The shedding of a cock-rock carapace came at the insistence of singer Phil Anselmo, who joined the band in time for the somewhat transitional Power Metal album of 1988. Although not shy of spandex and hair that posed a fire hazard, in time Anselmo preferred taking to the stage in combat shorts and boots. On one occasion he invited Darrell to his home and played Slayer’s At Dawn They Sleep while the two men smoked a bowl and pondered a new musical direction. As Cowboys From Hell sold well, the tour in support of the record saw Pantera perform to over half a million people at Tushino Airfield in Moscow, on a bill that also included Metallica and AC/DC. Two years later, Vulgar Display Of Power – a release whose title was cribbed from a line in The Exorcist – became their first U.S. Top 50 hit. Within a year of its release, the band had their first gold disc.
“To us, heavy metal had to sound like a machine,” said Vinnie Paul of his band’s sixth album. “The guitar had to have a buzzsaw sound to it, the drums have to have an edge to [them], and [Darrell] and Terry [Date, the record’s producer] spent many hours getting the guitars ‘ass-tight’. My brother was a complete perfectionist.”
But it was the release of Far Beyond Driven in 1994 that stands as Pantera’s most remarkable achievement. Released a month before Kurt Cobain’s suicide in Seattle, and just weeks after Green Day’s Dookie, this was not a golden age for metal. Metallica would not release a new album for a further two years, while Slayer were still six months away from unveiling the underwhelming Divine Intervention. By default, it fell to Pantera to defend the faith. This they did with an album that debuted at Number One on the U.S. Billboard Hot 200 chart, and which remains the most extreme release ever to plant a flag on America’s commercial mountaintop. Far Beyond Driven showcased its authors in a harsh and unrepentant light: ‘I’m helping to legalise dope on your pristine streets and I’m making a fortune,’ sang Phil on Strength Beyond Strength, before adding ‘the president in submission, he holds out his hand on your television, and draws back a stump’. Far Beyond Driven is a nasty piece of work, and also a brilliant one. Despite its abrasiveness – or because of it – its arrival made Pantera the hottest metal band in the world.
“Before we even wrote a note, we went, ‘This album has to be the most over-the-top metal record ever made,’” said Vinnie Paul. “After Vulgar…, everybody expected us to go the Metallica route and put out our ‘Black’ album, [but] we did the opposite. We went more extreme and pushed it to another level.
“The music world thought, ‘Who the fuck is this overnight sensation?’ We went, ‘Fuck, we’ve been on the road four years non-stop, we’ve got the best fans in the world. They’re the ones who made this record Number One.’”