Few bands in the history of metal earn such massive amounts of acclaim and disdain across the broader metal community than Pantera. The Texan legends dominated the mainstream metal scene throughout the ’90s, after reinventing themselves from their questionable glam roots, developing into a testosterone-fueled juggernaut of thrash-based groove metal. Rising to prominence on the back of 1990’s Cowboys From Hell Pantera also alienated listeners that pinned them as too jock-friendly and not kvlt enough. Widespread division aside, for many aspiring metalheads, Pantera were a critical band during an impressionable era and one that was fundamental in my own development into a fully-fledged metal
deviant devotee. Even with a band boasting the confidence and arrogance of Pantera, they must have felt the pressure of following up the monumental Vulgar Display of Power. Expectations were through the fucking roof by the time the band dropped their widely successful Far Beyond Driven album in 1994.
Far Beyond Driven represented Pantera in something of a holding pattern following Vulgar, continuing to reinforce the pillars of their established sound. Despite my lasting fondness for the album, I would rank Far Beyond Driven behind the two preceding albums and its powerhouse follow-up, The Great Southern Trendkill. Yet it remains a stellar example of Pantera‘s signature style and authoritative position in the metal scene at the time. Following the success of Vulgar, an easy option for Pantera to shoot for further mainstream glory would’ve been by increasing accessibility and melody into their sound, Thankfully this wasn’t the case, Far Beyond Driven was the band’s darkest and heaviest album, until follow-up The Great Southern Trendkill arrived a couple of years later. Opener “Strength Beyond Strength” kicks the album into top gear through its belligerent, cutthroat thrash delivery and burly southern grooves, forming a barnstorming, impactful introduction.
Far Beyond Driven is a touch front loaded, exemplified by “Strength Beyond Strength” and the clustered early album placing of the unfuckwithable trio of classic cuts, “Becoming,” “Five Minutes Alone,” and “I’m Broken.” Standards are set high early on, before “Good Friends and a Bottle of Pills” arrives. The less said about this song the better. It proves a rare misstep, even taking into account the second half of the album being not quite as memorable as the powerhouse front end. Second half highlights include, the grinding battery of “Slaughtered,” which brings the heaviness tenfold. Phil Anselmo pushes his vocals into more extreme territory, while the tricky instrumental interplay in the song’s later throes adds to the song’s dynamic structure. The NOLA-esque sludge and corrosive grooves add starch to the underrated “25 Years,” while the brutal “Throes of Rejection” offers up some discordant, thunderous Dimebag riffage and a ripping solo to go with its aggressive attack.
If there is one notable shift musically from Vulgar, it’s evident in the darker tone and greater infiltration of their Sabbathian inspired southern roots. This is well established before their faithful Sabbath cover of “Planet Caravan” closes the album. Questionable morals aside, Phil Anselmo was a formidable vocalist in his prime, lending the band real grit and a darker edge, due to his fondness of extreme metal, personal struggles, and the seedier side of the underground scene. He’s one piece of the puzzle that made Pantera the powerhouse force they were throughout the ’90s, delivering a aggressive, diverse performance in his gruff, signature style. Meanwhile the vice-tight rhythm section of drummer Vinnie Paul and bassist Rex Brown provided the reliably groovy, sturdy foundation for star of the show Dimebag to showcase his incredible arsenal of tricks. Dimebag’s performance is worthy of his reputation as he unloads an abundance of memorable, and occasionally quintessential, riffs, leads, and solos, delivered with his trademark style, flair and innovation.
Describing the music and legacy of Pantera as nostalgic does a disservice to the relevance the band still holds in my life, and the lives of many metalheads. Yes there’s certainly a nostalgia factor, but I still get the urge to spin their albums from time to time, and regardless of how many times I’ve heard them before, Pantera‘s defining four album stretch from Cowboys to Trendkill remain treasured albums in my collection. Far Beyond Driven has its flaws and inconsistencies, yet remains an uncompromising, and occasionally brilliant, snapshot of a band at the height of metal dominance in the mid ’90s, a pounding precursor to the vastly underrated, The Great Southern Trendkill.