Pantera gets a bad rap these days. It’s understandable — their redneck/confederate shtick has made them look ignorant and racist in retrospect, an image that certain former members are not doing a whole lot to improve. Musically speaking, Pantera have influenced entire generations of bands that are fucking terrible, tarnishing their legacy even further. But back in The Day, Pantera were nothing less than gods to us young headbangers; the heaviest thing short of death metal, and certainly a gateway drug to more extreme subgenres. This was never more true than on 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill, in which the band nearly torched their hard-earned commercial success in favor of absolute musical and lyrical aggression.
Coming off the success of 1994’s Far Beyond Driven, Trendkill found the brothers Abbott at what may have been the peak of their powers. Dimebag Darrell is at his most abrasive here, updating his party-metal roots with increasingly dissonant note choices and a fetish for bizarre effects. His lead work is also top-notch, including the bluesy solo on “10s” and the shred clinic that dominates the entire 2nd half of the title track. The highlight, however, might just be “Floods.” Boasting a lengthy, anthemic solo and a gorgeous Eddie Van Halen-inspired outro, “Floods” was a true guitar hero moment in an era that offered very few of them.
It may surprise our younger readers to learn that strip club proprietor and Hellyeah member Vinnie Paul was once one of the tightest, most technical drummers in mainstream metal, but in 1996 he was damn near untouchable. He had an uncanny ability to come up with beats that perfectly complemented his brother’s riffs, and his spotlight parts are now iconic — check out the intro to “13 Steps To Nowhere” if you need proof. Bassist Rex Brown remained mostly inaudible, as he had on the band’s previous 3 records, but he provided the low end that glues the band’s sound together.
Vocalist Philip Anselmo’s work on Trendkill is often terrifying, hinting at the depth of his drug problems and health issues. The frontman who projected immense personal strength on Vulgar Display Of Power is long gone, replaced by a person who is obviously suffering and lashing out at inconsequential targets (he name checks CNN on “War Nerve”). His lyrics are unstructured and irrationally angry, their vague message reinforced by double-tracked screams and baritone spoken word segments. This vocal approach can be heard on every record Anselmo has recorded since Trendkill, to some extent, and it’s devastatingly effective.
As detailed in Brown’s book Official Truth, he and the Abbotts wrote and recorded the instrumental portions of Trendkill in Texas, while Anselmo worked on his parts in his hometown of New Orleans, with little input from them. This process seems to have widened the gap between Anselmo and his more musically conservative bandmates. For instance, I’d bet the band intended for the groovy, cowbell-driven “Drag The Waters” to be somewhat melodic and fun, but Anselmo’s seedy lyrics and corrosive vocals take the song in a different direction entirely.
Recording in New Orleans also allowed for some guest appearances from Anselmo’s circle of friends. Keyboardist Ross Karpelman (Mystick Krewe of Clearlight) provides some chilling soundscapes on “Living Through Me (Hell’s Wrath)” and “Suicide Note Pt. 1,” while Anal Cunt vocalist Seth Putnam trades screams with Anselmo on several tracks. Brown’s book suggests that the band did not think highly of Anselmo’s NOLA buddies, and I doubt they appreciated their presence on the album. Still, the fact that Seth fucking Putnam could appear on a platinum-selling, Billboard-charting album illustrates Pantera‘s popularity at the time.
“Suicide Note Part 1” features acoustic guitar and Anselmo actually singing, offering a brief moment of quiet, while the impending “Part 2” features non-stop effects pedal abuse, culminating in a guitar solo that sounds like a pinball game. “Living Through Me” would be a straightforward thrash track, if not for a Nine Inch Nails-esque ambient section with double-tracked Phil Anselmos whispering in your ears. “The Underground In America” and “Reprise (Sandblasted Skin)” finds the band delivering ridiculously downtuned grooves, as Anselmo issues a verbal death sentence to the bastardized version of punk rock that was in fashion then. In a cruel twist of irony, a new trend — one that borrowed heavily from Anselmo himself — was right around the corner.
The Great Southern Trendkill may not be the best album Pantera made, but it’s easily their heaviest and most experimental, and it represents the logical end of the direction they had been pursuing since Cowboys From Hell. It’s not accessible, it contains no obvious hits, and even the band themselves backtracked from it somewhat on their next album. But taken as a whole, Trendkill is a towering monument to Pantera‘s aggression and stubbornness, and one of the harshest albums to ever enter mainstream consciousness.