Pantera is rightfully considered one of the heaviest metal bands of all-time. For years, we were thrilled by Phil Anselmo’s aggressive vocals and Dimebag Darrell’s mind-blowing riffs. But what some listeners may not know is that Pantera used to sound a lot different. We generally view 1990’s Cowboys from Hell as the moment Pantera truly started, but they actually recorded four albums before that, which all sound nothing like the Pantera we’ve come to know and love. So, have we been missing anything truly great by ignoring these albums? Let’s look back on Pantera’s early work and see if any of these albums are worth our time.
Metal Magic (1983)
First off… good lord, look at that cover. It’s the type of thing you could imagine the producers of This Is Spinal Tap rejecting for being too on-the-nose. The album manages to start out with an intro even cornier than the cover (something about how “the world needs metal”) before we go into “Ride My Rocket,” a song with super-obvious sexual innuendo, and a melody that completely rips off “Detroit Rock City.” Remember the opening scene of School of Rock, in which Jack Black’s character is playing with the band that he gets kicked out of in the next scene, and we’re supposed to think they suck? That band would have blown this iteration of Pantera off the stage.
Projects in the Jungle (1984)
Well, the album art still looks like the worst idea for a tattoo ever, but the music improves greatly on Pantera’s second album, with some genuine moments of thrashiness. The opening track, “All Over Tonight,” features a blistering solo from Dimebag Darrell that wouldn’t have sounded too put place on, say, Far Beyond Driven. At this point, Pantera were on their way to becoming a true metal band, but they still had one key problem… vocalist Terry Glaze. He has a decent heavy metal wail, but he overuses it, making several tracks that could have sounded legitimately badass just seem cartoonish.
I Am the Night (1985)
By now, Pantera’s sound was caught in the middle between hair metal and what they would eventually become. Musically, the band is miles ahead of where it was on Metal Magic, and we can see the things that eventually made Pantera a great band falling into place. Unfortunately, the band was still relying on corny double entendres far too much. “Hot and Heavy” features weak, way-too-obvious sexual innuendos (we are invited to “take a lick” of Terry Glaze’s ice cream cone), which aren’t nearly as clever as the band thinks they are. Luckily, we also get “D*G*T*T*M,” also known as “Darrell Goes to the Movies,” which was a fine showcase for his incredible guitar playing, which was slowly reaching its peak form.
Power Metal (1988)
The last album before Cowboys from Hell, and the first to feature Phil Anselmo on vocals. Here, we see Pantera finally developing the groove-metal sound that they would be known for throughout the rest of their career. The musicianship on this album is quite satisfying, but, as with I Am the Night, the problem is the lyrics. In Pantera’s prime, Anselmo would evolve into a brilliant lyricist who wrote openly and honestly about topics like loss and addiction. Here, though, he’s just giving us a myriad of generic platitudes about the power of rock n’ roll. To be fair, that has worked for AC/DC for four decades now, but once you’ve heard “Cemetery Gates,” you tend to expect more from Pantera in the lyrics department.