Sound — 9
Believe it or not, Cowboys was a recent pick-up for me. I had a few of the highlights before, but never the entire album. What a rewarding purchase. I never truly was into Pantera when I was younger because I was so focused on Metallica. As a result I find myself mourning Dimebag Darrell in delay. Anyway, to business. Cowboys from Hell: it could also be called the revolution. Pantera completely overhauled their sound on this record, and transformed from glam-rock Kiss wannabees into practitioners of an ultra-heavy form of straight-forward, brutal metal. The transformation is a resounding success. The band sounds unified, tight, and completely determined in it's mission, which is essentially sonic assault. Yet, there is enough variation in the album's sounds to keep it from getting monotenous*. This is an accomplishment given the relentless nature of what is to become their trademark sound. The strongest tracks on the album have to be Cowboys from Hell, Psycho Holiday, Cemetary Gates, Domination, Message in Blood, and The Art of Shredding, but there is no filler, and all the songs have merit. The one criticism I have of the album's sound is that it can sound a little dry at times- vaguely remeniscent of Metallica's... And Justice for All, albeit with much more bottom-end presence. But there is very little flourish to the sound. I offer this as a tentative criticism because, it is minor, and it might not be a bad thing. While the production is very "meat and potatoes," this approach may enhance the overall theme of the album. It is not meant to impress with it's art, it's intricacy, or it's precision. It is meant to hit like a shockwave, leaving nothing in it's path; in this it startlingly effective. *I have said that the album maintains it's strength throughout, and to a large extent it does. However, the early second half of the album does begin to drag just slightly. Again, this is only a minor criticism as the album is very fresh and exciting through Domination. It also closes strong with two of the last three tracks, Message in Blood and The Art of Shredding, among the album's best.
Lyrics — 8
This is a very difficult category for me to give an accurate rating to, because there is great variation in the different aspects of Phil Anselmo's contributions. I'll tackle the lyrics first. If I were to rate the lyrics by themselves, I'd give them a six or a seven. They generally aren't bad or cliche, and they certainly aren't corny. They are very appropriate for the album's sound. However, there is little I find inspired in most of the lyrics; they're fairly simple and straight-forward, and once in a while, even a little dull. That being said, there are also high points. Coybows from Hell, Psycho Holiday, Cemetary Gates, Medicine Man, and The Art of Shredding, among them. As for Anselmo's voice, I give him a 10. His vocal range is astounding. At times he wails like Rob Halford (the end of Cemetary Gates) and at other times he growls at the depths of the bass range (the very beginning of Cowboys from Hell when he says, "We're takin' over this town."). His mainstay is a combination of roaring, screaming, singing, and growling that mixes to produce a very unique and powerful sound that suits the music perfectly. The only other vocalist who can balance the tonal, musical aspects of his voice, with the gritty, harsh sounds of roaring, growling, or screaming, is James Hetfield. And yet the two do not sound similar. Anselmo's voice is a little grittier than Hetfields, but also lacks some of his tone. Again, this suits Pantera's music. However you view it, his voice is truly impressive on this album. It is one of the most skillful and copied performances I have heard.
Overall Impression — 9
In looking at Cowyboys from Hell, it is important to look at it's effects on music. People thought metal died in the late seventies when Kiss started playing disco, Ozzy was fired from Sabbath, John Bonham died (yes I ripped that from the VH1 special, but it's true), and punk emerged as the primary musical expression of counter-culture. How wrong they were; metal would rule the eighties with an iron fist. Then people thought metal died when Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the MTV video circuit, Nevermind shattered the glam-metal chandelier like a hammer, and it appeared grunge and alternative would replace it as counter-culture's answer to "the man." Again, they were wrong. You'd think by now people would realize that when a form of music is born among and fueled by what are generally society's most aggressive, tough, and imposing elements (soldiers, construction workers, etc.), it would be virtually impossible to snuff out. Metal doesn't die; it changes. And in the ninties it changed into Pantera. Pantera's flannel shirts, converse sneakers, and cargo shorts, were the black leather jackets and jeans of ten years before. Cowboys from Hell was the first of three Pantera albums that would solidify metal throughout the nineties and lay the ground word for the uninspired rock/rap/alt revolution of the late nineties and early 2000's. But more importantly, it kept the torch of extreme metal alive when the thrash giants of the eighties (who shall remain nameless) slowed down and decided to experiment. Finally, Pantera's music, bridge the creative gap in metal between the thrash of the eighties and the renewal of prolific metal in the last few years, including the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. Overall Cowboys from Hell is a 9. It isn't perfect, but it's close. The momentum stumbles here and there, and the lyrics are business-as-usual for metal. But the sheer power of the album, the unity of the sound, image, and message of bulldozing and brutal metal power places it among the highest peaks in the spires of Hell among it's metal brethren.