Rating: 4.5/5Like Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die or Judee Sill’s Heart Food, Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power presents a complete worldview. You sense the active minds of its creators, crafting an enclosed and self-contained world, and somewhat notably for the metal genre, this world more or less resembles our own: there are no supernatural phenomena and no references to Satan. Even a song with a conspicuous title like “By Demons Be Driven” is, in fact, a criticism of religion and its superstitions. This differs from a group like Slayer, one of Pantera’s key influences: a song such as “Angel of Death” may deal with a real-world event (the Holocaust) but it does so from a cosmic, even metaphysical perspective, one that affirms and dwells on the existence of evil in the theological sense. Phil Anselmo, Pantera’s lead vocalist, is interested in more worldly things like promoting a philosophical individualism or attempting to understand the various ways human beings fail to relate to each other in honest and mutually respectful ways. This may sound rather sedate or even cozy—more than once, Anselmo vaguely resembles a motivational speaker—but Anselmo’s intensity speaks volumes to the integrity and personal sense of commitment that undergirds this philosophy.
This intensity is nowhere more evident than in the final seconds of “Fucking Hostile,” during which Anselmo screams the title phrase in a distorted, larynx-disintegrating howl. Anselmo’s “he really means it” intensity can seem overblown, but the white-knuckle tension generated by his singing and the pain that no doubt resulted from those throat-shredding screams go a long way towards establishing him as a trustworthy and honest performer. They also vividly conjure up an image of Anselmo as a taught beast stalking its prey throughout the territory of the stage. The ever-pugnacious Anselmo can’t seem to relax—the album’s lone “love song” compares love to a fist—but he uses this permanent vigilance as an indicator of earnestness. Vulgar Display of Power sounds like an album without one false note.
Only capable of lashing out, Anselmo reveals himself most in the targets he chooses. There is, for instance, an explicitly anti-racism song, “No Good (Attack the Radical).” Here Anselmo laments that, by now, we should have killing “down to a science,” but he also evokes a more interesting and provocative image, asking what it would be like if there was only “one man” in “one home” and “one world.” Would this solve the problem of prejudice and hatred? Not really: he would be “full of anxiety,” trapped “in his private grave.” Hell, Anselmo claims, is not “other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, but rather “a closed mind playing the part of prison cells.” On the same song, Anselmo aphoristically commands, “Know your interior,” which is certainly a core value of his and the foundation for his view of sociality: racists are not just deplorable because of their prejudices but specifically because of the way these prejudices are a manifestation of inferiority, which in turn stems from a lack of internal awareness.
The importance placed on self-knowledge means that as much as Anselmo uses his blunt words and overpowering voice to attack others—on this album, he derides parents, cops, priests, and all who spreads lies and hatred—he’s also his own worst critic, never finding more fault with others than he finds inside himself and always sealing himself inside obsessive introspectiveness. Ironically, after he compares “a closed mind” to “prison cells,” on the very next song Anselmo sings this lyric: “Imprison myself and stay in a shell / I won’t let you in to have a story to tell.” Anselmo’s lyrics are intermittently and unintentionally revealing: he portrays himself as a tough, often righteous guy (“I fight for love of brother / Your friends fight one another“), but he reveals a considerable vulnerability, always raising his defenses up in anticipation of pain and hurt. In light of this, it’s all the more revealing that the first word sung on the album is “revenge”: Anselmo yearns to transcend the endless cycle of recriminations that imprisons us, but he ends up being dragged down by grudges and bitterness.
Anselmo’s confusion, his vacillation between wildly different extremes, occurring with the razor-sharp tension of a high-wire act, is no more apparent than in “This Love,” a tale of twisted romance that savages both parties: “I’d kill myself for you,” he mumbles before admitting, “I’d kill you for myself.” But Anselmo never rejects or disowns this back-and-forth confusion, seeking instead to befriend it, which generates a certain sympathy on our end. These vacillations are mirrored on the album musically: Pantera sets up tight grooves that stop and start or change directions without notice. Musically, Vulgar Display of Power is led forward by the late “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott’s surging, sandpaper-rough riffs, which pivot with a frightening swiftness; somewhat ironically, his playing embodies all the discipline and self-control to which Anselmo aspires on the record. Dispensing with the unwavering linearity of thrash, Pantera sound more like two men circling each other in a fit, and this agility is evident throughout the album, particularly in the opener “Mouth for War,” where the band seems to move as one, a tightly coiled and menacing threat, ready to pounce.
If Anselmo is the frightening head of this conjoined beast, it’s possible that the prey he’s stalking is actually himself. He treats his invisible foes with an abstractness that suggests might often be little more than phantoms in his own head, and as artists, Pantera successfully capture the tortured thought processes of a man at war equally with the world as he is with himself, finding catharsis in each breath. One of the joys of Vulgar Display of Power (a title deriving from The Excorcist) is in seeing Anselmo struggle against and attempt to rid himself of these twisted and hindering forces battling inside him, a process he invites us to watch play out with hardly any reservations whatsoever.