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Under the Lights Where Pantera Stands Tall

30 Years of Cowboys From Hell

It’s December 2004. I’m standing in a driveway next to a puddle of my puke. The whiskey isn’t getting along with my stomach. It’s numbing my pain though, so I pour another blacktooth grin and smile. The cement is littered with broken bottles and shattered souls. I hear my friend shout, “Watch it go!” seconds before a roman candle whizzes past my face, singeing my earlobe. Amidst laughter and explosions, Cowboys From Hell blasts through a cheap boombox. I can barely identify the faces through the smoke, but I know I’ll never forget this night or who I’m with. Instead of mourning, we are celebrating the life of a legend the only way we know how: with a ridiculous amount of fireworks, booze, and a metal album that changed the genre. We all have different tastes. Pantera is the one thing we agree on. It’s a brotherhood of metal that will never die.

“Psycho Holiday” becomes the theme song for the night. It defines our thoughts and actions shamelessly to the letter. “Done too much alcohol” is the understatement of the century. Six people I never met show up with more beer. They look like low-life thugs, but after five minutes we bond over our love for groove metal (and cans of Bud). Wife-beater guy is cross-eyed but his pupils grow wide with delight when I bring up Vinnie Paul’s explosive double-bass drumming on “Heresy.” Once the shirtless-guy with tribal tattoos finishes rolling a blunt, he doesn’t shut up about how underrated Dimebag Darrell’s solos are on “Medicine Man.” I concur 100% and it’s not the cocktails talking. Part of me wants to argue that “Floods” from The Great Southern Trendkill is better, but it’s not worth it.

The mood slightly shifts when “Cemetery Gates” plays. We knew this was coming. Some weep. Some just shake their heads. There are bro-hugs throughout the room. We all do a shot. Someone declares it the greatest metal ballad ever. An argument is made for Metallica’s “Fade to Black” and Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home.” The latter receives snickers from the metal elite. I stay out of the debate. I’m drowning in thoughts (and liquor). I suddenly realize I’ve never known who Phil Anselmo is singing about and I’ve never cared. The song is that good. I’m not big on ballads, but it’s top three for sure. Now, unfortunately, I will think of Dimebag when I hear it. It became his song when that madman took him away from us.

A couple of people in the living room push through the sadness by trying to replicate Anselmo’s outrageous falsetto at the end of “Cemetery Gates.” We all agree it’s the only thing that dates the record, but in a good way. The dogs in the kitchen bark hysterically in disagreement. I can’t wait for someone to attempt “Shattered.” I decide it’s much easier (and more fun) to play air guitar on the coffee table. As I shred my invisible axe inches from the ceiling fan, Dime’s screeching notes cry wildly into the night, and we all let out an audible sigh.

In the moment of silence before “Domination,” a friend’s girlfriend asks, “If the Crüe is so bad, why is their poster on the wall?” We chuckle as he explains to her it’s actually Pantera from their glam metal days when Dimebag went by “Diamond” Darrell. “Wow,” she says. “Thank god they got rid of the spandex.”

I receive a round of applause when I swear to the household that Vinnie yells, “Farts stink like a motherf**ker!” at the beginning of “Domination.”

My straight-edge friend sits next to me on the couch and hands me a red Solo cup of water. I’m disappointed it’s not vodka. He explains why “The Art of Shredding” is Pantera’s greatest song because it’s “Punk as f**k” and “You can hear Rex Brown’s bass!” I tell him the bass sounds like robots on motorcycles and we need to get out of the house before The Terminator finds us. As I start to leave the room, the breakdown in the song stops me. I almost snap my neck headbanging like it’s 1990. The room joins me and it’s nothing but hair and flannel and wallet-chains whipping around in pure heavy metal fury for the next two minutes.

After Cowboys From Hell ends, I ask if I can put on my VHS bootleg of Pantera opening for Black Sabbath in Philly, back in 1999. Everyone excitedly approves. They opened with “Domination.” I continuously, drunkenly tell everyone how it was a perfect choice because “They completely DOMINATED the arena!” A random girl takes the cold bottle of Jäger from my hand, replaces it with a glass of water, and walks me outside. Apparently, I need some air. I tell her it feels like I was hit with a “Primal Concrete Sledge.” It feels like Phil is living inside my head. She tells me I probably just need “The Sleep.” I tell her she’s pretty and I ask her if she knows that “Primal” was written in the studio during the end of the Cowboys recording session. Judging by the look on her face, I don’t think she does.

Just as I think I might have a shot with the girl, the cops show up. Bastards! I guess we were too loud for the neighbors. I run to the stereo to throw on Pantera’s cover of “The Badge”, but one of my new thug friends stops me. Luckily, the police never come inside, even when someone yells, “So they can lick my sack!” from the bathroom window. I’ll always giggle when I think about that moment. To this day, I’ve never heard another line like that in metal, and I doubt I ever will. That’s quite the accomplishment. The party fizzled out after being forced to lower the music, but our love for Pantera never has.

It’s 2008, and I’m getting Dimebag inked on my leg. My tattoo artist is asking if I’m okay. I’m so hungover I’m falling asleep. Per my request, “Message in Blood” is pumping through the speakers. Other patrons and artists in the shop are pleased. I hear them share their own Pantera stories. As the ink master drills into my skin, he praises Dimebag’s nasty riffing in the song. I nod in agreement as I stare down at the bloody icon on my calf. Four years later at a metal festival, a very inebriated man sees my tattoo and stops me. He’s teary-eyed and says, “Thank you,” repeatedly. We share a bro-hug and go back to enjoying the metal.

It’s 2020, and a weird mix of sadness and joy comes over me while staring at the cheesy Cowboys From Hell cover. The Abbott brothers on the left are gone forever. In the grand scheme, they were a powerful, short-lived force. They aren’t grinding the axe anymore, but their influence can be heard loud and clear on popular metal bands today, such as Black Breath and Gojira. I listen to Pantera so often that I forget they’re no longer a band, and never can be again. Talk about a “Clash With Reality.”

Thirty years ago, over a flanger-filled guitar loop from hell, Anselmo confidently uttered the words, “We’re taking over this town.” And Pantera did just that. That statement introduced the world to a revolutionary album that is still felt throughout the metal scene today.

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Written by Alan Ritch

Alan is a bearded fella from the United State of Pennsylvania. He enjoys reading comics, petting kittens, and blasting vinyl records. When he’s not taking comfort in those things, he is either researching, proofreading, or writing content for lucky clients. You can bother him on Twitter @RitchWriter.

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