23 Years Ago: Pantera Hit Their Most Extreme With ‘The Great Southern Trendkill’
As Pantera wrote and recorded the songs that would make up their fourth major label album (eighth total) The Great Southern Trendkill – which came out May 7, 1996 – it was clear to anyone within proximity that something was seriously amiss. Drummer Vinnie Paul Abbott, guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott and Rex Brown were hard at work in Chasin’ Jason Studio in Dallas, Texas and vocalist Phil Anselmo was hundreds of miles away, recording at Trent Reznor’s Nothing Studios in New Orleans.
Any questions about what had divided the once-tightknit musicians was answered on July 13 when Anselmo overdosed on heroin backstage at the Coca-Cola Starplex in Dallas. Four days later, the singer issued a press release that addressed the situation, but dismissed it as a one-time mistake: “I, Philip H. Anselmo, immediately after a very successful show in Dallas injected a lethal dose of heroin into my arm, and died for four to five minutes,” he began. “There was no lights, no beautiful music, just nothing. And then after 20 minutes (from what I heard later) my friends slapped me and poured water over my head, all basically trying to revive me. The paramedics finally arrived and all I remember is waking up in the back of an ambulance…. I, since then, have recovered completely, the Pantera Tour uninterrupted. I intend to keep it that way! One message to everyone in this f--king world. I am not a weakling groping for sympathy. I WILL NOT DIE SO EASILY!”
Whether Anselmo was able to quickly clean himself up as he told the press, or whether he got right back on the horse (pun intended) is irrelevant. The Great Southern Trendkill is largely informed by the tension, frustration and pain that hampered the band while Anselmo was battling addiction. To a large extent, Pantera lashed out, as did Anselmo, but for entirely different reasons. As a result, The Great Southern Trendkill writhes and rails with desperation and self-loathing and roars with a new reservoir of aggression and intensity, making it the heaviest album Pantera ever released.
“Phil was going through a lot of mental distress and it’s all on that record,” Vinnie Paul told me in 1997. “You can feel the pain, you can see it, you can hear it. And it affected all of us, no doubt.”
Lyrics like “When I'm hiding, when I need it, it lets me breathe / For our handle on this life, I don't believe this time” (“Suicide Note Pt. 1”) and “S--t decisions, no provisions /
Filling veins with juice of chaos" (“Living Through Me (Hell’s Wrath)”) are self-explanatory. But even if Anselmo was strung out in the studio his performance suffered little from his habit, as his tortured screaming on the title track and “13 Steps to Nowhere” attest.
“Look, if you’re on dope you can function,” Anselmo told me in 2013. “S--t, I functioned. You can sleepwalk through anything and I did them vocals and lyrics and they came out pretty good. But I've been through some wars, man. There ain’t no motherf--king such a thing as a great junkie story -- a happy ending for a junkie -- lest he comes out of it. It’s not cool. Heroin is not glamorous. It’s the most definable evil thing, ever.”
Working in a different location than their lead singer gave Vinnie Paul, Dimebag Darrell and Rex Brown the distance they needed when they tracked the album with producer Terry Date. But since Anselmo wasn’t there they didn’t know what he was going to do with his vocals and they questioned whether his parts would match the quality of the music. And while Dime was used to tracking his leads after Anselmo’s vocals, he had no such luxury for The Great Southern Trendkill.
“We were all in pain and we ended up making the most extreme record we’d ever made,” Paul said. “It was so out in left field. It came out in ‘96 when the rap metal thing was going down. The whole music industry had totally turned. And as we worked on it our mindset was, ‘This is the biggest bird finger we can give the whole industry.’ It’s not very musical and it’s very abrasive. It’s hard for me to listen to now.”
In hindsight, bassist Rex Brown says much of the musical power in songs like the title track, “War Nerve” and “Floods” (which featured one of Dimebag’s most legendary leads) came from sheer spontaneity.
“Dime used to bring a riff tape in and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we have to work with,’ and that wasn’t happening as much,” Brown told me in 2013. “The riff tape was wearing out so we’d just go in there and all start playing. It’s funny because kids go, ‘Goddamn, Great Southern was the best record you ever put out.’ And I go, ‘How could that be?’ Because it happened in such an off the cuff way. Listen to the bass part behind ‘Floods.’ Straight off the cuff, man. That was straight on the floor. We didn’t even go back and re-record it.”
In addition to having to write and record almost on impulse, Pantera were plagued by sound problems. Chasin’ Jason wasn’t a professional studio. It was a makeshift recording room that Dimebag built in his backyard barn.
“He put up three walls and made a studio inside of it,” Brown said. “It was quite an experience. We had built all these iso-cabs to get the sound down, but we had a huge phase control problem. That’s why it’s called Chasin' Jason Studios because there would always be something f--king wrong. There was a buzz going through the whole f--king place. And that on top of the fact that we were making our most experimental record ever, something that sometimes didn’t even have a coherent structure to it, made us all crazy.”
It was hardly a conventional way to make a record, but maybe that’s what Pantera needed to summon the extra rage and creativity that make The Great Southern Trendkill so devastating. When it was done, everyone in the band knew they had created their wildest album, they just didn’t know if their fans would like it. They needn’t have worried.
On June 25, 1996, less than two months after it came out, The Great Southern Trendkill was certified gold by the RIAA. Eight years later it finally went platinum.
“I’m still not crazy about two or three songs on there,” Brown said. “But there’s still a lot of good stuff there. After we made the record Phil got his s--t together and we toured. We were one of the biggest bands out there. We did the second Ozzfest, which was great money. We played through ’98 and then we did the Black Sabbath reunion in '99. By the end we were all completely worn out and we needed a break, but every time we tried to stop something came up that we couldn’t turn down.”
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
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