Pantera: The Great Southern Trendkill

“Fuck your magazine,” growls Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo on the album-opening title track of what is easily the most abrasive and chaotic album in the Texas thrash band’s storied career. As its title suggests, The Great Southern Trendkill was supposed to be Pantera’s re-dedication of purpose amidst a musical climate where metal was falling out of favor. In a way, it was. More than that, however, the album exposes the personal turmoil that would later sink the band for good.

Perhaps it’s understandable that Anselmo and company felt like the world was closing in on them. By the time they set out to make The Great Southern Trendkill in late ’95, Pantera were one of the lone remaining thrash-era metal acts that could still reasonably expect to shift half a million units. More crucially, they were one of the only ones doing so without diluting their sound. In fact, Pantera were growing more successful by getting heavier with each record. Whether or not we accept the popular narrative that the so-called alternative revolution had rendered metal “uncool” again, most of Pantera’s peers had hit steep career drop-offs and were struggling to remain visible.

So it must have felt convenient for bands like them to point the finger at a fickle music establishment they felt was turning on them. But that was a curious position for Pantera to take considering they’d managed to achieve world-beater status in 1992—right in the heyday of Lollapalooza and 120 Minutes—and debuted at Number One on the Billboard album chart with 1994’s Far Beyond Driven. They may have seen it differently, but the truth is Pantera were riding a momentous wave of success when it came time to record The Great Southern Trendkill. And regardless, in spite of his chest-beating against the band’s supposed enemies in the music press, on Southern Trendkill Anselmo exposes no one else but himself as his worst enemy.

In one of the breakdown sections of second track “War Nerve,” for example, Anselmo stops singing altogether and spits-up a tirade: “For every fucking second the pathetic media pisses on me and judges what I am in one paragraph, look here: FUCK YOU ALLLLLLLLLLLL.” To be fair, Anselmo is hardly the first performer to vent against critics (and one can only imagine how much more venomous his lyrics would have been had music blogs like this one been as prominent back then as they are now). But it’s telling that he can’t keep his ire focused on an external source for the entire song, which begins with the lines “Fuck the world for all it’s worth/Every inch of planet earth/Fuck myself/Don’t leave me out.” Sure, Anselmo’s stream-of-consciousness wordplay often targeted multiple adversaries in single songs in the past, but “War Nerve” betrays his then-increasing tendency towards self-loathing and incoherence.

Anselmo caused a furor this past January when he made a Nazi-salute gesture and screamed “white power” onstage. Indeed, hints of Anselmo’s racial anxieties shadowed Pantera throughout their career, with Kurt Loder addressing them point-blank in a 1994 MTV News clip. And in a 1995 onstage rant that’s made the rounds on YouTube for years, Anselmo weighs-in on his disdain for rap culture and the “stop black-on-black crime” slogan in front of a Montreal audience. Though Anselmo starts off by saying “we’re not a racist band,” he later urges the audience to have pride in its white heritage.  Crucially, in that clip he uses the word “trend" to describe what he’s railing against—the implied subtext being that we were moving too far towards a restrictive PC culture. It doesn’t take a mathematician to put two and two together here and see how easily such statements lend themselves to a white-supremacist agenda. And so hearing Anselmo spew bile against “trends” on the The Great Southern Trendkill, one has to wonder what else was on his mind that he didn’t have the guts to say flat-out.

Whatever else you can say about him, though, you have to acknowledge that in his prime Anselmo was an electrifying performer—one of metal’s all-time greatest frontmen—with a relentless drive to create. (His prolific output in numerous bands bears that out.) Just four years earlier, Anselmo’s unparalleled intensity had supercharged the band’s breakout album Vulgar Display of Power with an undeniable electricity. Listening to it, you couldn’t help but feel emboldened and empowered. Following up with Far Beyond Driven, Anselmo was able to keep up the same motivational demeanor, but a darker, more personal set of lyrics pointed to a cracking psyche behind the bravado. By the The Great Southern Trendkill, Anselmo’s psychic degeneration is alarmingly complete, and what was once a cathartic roar begins to verge on psychosis as Anselmo’s bandmates push themselves further and further to extremes as well.

Previous Pantera albums presented aggression as an athletic high. By contrast, on Southern Trendkill’s most frantic moments, the aggression hews closer to self-mutilation—a last-ditch attempt to provoke sensation when you’re too numb to feel anything. On songs like the title track and “Suicide Note Pt. II,” Pantera trade-in their trademark high-velocity boogie grooves for blurry spasms of noise. Fittingly enough for a band so openly plagued by substance abuse problems, on Southern Trendkill the “high” in the heaviness is gone. The album offers zero of the euphoric rush of the band’s earlier efforts, and there’s almost no release to be found in its negativity. All that’s left is to wallow in the despair.

It was also telling that Anselmo—by this point deep in the throes of heroin and prescription painkiller addiction—recorded his vocals separately from the rest of the band at Trent Reznor’s Nothing studios in New Orleans while his bandmates recorded the music at guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott’s home studio in Dallas. According to the liner notes, Anselmo was actually present for writing and demo’ing material with the band in pre-production. But the fact that producer Terry Date needed to serve as go-between speaks to a communication block that couldn’t have been good for the creative process.

Nevertheless, even all that internal dysfunction wasn’t enough to blunt the searing vitality of the final product. When it comes to music that captures the personal implosion of an artist about to go off the rails, The Great Southern Trendkill is about as thrilling as they come. It’s also the first time that Anselmo truly shows his fragility, ugly and wretched as it may be. As harried as its outlook is, The Great Southern Trendkill‘s seething hopelessness reveals a desperation that Far Beyond Driven hinted at but downplayed in favor of balls-out swagger. This time, Pantera no longer sound larger-than-life but instead like actual three-dimensional (and very fucked-up) people.

The Great Southern Trendkill gets extreme in spots, but it showcases the contrasts in the band’s musical DNA more than any of their other albums. The title track, for example, suddenly lurches from its blistering near-grindcore pace to a slow-moseying blues rock section laced with a trademark Dimebag solo, his love for original KISS guitarist Ace Frehley’s hummable leads still as evident as ever. Even more jarring, the energetic main riff on “Living Through Me (Hell’s Wrath)” recalls the vibe of classic ’80s thrash. But that period suddenly feels innocent and far back in the rearview mirror in comparison to the gloom that engulfs this album, especially when the song switches into a creepy dark-industrial mid-section that reflects its narrative about a harrowing sexual encounter between two junkies.

In another experimental detour, on “Suicide Note Pt. 1” Pantera actually try their hand at an acoustic ballad. Perhaps more shockingly, the song sounds like a cross between (then-trendy!) Stone Temple Pilots and Zeppelins “Over the Hills and Far Away.” Anselmo—an infinitely more capable singer than his harsh screams might indicate—drops his guard and opens up about his own suicidal urges. For once, the band gives us a glimpse into pain that’s genuinely affecting.

The Great Southern Trendkill’s rough-edged flaws help generate the music’s unique power almost as much as the band’s blind determination to keep ratcheting-up the intensity level, come what may. It perhaps sums up the album’s mood best that, while touring to support it, Anselmo overdosed from heroin and was pronounced dead for over four minutes after a show in Dallas. Incredibly enough, he played the next show. Listening back to the album, both the overdose and the decision to just keep going make perfect sense. The band, apparently, had so much fire in its veins that it couldn’t even stop itself—at least not right away.  

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