It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since this snarling beast first roared out of my speakers.
I was kind of taken by surprise when the announcement of the recent 20th anniversary special edition was made. I was in my second year of college when this record came out, and it made me feel pretty old. There’s nothing that feels old about the music on this album, though. Widely considered the band’s best effort among fans, Vulgar Display of Power marked yet another shift for Pantera.
By now, everyone knows about the band’s 1980s hard-rock material. Though the Pantera camp still seems to want to sweep those four regional independent records under the rug, you can’t hide anything in the age of the Internet. If one person has the record, everybody has it. The truth is, a couple of those albums are not bad at all, but more about them some other time. Suffice it to say that they were vastly different than the edgy thrash of the band’s Atlantic debut Cowboys from Hell, and Vulgar Display of Power brings another shift that’s almost as big.
Though I’m in the much smaller Far Beyond Driven camp in the discussion of Pantera’s best record, I do believe that Vulgar Display of Power was really where the band started to come into its own. The thrash from Cowboys was still present, but there were some new elements. There was a street-smart toughness in the songs, and the groove metal that would become their trademark really started to emerge on this album. Just take a look at the main riff of opening song “Mouth for War.” After a pummeling intro, guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott (who was still credited as Diamond Darrell on this record) launches into a big sliding power chord riff that has more groove than anything on the previous album. Then there’s that swaggering, downtuned riff of “Walk,” which remains one of the band’s biggest hits. It’s now, of course, blasted out of the metal world and into the sports arena anthem realm.
The band still wasn’t above beating listeners’ eardrums mercilessly on tunes like fan favorite “Fucking Hostile,” “Rise” or “By Demons Be Driven,” but it was the nuances that really made this record, well, groove.
“No Good (Attack the Radical)” finds Pantera making a first stab at social commentary lyrically. Musically, the verse falls back on the drums of Vinnie Paul Abbott and bass of Rex Brown, with the vocals delivered in a style that’s probably the closest to a rap as Phil Anselmo has ever or will ever get. The thrash riff of one of my favorite Pantera tunes, “Regular People (Conceit),” shows an almost funky feel, and the talkbox-heavy “Live in a Hole” relies almost entirely on its groove.
After the relative success of the dark ballad “Cemetery Gates” from Cowboys From Hell, Pantera included two on this release – sort of. “This Love” follows a similar theme as “Cemetery Gates” musically, with a dark, brooding verse exploding to an angry chorus. It’s not nearly as creepy or strong, though, and the heavy part can’t compete with that squealing riff from “Cemetery Gates.”
The other, “Hollow,” I wrote off for a long time as their attempt to recreate Metallica’s “One.” It tells the story of a man at the bedside of a close friend who is in a coma, both remembering their times together and trying to cope with the reality of the situation. It’s alternately filled with sadness and rage, and over the years, I’ve come to appreciate it more. I now consider it probably one of the best songs the band ever wrote.
The new 20th anniversary edition adds a new song, the previously unreleased “Piss,” which was largely recycled as “Use My Third Arm” on Far Beyond Driven. There’s also a DVD that includes a five-song live performance from 1992 along with the three official videos from this album – “Mouth for War,” “Walk” and “This Love.” Since I picked up the digital single for “Piss” and have several live performances from that era, the extras weren’t enough to prompt a purchase of the new edition for me, but I’m sure they will be for tons of fans.
Vulgar Display of Power stands the test of time. It sounds as good, as heavy and as fresh today as it did 20 years ago, and it lives on as one of the landmark albums of metal.