shame, because Cowboys From Hell is actually a much better album than it turned out to be. Even something as simple as a shuffling of the tracks on this album could have improved things noticeably. (Following "Clash With Reality" up with "Domination" or "Psycho Holiday" would have been a natural progression.)
But the overall weakness turns out to be Pantera itself, a band that was still growing into the role of threatening headbangers. (It is my understanding from the metal newsgroups that Pantera once was - yeech - a glam band, though I have yet to hear or see any of these early works.) Darrell's apparent insecurity over rhythm tracks is eventually conquered, but is it too late by that time? Anselmo doesn't always seem to know how he wants to deliver his vocals (though his best performance is on "Shattered"). All of this adds up to a tentative release.
There still is a lot to recommend off of Cowboys From Hell, but their glory days still hadn't arrived. In fact, they proved that they had a long way to go before they would reach their masterpiece.