Texas Thunder

Roll back to 1985 to a moribund strip center on Richmond Avenue. There, housed in a converted disco, is the original incarnation of Cardi's. Anthrax is on its first headlining club tour of the country, with Houston's own Helstar in tow. When a third band is needed to round out the bill for the Texas dates, Pantera, mere scruffy kittens, gets the nod. Decked out in the de rigueur spandex, sporting low-slung Jackson King Vee "axes" and -- it goes almost without saying -- hair aplenty, the young band holds its own in the darker and heavier company. Cardi's survives the lean times to come, and so does Pantera. Each has become a Texas institution.

Yes, Pantera is from Texas, Dallas to be exact, and proud of it. Front man Philip Anselmo, guitarist Dimebag Darrell, drummer Vinnie Paul and bass man Rex Brown have been waving the Lone Star flag longer, higher and prouder than any nationally known rock act save ZZ Top. And in terms of metal, nobody from our fair state even comes close.

Fast-forward to 1990. Cowboys from Hell had been released, and it was time for Pantera to hit the road on its own, taking Wrathchild America along on a tour of jaw-dropping intensity and bone-crunching violence. Pantera's name was instantly and indelibly stamped upon the memory of any who witnessed and survived the event. Onward and upward has been the band's course ever since: four platinum albums, four Grammy nominations (up to and including the 2001 ceremony), No. 1 debuts on the Billboard charts, and an undiminished and ever loyal fan base. And yes, as a matter of fact, that was a Pantera T-shirt on Anthony Soprano Jr. in the Sopranos season opener.

Such mainstream nods aside, part of the symbiotic relationship that exists between Pantera and its fans is based on a shared musical and cultural belief that undiluted metal is the way -- and that Pantera ultimately is metal. But as success grows and the goodies start piling up -- flashy cars, plush mansions, their own strip clubs, celebrity pals -- the tendency is for such bonds to weaken. The band gets fat and content, and the fans get bored and disillusioned. The usual next step is for fans to rise as one with cries of "Sellout!" and move on to the next "real" thing.

Yet despite the huge success, Pantera has encountered neither a backlash nor a rash of successful copycat acts. Not that other acts haven't tried. "It's already been done," laughs drummer Paul regarding the latter possibility. "Even the rap-metal bands have taken many of our riffs. But the industry as it exists today isn't geared toward originality. For a while they were looking for the next Pearl Jam, and then the next Rob Zombie."

Paul attributes Pantera's avoidance of fan backlash precisely to having studiously steered clear of such trend-chasing. Whether the flavor of the month was grunge, the aforementioned rap-metal or whatever, Pantera has simply reloaded and come back with another metal album.

Last year's Reinventing the Steel is a step back from the purposeful double-barreled salute that was The Great Southern Trendkill. "Well, you've got to remember that Trendkill came out in 1996," explains Paul. "Heavy metal had been deemed a dirty word by the record industry. We wanted to make the most extreme, 'out there' record possible. With this record, we wanted it to keep that fire in the belly, but let the songs move back to the front, get back to writing songs that people would remember."

It also helps in the street-cred stakes that the band is perceived as still being fans of heavy music. Whether by name-checking its forefathers and praising metal in general on Reinventing's "Goddamn Electric," or by enthusiastically taking an unabashed death metal act such as Morbid Angel on tour, Pantera continues to pursue an unalloyed metallic course. This true grit is accentuated by vocalist Anselmo's myriad side projects -- Down, Superjoint Ritual, Necrophagia, Amicuss, etc. -- each seemingly more bent than the next on exploring obscure and violent recesses.

However, Anselmo's perpetually harder-than-thou stance also has created its share of trouble for the band. For every deeply self-empowering lyric he has penned (on songs like "Walk," "A New Level" and "We'll Grind that Axe"), Anselmo has evened the karmic balance by publicly excoriating immigrants, "faggots" and minorities. He's also lived as close to the chemical edge as one can and still be among the living. After overdosing on heroin following a 1996 Dallas performance, Anselmo had to be resuscitated by medical personnel at the venue.

All of this has led to occasional speculation regarding Anselmo's long-term future with Pantera. Recently his pratfalls have been costlier than ever. What was to have been a winter 2000 tour in support of the new record instead became a spring 2001 tour when misfortune again befell the macabre vocalist. Anselmo took a nasty spill at a haunted house in October. The result, a chestful of broken ribs, rendered him incapable of performing.

Rumors erupted in the wake of Anselmo's frightful fall, including some published by legitimate sources, rumors that suggested the other members of Pantera were ready to banish the singer. It was said that they were ready to sign up Tim "Ripper" Owens as soon as he got canned from Judas Priest for that band's seemingly inevitable reunion with Rob Halford. Paul denounces this rumor flatly, among many others.

"It's not true," he states. "It comes from being the front man of a band like Pantera. With his ribs, I heard everything: He quit the band. He got stabbed in a bar. Vinnie and Phil got in a fight, and he hired a security guard to beat the living shit out of me. That one was from Metal-Sludge and came from a quote/unquote 'reliable source' in Dallas named Big Frank. Throat cancer. He's had it all, dude, and all I can tell you is the dude's better than he's ever been right now; we're having the best tour we've ever had, all having a great time. And I'd place money on the fact that five years from now Pantera will still be here, and it'll be the same four members."

In the meantime, the prospect of returning to Texas once again -- even for the umpteenth time -- doesn't seem to have lost any of its charm for Paul. "We're from Dallas, but we've played everywhere in this state. Not just Dallas, Houston, San Antonio," enthuses Paul, "but McAllen, Laredo, El Paso, Amarillo, Abilene, Odessa. These are the places that supported us when we were first starting out." Paul's tone -- a combination of reverence and familiarity -- is one that's usually reserved for a best friend or mentor. That this love is so plainly felt for the band's oldest fans is another part of what makes Pantera the enduring favorite that it is. The group doesn't ask for your devotion; it simply gives you its own to accept or decline as you will.

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Chris Smith