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Pantera: Bang Your Head

by Tim McMahan

I’m trying to come up with a unique metaphor to describe Pantera’s music to those who’ve never experienced its full-blown, 3-million decibel onslaught. I certainly don’t want to say it’s "bone-jarring, in-your-face rawk," or "hardcore-tainted thrash with a touch of Metallica and a dab of ‘80s hair-metal." That would be way too cliche.

How about this: Pantera’s music is like listening to chainsaws explode over a civil defense siren. It’s loud, scary and guaranteed to annoy anyone over age 30. Vocalist Philip Anselmo sounds like the psycho killer who makes flesh clothes in Silence of the Lambs. Vinnie Paul’s drums are machine guns heard above the screams of Dimebag Darrell’s ear-splitting guitar massacre. Rex No-last-name’s basslines are the footsteps of god or satan, pounding across a field of burned and broken bodies. There’s nothing pleasant about Pantera music. It represents noise, fear and death... with just a touch of Van Halen thrown in.

"It's heavy metal, man," says Vinnie Paul from backstage of the Worcester Auditorium the day after a sold-out show in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "We grew up on a healthy dose of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Kiss. Our music does have a Black Flag punkish edge to it, but to me, it’s rock and roll."

Paul and the boys have been living on this tour for more than two years now, beginning with the ‘96 release of their CD, The Great Southern Trendkill, and through last summer as part of Ozz-Fest, where they played alongside heroes Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, and hype-master Marilyn Manson and Machinehead. This time, however, they’re headlining the tour that will bring them to Mancuso Hall Feb. 4.

"The fans know to expect nothing but pure, raw musical assault," Paul says through coughs (apparently, he’s fighting off the flu). "We don’t bring any outrageous laser light shows, no exploding dragons or anything like that. We bring the amps, sound and music and jam. That’s what it’s all about."

And, yes, the fans will rock, he says, occasionally too much and too hard. Like during one show last summer in Columbus, Ohio, when Ozzy caught a bug and couldn’t sing. "The fans weren’t too thrilled about that, so they decided to destroy the venue," Paul says. "Ozzy didn’t let anyone know until the last minute that he wasn’t up for the show. When Phil broke the bad news, the fans went crazy."

It’s no surprise, considering the music’s sheer aggressiveness, which begs listeners to vent their primal urges either by banging their heads or each other. Take, for example, moshing, a staple at any Pantera show. For the uninitiated, moshing is a frantic collision of bodies in an area called "the pit," located in front of the stage. From a safe distance, it looks like total chaos, a violent tribal ritual gone mad. The moshing begins two seconds after Pantera is introduced, though Paul says the band doesn’t encourage it.

"The fans are going to do their thing," he says. "We don’t want to see anyone get hurt, we want them to look out for each other. The only people I’ve noticed getting hurt are those who have never done it before, or small people who think they’re going to get in the middle of the pit. It’s just common sense: If you see a bunch of 250-pound guys out there smashing around with each other, it’s not a good idea to run out in the middle of it."

Though their bio says they’ve only been playing together for seven years, Paul and an earlier, glam-metal incarnation of the band recorded their first album way back in 1983, according to the Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock. Pantera shifted gears in 1990 with the recording of Cowboys from Hell and have been on the road playing speed-metal ever since. After years of musical abuse, do they ever get tired of it all?

"We’ve been doing this for so long, it’s a way of life for us," Paul says. "It’s more difficult for me to get comfortable going home and sleeping in my own bed than it is climbing back on the bus."

With sales in the gold-record range for the live album, Pantera can enjoy some notoriety, but it can’t call itself a huge commercial success. Instead, the band thrives on a cult of adoring fans. Paul says the band prefers being on the outside of the industry looking in.

"We’re one of the few bands out there that’s doing it the real way," he says. "Record companies are really getting involved to create these overnight, excessively huge bands, with MTV and radio. I think music in ‘96 and ‘97 has been overly saturated and promoted."

Well said, but perhaps Pantera vocalist Philip Anselmo does a better job of catching the band’s spirit during the introduction of "Suicide Note Pt. 2" on their live album:

"I speak my mind I talk about some s***, I f***in’ tell it like it is. I don’t know if you ever heard about how the philosophy of Pantera goes. We don’t give a flyin’ f*** about the others, all we care about is our own. And all I’ve been saying for f***in’ years to all these stupid f***in’ experts, you know what the experts are telling you? That heavy music is dead in gone, well, y’all do me a favor, y’all turn around and look at each other now, y’all take a look at these motherf***in’ people here, and obviously somebody’s wantin’ to hear something that all these f***in experts are tellin’ you that you ain’t supposed to be hearing. This next song is our hit. You won’t hear this next song anywhere but in your goddamn car, at home or on this f***in’ stage and that’s the way it’s should be."

Yeah! Rawk On!

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This originally appeared in The Reader, January 26 1998

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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