Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Where I come from - Example 1
Pantera – Vulgar Display of Power
The definitive American metal band of the 90’s. I knew the group would be important to me because I was completely unprepared for it.
I had a friend in highschool who grew up in one of those households surrounded by the kind of technology you didn’t know existed at the time, and you likely still only know of in myth. His dad had taken over the basement and somehow converted it into a kind of hobbyist cross-section of Terry Gilliam-esque shangri-la’s, which through the eyes of a 14 year old were nothing if not spell-binding. At first glance it was a typical suburban finished basement; somewhere we’d play Sega Genesis and have weekly band practices (thinking back I can’t think of one single “practice” where we completed a song from start to finish.) But it was around hidden corners and behind oddly placed doors that this basement kept its eccentric secrets. On only one occasion I was briefly led through one of the doorways into which my limited memory describes as a kind of surreal new age keyboard fueled Zen retreat. Again, the viewing time allotted was very limited, but I’m positive there was a huge pillow in the centre of the room, possibly a wall of 1930’s style telephone operator panel type equipment, a rainforest, and maybe a gremlin. Around another corner was a sort of electronics workshop which at the time appeared to be a floor to ceiling hive of remote control airplane motors. Thinking back I have no idea how all of this was contained under one roof, but the fact that the household answering machine message was that of his dad softly requesting your name and number in a heavily Chinese accented voice with “Whole lotta Love” blaring in the background meant that a) his dad was pretty awesome, and b) it didn’t really matter.
Every weekend his mom would stop at the Ottawa library and take out a selection of laserdiscs, and while most of them would be translated karaoke versions of American schmaltz, there’d always be some for us youngsters. On one glorious spring weekend she was generous enough to bring home the Monsters of Rock concert video from 1991, a festival typically held at Donnington, England, however that year they brought the circus to Moscow. The lineup consisted of Pantera, AC/DC, Metallica, Motley Crue, Queensryche, the Black Crowes, and a pile of military solely conditioned to beat teenagers over the head. I can tell you that the Wikipedia entry isn’t entirely accurate, because I also remember some weird Russian band playing, as well as the omission of the haircut worn by the drummer from the Black Crowes, which, I mean, if you’d seen the thing.
The first band featured in the video (insert movie trailer voiceover)…was Pantera.
At that point in my life I had only recently started to abandon the music that I thought I liked (Young MC, DJ EZ-Rock and Rob Base, whothehellknowswhatelse), and was beginning to shift to music I liked but couldn't properly explain why (Led Zeppelin). Needless to say, Pantera hit me like a dinosaur swung concrete Louisville Slugger to the incisors. I’d never heard music like this before. I knew my Metallica, my Megadeth, and Slayer, but this was different. If those bands were travelling the metal highway, Pantera was going the opposite direction, on the side of the road, riding BMX’s.
The performance was revelatory, and the band was on fire. Each man brought their A, B, and C game, and the result was an explosive culmination that bowed down to the almighty riff.
They were showcasing road tested material from Cowboys from Hell, and the versions were angrier and even more aggressive. “To hell with this”, I thought, and bought the cassette for Vulgar Display almost immediately. And interestingly enough, thinking of that moment, the moment of exchanging allowance dollars for that small plastic package of volatility is likely the reason this blog exists.
I remember being completely intimidated by what came from my headphones. It was as though the simple act of pressing ‘play’ was no different than releasing a caged, agitated gorilla. I remember finding Anselmo’s vocals to be too abrasive, but that was a small price to pay for Dimebag’s Eddie Van Halen-esque wizardry, which had been filtered through a Texas twang metal machine, and Vinnie’s intense rhythm factory drumming; a Texas metal machine unto itself.
The clear Terry Date production left nothing to hide, with each instrument standing on its own, and to this day when tapping my feet to the rhythm’s in my head I still, almost 20 years later, consistently fall back into patterns I learned from Vulgar Display of Power. I was just young enough to have missed the vital metal of the 80’s, and therefore just young enough to not fully understand how vital this record would eventually become (to me). It changed what I thought of music. It shaped how I approached music. It altered how I listened to music. The band fought convention, and in turn taught me.
It’s said that metal is something you either “get” or you don’t. An argument that doesn’t defend itself well, as there is no actual way of explaining it, but it’s an argument I side with because I can’t help but agree. Hearing Vulgar Display didn’t give me an outlet to release aggression, and it didn’t say the things that I wasn’t able to articulate. It was just simply a sound that resonated with me; a direct audible link to emotion. Action and reaction.
The band continued to release records over the next ten years and proved that if you’re good, there is no need to compromise. It was a group that could not be contained, not even by itself. The influence is monumental, as it is now rare to go to a metal show consisting of multiple bands where at least one of the front men hasn’t constructed his entire stage presence around that of Phil, as heard on the band’s Official Live: 101 Proof record. It’s now almost the Modern Heavy Metal vocalist blueprint.
I’m not pretending Pantera were the only heavy American band of that era making relevant music. Bands like Death, Deicide, Morbid Angel, Immolation, Suffocation etc. were all releasing music during this timeframe, however none reached the same level as Pantera. Not to imply that success is measured by sales, but the success was attained due to a rare combination. When the band went to #1 on Billboard with the release of Far Beyond Driven, it followed with the even darker, less accessible Great Southern Trendkill. The difference was in the individuals. Like him or hate him, Anselmo is a superb frontman, and Dimeball Darrell was one of the best guitarists of his generation. They composed catchy, heavy music and presented it in a way that scratched an itch for many people.
Their message was always clear and never cryptic: An ugly point of view communicated with force.
A Vulgar Display of Power.

The beginning of a beginning – how to change my life in three and a half minutes:

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