When you listen to as much 80’s metal as I do, you really can appreciate just how different Cowboys From Hell was from all the other metal out there at the time. Though Pantera had experimented with different styles on 1988’s Power Metal LP, they didn’t really find their sonic identity until Cowboys From Hell. “Diamond” Darrell Abbott’s syncopated, percussive riffing style carved out the blueprint for what has come to be known as “groove metal”. Pantera were definitely pioneers in this genre (though some cite Exhorder’s Slaughter In The Vatican as the first true groove metal album). Darrell’s brazen, chromatic soloing and Phil Anselmo’s rebellious, belligerent singing style were also key to Pantera’s trademark abrasive new sound.
Side note: Though Darrell became a bona fide guitar hero for his inventive playing style, it is ironic that he and Pantera (unknowingly) helped launch the metal movement that almost killed the “guitar hero”. Pantera’s style was at least partially responsible for the flood of “nu metal” bands that became popular in the late nineties. Bands like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Disturbed used syncopated riff styles similar to those which Pantera used. Nu metal bands also relied heavily on drop tunings (often allowing riffs to be played with one finger). Needless to say, some viewed this guitar style as a crutch for “inferior” guitarists. The downplaying (or complete omission) of solos by nu metal guitarists didn’t help matters. For many, nu metal is viewed as a black mark on metal’s good name. I just find it weird that one of metal’s most creative guitarists helped influence one of metal’s least creative metal sub-genres! (By the way, it should be noted that almost all the songs on Cowboys From Hell are in standard tuning, though subsequent Pantera albums incorporated a lot of drop tuning.)
All that being said, I must confess I do not think Cowboys From Hell is a great album. Yes, I think Pantera found their sound and their ‘tude on Cowboys From Hell, but they were still lacking when it came to song craft. It wasn’t until 1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power that Pantera had the songs to really blow people away. Side two of Cowboys From Hell is particularly weak. There are a two very important exceptions however. First, album opener Cowboys From Hell is a boot in the ass — a statement of purpose that has become a Pantera “classic”. Justly so, as Cowboys From Hell will rip ya from tits to taint! My personal fave, however, is another Pantera “classic” — Cemetery Gates. This really is a perfect song. The soft-to-heavy dynamics, the lyrics, and the vocal performance are all spot on. Amazing tune! My score: B-