The alternative revolution revving out of the Pacific Northwest didn’t necessarily satisfy the entire hard rock contingent of the day. As the changing of the guard ensued during the final gasp of aerosol-sprayed arena rock glory, there remained an audience no longer fulfilled by the old guard, yet somewhat ambivalent about the new regime of anointed darlings. Weary of contrived camp and bored by trite lyrics depicting dungeons, dragons and painted ladies in the night, we sought something fresh, authentic and unpretentious. We still craved tanker-sized guitar riffs, punctuated by driving double kick drums and glossed with wailing vocals, but with a certain sense of sexiness that was lacking in the still-vital worlds of speed and thrash metal.
Annie was a stunning Florida beauty. Tall and slender, she had piercing green eyes and a sandy brown Nugent-type mane streaked with golden highlights and accented by Bettie Page-style bangs. Possibly a mermaid in a previous life, Annie surfed like a pro, drank like a fish, and cursed like a sailor. In short, she was a hard-core heart-breaker. I remember Annie fondly for a myriad of reasons — particularly her ability to “shank a bitch” in short order, her multi-colored Megadeth tattoo stamped in an “intimate” area and — her unbridled passion for Pantera. To her credit, Annie was the first in my inner sanctum to discover the Texas-birthed troupe when they dropped their major label debut, Cowboys from Hell via Atco Records, 30 years ago this week (July 24, 1990). And it was during our T-Top-less joyride while blasting the newly-released Cowboys cassette when I realized Pantera was the right band with the right record at the right time.
After masquerading as a hair band through a couple of incarnations over a number of years and on several indie releases, Pantera finally found their “groove” with Cowboys from Hell. In fact, along with Are You Experienced, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Appetite for Destruction and Nevermind, it can be argued that Cowboys remains one of rock’s all-time most influential, game-changing big league debuts.
The incendiary guitar style of Dimebag Darrell was enhanced by signature squeals and a trademark tone that rivaled such greats as Jimi, Ritchie, Tony, Ace, Eddie and Slash. Combining unabashed abrasiveness with melodic sweetness, frontman Phil Anselmo proved a powerful and convincing ringleader and storyteller, while Rex Brown held it all down with his brutal, rock-ribbed basslines. And then there was Vinnie Paul. His impeccable, precision drum work throughout Cowboys was heart-stopping and neck-snapping. As a result, countless aspiring drummers suddenly were taping arcades’ worth of quarters to an untold number of kick drum heads in an effort to recreate Paul’s coveted “clicky” metallic sound — a sound that remains as iconic as that of Starr, Moon and Bonham.
But attitude and style only will take a band so far. At the end of the day, if you don’t got songs, you don’t got jack. And it was the songs on Cowboys that separated Pantera from their hard-hitting contemporaries. Produced by celebrated studio vet, Terry Date (Metal Church, Overkill, Dream Theater, Soundgarden), the 12-track set burned from start to finish. The record’s raucous opening title track informed the rock world there was a new “sheriff,” and he was, “taking over this town.” The skull-crushing “Primal Concrete Sledge” and “Psycho Holiday” further fueled the Cowboys fury. Considered by many to be one of the record’s most notable highlights, the monstrous metal ballad, “Cemetery Gates” was brave enough to bust balls while possessing the courage to be melodic. Between Dimebag’s pinched squeals and Anselmo’s passionate screams, this one got ALL the dogs in the hood going ballistic. Finally, if the record-closing, “The Art of Shredding” doesn’t absolutely give ya whiplash, or at the very least, get your blood pumping, you just might be “too metal” for metal.
Pantera seemingly could do no wrong throughout the ‘90s — dominating the global metal scene for a full decade following the release of Cowboys. However, they ultimately would fall victim to intra-band conflict. The incessant infighting led to the band’s official breakup in 2003. Sadly, the tragic 2004 onstage assassination of Dimebag Darrell and the untimely 2018 death of Vinnie Paul brought the Pantera story to a cataclysmic conclusion. Yet, the proud Pantera legacy lives on through their impressive catalog. And Cowboys from Hell continues to define what an authentic metal record should be.
Cowboys from Hell Track Listing:
1. Cowboys from Hell (4:07)
2. Primal Concrete Sledge (2:13)
3. Psycho Holiday (5:19)
4. Heresy (4:46)
5. Cemetery Gates (7:02)
6. Domination (5:04)
7. Shattered (3:21)
8. Clash with Reality (5:16)
9. Medicine Man (5:14)
10. Message in Blood (5:10)
11. The Sleep (5:47)
12. The Art of Shredding (4:20)
Run Time: 57:39
Record Label: Atco
Release Date: July 24, 1990