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Pantera: far beyond driven, still drilling heads after 20 years


On March 22nd, 1994, Pantera released their seventh album and changed the history of metal forever through the primal yells and hardcore rhythm of “Strength Beyond Strength”, the drill-like riffs of “Becoming”, and the military march of “5 Minutes Alone”. True, the band had shed their glam finery at the start of the decade, and the music had clearly become harder after the arrival of Phil Anselmo. The fifth album, Cowboys From Hell, released in 1990, was the first true classic Pantera record – and two years later, Vulgar Display Of Power pushed things even further, straight in the face of the audience.

By 1992, Pantera already had their fundamental album. Regarding Vulgar Display Of Power, Entertainment Weekly even stated that it was probably “one of the most satisfying heavy metal albums since the glory days of Metallica in the 80s”. All the band lacked at the time to match the positive reviews was a larger audience, even if they’d already begun conquering the charts: Cowboys landed them a spot on the Billboard 200 in the US for a week, while Vulgar Display… made it to the Top 50 during the sixteen weeks it spent in the charts. However, they’d not quite reached the summit yet.

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Far Beyond Driven is a brutal album that can be considered today as having completed the foundation of modern metal. It was the one record that made bestial yells and killer groovy drums accessible, and that turned the late and deeply lamented Dimebag Darrell’s thick, crunching, almost suffocating riffs, borrowed from thrash and hardcore, into the stuff of legend. Pantera’s American power metal took on entirely new, hard-line, extreme proportions. Ah, the flying start of “Strength Beyond Strength”! That can be counted as a real punch in the face of the listener, who certainly wasn’t prepared to that despite the band’s history. (Barely two years later, the band will go back to brutal, unexpected opening uppercuts with The Great Southern Trendkill.) That’s where today’s Lamb of Gods and Devildrivers stem from; metal with balls has now become banal, sometimes even caricatured, but in 1994, Pantera took the world by surprise.

On March 4th, when we met legendary drummer Vinnie Paul in Paris, where he was promoting Blood For Blood, Hellyeah’s latest album (the full interview will follow soon), we asked him was drove the band to create such an album, which pushed rage further than any band had ever taken it before:

“Well, we made this pretty amazing album called Vulgar Display Of Power, that was like a pretty high mountain, and when we finished touring for this album, we knew that the only way we were going to please the fans was to build a mountain that was even higher. It was a lot of work. We came up with the title before it started, Far Beyond Driven, and we really pushed each other to another level, to complete extremities on every level. After the succes of Vulgar and all the touring we did, people thought that we were going to go in a more commercial direction, maybe do a black album kind of thing like Metallica did – which is an amazing record but it was a pretty big deviation from what they’d done in the past. But we wanted to go to the opposite direction, we wanted to make a record for our fuckin’ fans, we weren’t worried about the record company selling ten million records. We just wanted to make the most brutal, in your face record for the live shows we possibily could make. And it was the first true heavy metal record to debut at number one on Billboard, it was huge. It was 312 tour dates in one year, which was nearly the whole year being on tour and playing in front of the most rabid fans in the world. That’s pretty amazing times.”

Pantera became kings on the mountain, with apologies to those who, at the time, didn’t consider this album to be as important as its two predecessors. But history says otherwise, and the record’s impact is undeniable. Granted, it had to compete for its spot in the charts with Soundgarden’s Superunknown, released the same month, which was riding the grunge wave before its general collapse a few weeks later. But the Texans had managed to place a truly extreme album (probably their most extreme, actually) at a high spot in a reference chart like the Billboard, and no one would ever top that achievement. In retrospect, did they expect such incredible success? Vinnie Paul answers:

“I think we expected it to be in the top five but for a band that didn’t have any radio play, no MTV, no mainstream media coverage, to hit number one, that was a tribute to our fans. They went out to buy 200 000 units the first week it came out and kocked out Bonnie Raitt, Ace Of Base, all these huge pop bands that were on at the time. And then Billboard Magazine came out saying: « Pantera, over night sensation ». We were like : « Bullshit, man! » We played every fuckin’ place on the face of this earth over the past four years, we build the most crazed fan base in the world, and that’s how we got a number one record, not becasue of your magazine or the TV or the radio, but because of the fans. The fans spoke. That was a huge accomplishment.”

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One of the surprises of the album is the now famous cover of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan”. The song was one of the least known from the Birmingham quartet, but placed as it was after 52 minutes of brutal aggression, it was a soothing balm on raw wounds. Even if the presence of this surprising cover was, in part, a combination of circumstances, it underlined the originality and the unique cachet of Far Beyond Driven. Because he was aware that having such a song on the record was surprising, even provocative, Phil Anselmo wrote in the booklet: “This is a Black Sabbath song off of the Paranoid album. So don’t freak out on us. We did the song because we wanted to. It has nothing to do with the integrity of our direction. It’s a tripped out song. We think you’ll dig it. If you don’t, don’t fucking listen to it. Thanks. On behalf of the rest of Pantera, Phil Anselmo ’94.” Vinnie Paul explains where the idea for the cover and the note from Phil Anselmo came from:

“We actually recorded that song for a soundtrack called Nativity In Black and it was the first song we actually recorded for Far Driven Beyond. Because we knew we were going to do it, we didn’t want to be distracted by this mellow song we were going to do in the middle or anything. So, we did it first to get it out of the way. And then, the two record companies, our record company and the label that was putting out Nativity In Black, they couldn’t find an agreement, so it got left off the record. We were like « man, that sucks! », because there was a lot of thought that went into it, we wanted to make a cover of a Black Sabbath song that nobody would have ever dreamed of covering. Still to this day people think it’s a fuckin’ Pantera song! I mean, so many people don’t realise it’s just a Sabbath deep cut. I didn’t feel it was necessary to put the liner note in there but it was something Phil felt like, from an integrity stand point, that maybe people might think, with it being the last song, that it might be a new direction we would take on the future. It’s just one of those things that says: « hey, if you’re just fuckin’ into kicking ass and beating your head against the wall, well, don’t listen to it! But if you’re ready to unwind, smoke your joint, after having listened to this whole fuckin’ brutal piece of music then that’s cool too! » I think that was really the point of it.”

In the end, the band recorded two other Black Sabbath covers for the two sequels to the Nativitiy In Black compilation: “Electric Funeral” in 2000 and “Hole In The Sky” in 2003.

But what could have set people talking, had it not been for the label’s quick reaction, was the cover art that was first intended for this album (see above). The audience has long since adopted the blue skull run through by a drill, but Far Beyond Driven was originally supposed to feature the type of artwork more often associated with underground extreme metal bands. Its risqué side was even reminiscent of the dubious cover art for Type O Negative’s The Origin of Feces, released in 1992 (coincidentally, this album also featured a Black Sabbath cover, and its original artwork didn’t stay long on the shop shelves). This is the story of this artwork as told by Vinnie Paul:

“It’s pretty simple, I mean, the label had hired this guy named Dean Karr, who’s known for extreme artworks and photography, to do the album. And he brought us his book with a bunch of his works that he had already done, we were going through it and the minute we saw that, we said « that’s the fuckin’ album cover, man! Metal up your ass, that fuckin’ says it! » I mean, fucked by a drill, this is fuckin’ serious! the label was cool with it, they said « yeah, that fuckin’ awesome. It goes along with the music, some of the most extreme music in the world, etc. » And about two or three days later, they came back to us and said: « we can’t use this cover, it’s not gonna work. » We were like: « What do you mean? You already approved it! It’s done, it’s the album cover! » And they were like « Nah, we can’t get this on Wallmart, we can’t get this on major retails, we can’t do anything with it… » We were pretty pissed off about it. It was not a happy moment when it happened. And they said: « let’s get Dean back over here and see if he can come up with something else. » So Dean put together the skull with the drill going into it and when we got to look at it we were like « you know what? It still represents exactly what we’re talking about. The drill in the brain is just as good as the drill in the butt! [Laughs] As long as you let us use that alternate cover, to put it on vinyl and some other things, we’ll agree to change to the blue drill in the head cover ».”

Even if you’re one of those who think Far Beyond Driven isn’t one of Pantera’s most essential albums, it remains a crucial marker in their discography. The record’s monumental success earned the band its membership to the very exclusive club of the biggest metal bands of all time. It was the highest Pantera ever went: the two following albums, The Great Southern Trendkill (1996) and Reinventing The Steel (2000), both ended up on the Billboard’s fourth place, but the rest of Pantera’s story was marked by a long decline, and eventually a break-up – mainly caused by alcohol and substance abuse, due themselves to Anselmo’s health problems, which appeared around 1994. But the band’s influence never waned. How many young metalheads headbanged for the first time on “I’m Broken”? How many young guitarists ruined their fingers trying to reproduce Dimebag’s soli? And how can one deny the influence “Shedding Skin” had on the wave of American “modern metal” bands, which appeared in the second half of the 90s, or the seminal aspect of “Slaughtered” on metalcore?

Twenty years later, the band is honored with an anniversary re-release, out on March 24th. Like the reissue of Vulgar Display Of Power (which came with a live album and a never-heard-before song, “Piss”, the first “new” Pantera song in 12 years), this record doesn’t simply offer a new mastering. This anniversary edition will once again be sold with a live CD, recorded at the Monsters Of Rock festival on June 4th, 1994, called Far Beyond Bootleg – Live From Donington ’94. The title clearly advertises the inherent fault of the recording (a slightly messy, rough-and-ready sound), but you’ll be thrown back into the frantic atmosphere of this now famous marathon tour. Far Beyond Driven hasn’t aged one bit and still has everything it takes to seduce the younger generation of metalheads and to drill heads for the next 20 years.

For even more information on this story, this month’s issue of Hard Rock Mag features a dossier on the 20th anniversary and interviews with Phil Anselmo, Rex Brown and Terry Date (producer of the album), where you can learn more about the conception and recording of Far Beyond Driven. On March 13th, the first part of a report on this album, featuring interviews with Vinnie Paul and Zakk Wylde, was also broadcast on the French TV channel L’Enôrme TV, during the show Metal XS.



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