Heavy metal exploded on both the East and West Coasts in the early 1980’s. Influenced by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, bands like Metallica and Slayer carved a niche in the San Francisco Bay area and released their first demos and full-lengths while the “Armed and Dangerous” Anthrax honed their chops in New York.
Meanwhile, down South in Arlington, Texas, Pantera began architecting its serrated sound in a geographic location primarily known for blues. Anchored by brothers Vinnie and Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott on drums and guitar, respectively, the band’s lineup would change and its style evolve from imitation hair metal to innovative power groove over the next decade. With the recruitment of bassist Rex “Rocker” Brown and vocalist Phil Anselmo, all the pieces fell into place for Pantera’s transformation from spandex-clad copycats into bona fide heavy metal gods in an era when grunge had all but decimated the competition.
Pantera’s story has been told before, with several books and biographies focusing on the band’s acrimonious breakup, Anselmo’s descent into substance abuse, and Dimebag’s shocking murder in December 2004. Brown, long regarded as the group’s neutral “quiet man,” issued a fairly objective tell-all last year.
Now available from Backbeat, Reinventing Metal: The True Story of Pantera and the Tragically Short Life of Dimebag Darrell is the first book to chronicle the band’s history without making touchstones out of Anselmo’s drug problems or Dimebag’s demise. The music—its origins and evolution—form the backbone of author Neil Daniel’s compelling narrative.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews with just about everyone save members of the “classic” lineup, Daniels assembles a gripping retrospect that follows Pantera’s unlikely ascent from the Abbott’s anonymous garage days to their domination of arenas and stadiums around the world in the ‘90s. Previous books on the band are quoted (and quibbled with), anecdotes and insight are culled from magazine and website interviews, and fresh tales are spun straight from the mouths of former Pantera players and associates. At just under 300 pages (with a twelve-page photo insert), the tome is beefy enough for longtime fans and know-it-alls, but concise and streamlined enough for casual listeners and bookworm head-bangers out for a fix (we tore through it over a single weekend).
Daniels returns us to Dallas in the early ‘80s and recounts how goofy teenage brothers Vinnie and Darrell parlayed their love of KISS into a nascent group of their own. Vinnie was a fast learner on drums—but it was Darrell’s alarmingly fast mastery of guitar that turned heads in the early days. Having learned a few chords from his record-producer father, Jerry, the skinny high schooler locked himself in his room and mimicked guitar heroes like Ace Frehley and Eddie Van Halen until he perfected their styles. He was practically a virtuoso by the time he emerged, even if he wouldn’t develop his own voice on the instrument for another couple years.
Using their dad’s studio at Pantego Sound, the brothers cut their teeth on the first of four independent releases that would be treasured later as curiosities: The raw-sounding selections bore earmarks of Darrell’s signature six-string prowess but lacked the sonic muscle that characterized Pantera’s best work. Self-issued albums like Metal Magic and Projects In the Jungle would be “deleted” by the band as archaic novelties whose material showcased precious little beyond the musicians’ growing pains. We hear from original Pantera singers Donnie Hart and Terry Glaze and catch up with ex-bassist Terry Bradford. Daniels also mentions the input of interim singers Dave Peacock and Matt L’Amour, who filled in on several gigs in the late ‘80s.
The band had cultivated a respectable hometown following by 1986 (the year contemporaries like Slayer, Metallica, and Anthrax all cut genre-defining thrash albums), but the chemistry still wasn’t combustive enough to connect with wider audiences. But they discover a new voice in pugnacious New Orleans native Phil Anselmo, who could hit operatic high notes like Judas Priest’s Rob Halford yet snarl like Slayer’s Tom Araya. Their first collaborative effort, Power Metal, contained trace elements of glam rock—but it was also marked by the churning, palm-muted rhythms popularized by James Hetfield and Kerry King. Anselmo’s own love of obscure metal bands further influenced the quartet’s songwriting; the tempestuous front man from the Big Easy lived for the music in a way Hart and Glaze hadn’t.
Part Two (of Three) finds Vinnie, Darrell, Rex, and Phil landing a record deal after being scouted by Atco rep Mark Ross for executive Derek Shulman, who was intrigued after witnessing one of the band’s incendiary shows (Daniels debunks the notion that Hurricane Hugo stranded Ross in Texas, and that the A&R man’s “discovery” was serendipitous). Jettisoning “Eld’n” father Jerry for producer Terry Date (Overkill, Soundgarden), the revamped Pantera recorded a string of cutting-edge LPs that reshaped metal for the masses. The first, Cowboys From Hell, melded the band’s southern roots with skull-crushing rhythms and ear-piercing guitar work in a manner unheard before or since.
View the “Reinventing Metal” book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=x9XA4oFkWoc
Anselmo prompted his cohorts to ditch their spandex in favor of concert-appropriate jeans, cut-off shorts, and T-shirts. Rex dropped his “Rocker” nickname, reverting to “Brown,” while reefer-loving Darrell finally acquiesced to friends calling him “Dimebag” instead of “Diamond.” Daniels doesn’t mince words when hailing Cowboys and its follow-up, Vulgar Display of Power, as watershed moments in the metal vernacular, with songs like “Mouth for War,” “Cemetery Gates,” and “Walk” becoming anthems for a new age. Where Metallica retreated in the face of grunge, opting for a more commercial, accessible sound on its eponymous 1990 disc, Pantera began firing on all cylinders and bludgeoned unsuspecting masses with a brutal new noise whose drum-and-bass foundation actually complemented the scorching guitar work.
The author traces Pantera’s development on subsequent albums and follows them on tour with Quiet Riot, Exodus, and Suicidal Tendencies. He compares and contrasts Pantera’s oeuvre with that of friendly rivals Exhorder and Annihilator (whose Jeff Waters contributes the book’s foreword). We’re made privy to the band’s tour bus antics and backstage high jinks—a majority of which is filmed by Darrell for future VHS release. We go behind-the-scenes as members of Metallica fraternize with the Abbotts, and Anselmo gives singing lessons to Rob Halford—who likewise starts shaving his head for the new millenium. We root for the boys as they sell out show after show at a time when true metal was on the outs (courtesy the flood tide of flannel-clad rockers from Seattle), but we also spot the first signs of trouble: Vinnie gets distracted by strip clubs and booze as Anselmo starts self-medicating for chronic back pain.
Daniels explores how Anselmo’s worsening addictions alienated him from the band. Rather than record with Pantera in Texas, Phil tracks the vocals for 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill at a studio (owned by Trent Reznor) near his Louisiana home. The singer doesn’t respond to phone calls or faxes, exacerbating the distance between the friends, and starts moonlighting in the super-group Down and other side projects (Necrophagia, Superjoint Ritual).
Thankfully, Daniels doesn’t dwell on the bad blood between members after identifying possible sources of the acrimony. Moreover, his book is probably the first to feature Pantera’s road crew and technicians over their girlfriends and wives. Dimebag’s guitar wranglers receive more ink here than his longtime girlfriend, Rita Haney—who became a buffer between the Abbotts and Anselmo in later years. Indeed, some of the book’s meatiest bits arrive vis-à-vis Daniel’s accounting of Dimebag’s pedal board of effects and the roadies who run them, Dime’s custom Dean axes, and the coveted “bumblebee” guitar posthumously gifted to him by Eddie Van Halen. The author gets the inside scoop on Dime’s December 2008 murder at the hands of a crazed gunman at gig in Columbus, Ohio, and its aftermath, and dishes on Anselmo’s recovery and creative rebirth without taking sides in any he-said, she-said shenanigans.
Reinventing Metal is a solid overview of one of rock’s most influential acts, a tautly-written tome that connects the dots to produce a clearer historical picture of Pantera without dabbling in so many details that newcomers (or head-bangers playing catch-up) get lost. It’s a brisk-but-absorbing read that engrosses as much as it informs—a noble task for any paperback reference.
The book includes a comprehensive discography surveying all Pantera albums, singles, and compilations—along with releases by offshoot bands Down, Superjoint Ritual, Damageplan, etc. (only Brown’s new band, Kill Devil Hill, is missing). Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel offers a fitting tribute to Pantera in his afterword.