When The Clash’s PR people called them “the only band that matters”, it actually stuck, and there are reasons for that. Joe Strummer and Co. could straddle the line between rebellious punk and timeless rock in a time when synths and tape loops were taking over the world. I wasn’t listening to music at the time, being about three years old, but The Clash would later represent a bridge between my favorite rock of the 70s and my favorite rock of the 90s.
Pantera was the metal band I grew up with in high school. Much later, in an airport in Australia, I picked up my copy of Getcha Pull!, which is a Pantera tribute curated by Metal Hammer magazine. I usually save it for special occasions, but the other day was an exception. It was most definitely not a special occasion, but I needed something to get me through work, and those covers really gave me some fuel. That’s what a superlative band like Pantera can do. The collection starts out with a rendition of “Suicide Note Pt. 1” that should be fucking famous. I have had a lot of breakthrough moments with big bands in the last year, and when I was listening to Zakk Wyld’s guitar solo, I suddenly felt like I was stoned, doped-up, and cumming like a horse. Wow. Of course, I may have gotten into the zone even better on account of the fact I had just snuck off to the bathroom at work and shoveled down a heaping tablespoon of green powder– high-grade kratom– a few minutes earlier (man, I really underestimate that shit sometimes. Good-for-shit federal government made it illegal at the beginning of this month).
Hearing the songs remade on Getcha Pull!, I am reminded of a couple things. First, wow! It’s easy to not even notice how versatile those guys were, and the variety of musical styles they worked with. Like The Clash, who famously threw every rock & roll style under the sun on their London Calling album (and later branched heavily into dub and reggae), Pantera albums had everything from classic metal (“Cemetery Gates”), thrash burners (“Fucking Hostile”, “Rise”) to their inimitable groove pieces (“Walk”, “A New Level”, “Yesterday Don’t Mean Shit”), to demi-death (“Slaughtered”, “13 Steps to Nowhere”). It’s the geniuses that matter in music, that much is demonstrated by Dime, Phil & co.
The great bands– the musical geniuses– do two things.
FIRST, they do defy easy characterization, not because they throw accepted musical forms out the window, but because they deftly meld disparate influences into a new whole– and then recast the alloy as a batch of bang-up new songs. For example, sitting at the complete opposite end of the metal spectrum from Pantera is the whole genre of classic metal, with bands like Avenged Sevenfold and Huntress existing as the current exemplars of the style.
On City of Evil, Avenged Sevenfold shed its barbaric metalcore roots and united rock & roll swagger with speed metal velocity and energy. The band’s raw musical skill is so immense that on their self-titled album and subsequent releases, they successfully incorporated country music and show tunes into their repertoire.
Huntress couples the star-powered voice of Jill Janus with stripped-down thrash & roll rhythms and precision guitars that cut like glass. Static’s “Mania” even shows that Huntress can play a song in the perennially popular doom mold. Best classified simply as metal, what matters most are the actual songs.
SECOND, the great bands play to their strengths.
Strength Beyond Strength
Here’s a question for you. How is it that at one point in the 90s, death metal became bigger than thrash in the metal underground? Well, I will tell you, it’s because DM plays to its strength. DM is there for when you want pure extremity, something visceral or visual– death metal is the state-of-the-art music developed for that. If you are someone who “sees” the music (synesthesia), nothing matches the brutal shape and rugged grooves of a good death metal composition.
Thrash on the other hand, wasn’t born fully armed and armored like Athena bursting from Zeus’s skull. Rather, its evolution towards greater and greater heaviness unfurled like an exaggerated reflection of rock & roll’s own voyage from pop structures in the 50s to the galloping hard rock of the 70s. People don’t call thrash “extreme metal” until they are talking about a death-thrash band. No one is ever going to call Morbid Angel “rock & roll”. On the other hand thrash, when it has songwriters going for “songs” in the traditional sense, peppering in some melody and harmony– well then it is a form of rock & roll. Amped up rock & roll.
Metallica, Megadeth, and to a lesser extent Anthrax thrive on melody. Out of the super-huge thrash bands, only Slayer and the German bands (and to a lesser extent Exodus and Overkill) truly focus strictly on speed and intensity. Of course, Slayer is also angry as hell; that’s something distinct from both death metal and the more rock & roll strains of thrash. Death metal is opposed to human emotion, whereas Metallica and Megadeth are about that manic, flying-down-the-highway emotion.
My point is that when you have a band that plays in the thrash style, you have to make a choice– you can go the Slayer route of angry, death-thrash intensity, or you can go the Megadeth and Metallica direction of having good songs in the more traditional sense. If you take the latter path of actual SONGS, you can’t just rely on structurally-interesting compositions; you need some melody. One of the reasons why bands like Huntress, Avenged Sevenfold, and Pepper-era Corrosion of Conformity are so rare, is that they play with the Metallica or Judas Priest blueprint for metal, which is basically thrash that has catchy songs and simple rhythmic elements, and they do it well. At the end of the day, bands like that live and die on how well they infuse melody with raw energy. Very few bands can do it.
Then there’s Pantera– metal that has good riffs in the hardcore metal style, metal that you listen to when you are lifting weights that just gets you pumped as hell; like Slayer it’s angry, and can drop jaws just on account of its sheer destructive power. But in the Pantera school, only one “modern” disciple has come close to doing it as well as them– Slipknot– and I’m not sure another band will get as close if people are on this planet for another thousand years. I would love to see it, believe me. And the metal alloy forged by Slipknot is not as unbreakable as Pantera. Shoveling more dirty and disparate elements into the blast furnace, Slipknot is smelted from Far Beyond Driven -groove metal, schizoid tribal scat-rock (i.e. nu metal), grunge and occasional death metal blasts.
SURE, you get a few bands like Killswitch Engage that write amazingly good riffs, but that band obviously made a conscious decision to take a vocal route that doesn’t really work for most of us metalheads… that emo-pandering vocal style. That’s like having half of a really brilliant band, which is about as useful to me as half a horse is to a cowboy. In the Pantera mold you have early Fear Factory (before the cheesier emo-laced vocal melodies, which first reared their head on Archetype), Chaos A.D. / Roots -era Sepultura, Domination -era Morbid Angel, late-era Bolt Thrower, early Meshuggah, Slipknot, Undisputed Attitude and Diabolus In Musica -era Slayer, LOG, the better nu metal bands like Soulfly, and the better deathcore bands (All Shall Perish, Through the Eyes of the Dead circa Malice and Skepsis, Suicide Silence, Whitechapel, early BMTH et al). If you like Machine Head (i.e. you can tolerate Robb Flynn), well I guess you can throw them in there too. Predating and probably influencing the Pantera mold are thrash and other classic death metal albums (presumably ones by Cannibal Corpse, Suffocation, Obituary, and Entombed).
Listen to “Infecting the Crypts” at 3:30 and tell me the vocal pattern doesn’t remind you of “Slaughtered” by Pantera at the latter song’s 0:30 mark:
“Slaughtered” remains one of my favorite Pantera songs anyway.
The last decade started out rough but ended strong. If you take A7X as an exception (in the classic school), the early 00s were really about Slipknot (and to a lesser degree, LOG) teaching people an object lesson in the Pantera school of abject brutality. As melogoth metalcore gained influence, things started to look grim for those of us who don’t like their music watered down. But the decade was redeemed when, seemingly out of nowhere, the aforementioned deathcore giants launched a vicious counterstrike and for the most part, wiped metalcore off the face of the planet.
Well, in a perfect world they did.
But what about today? Is there anything new that is shockingly good? Yes, there is. But Avenged Sevenfold, Slipknot, Lamb of God and all the good deathcore bands rose to power in the previous decade, which is to say, oh you know, roughly the time period around 2000 through 2009. WTF?! Kids, listen to me, when you get old, you start to lose track of time. Indeed, by the time I finally managed to convince one metalhead friend to relinquish the clean singing and embrace the death(core), I looked back and realized the deathcore scene was all laying dead on the ground behind me.