An album written on the brink of collapse: 30 years of Pantera’s ‘Cowboys From Hell’

Discover the story behind how the band finally caught their big break, just as they were ready to call it quits.

As the 1990s began to approach, it initially appeared as though the end was near for Pantera, with the momentum from their previous four albums beginning to deteriorate. Yet, as the band worked relentlessly on what was seeming to be their last relevant release, no one could have expected the success that was soon to follow. 

Cowboys From Hell, the band’s fifth studio album was an unexpected victory- catapulting the Thrash icons into the legendary rockstar status that they are now regarded as. Now, three decades since its debut, find out the lesser-known story as to why the release sent such shockwaves across the industry.

Written in the period between 1988 and 1989, Pantera were on the blink of collapse, rapidly losing momentum from their releases prior and being turned away from every major record label they approached. 

What’s more, conflicts between the members began to intensify with each passing day. Yet, despite the band narrowly avoiding separation as Dimebag Darrell declined the position as lead guitarist in Megadeth, Pantera decided to persevere through the turmoil to begin their next album.

Seeking a new approach to their increasingly heavy discography, Cowboys From Hell was written with the intention to delve into darker and more sincere territory than ever before. Exploring heavier subject matters than in their previous releases and looking to pay homage to their Hair Metal origins, the writing process for the album proved the members to be at their best, with a unanimous sense of confidence in the music being made. 

Taking inspiration from bands including Soundgarden, Slayer and Faith No More, the focus of the band shifted from image to sound. Striving for a heavier and more unique tone than ever before, Pantera decided to focus on honing in on their own sound, rather than simply mimicking other bands to draw crowds.

Having become overly accustomed to the rejection from labels across the country, the members were about to experience a moment of fate that was set to undeniably change the course of their career.

Whilst stuck in Texas due to an ongoing Hurricane, Mark Ross, a member of Atco Records, was headed to see Pantera perform live and report back on whether it was worth signing the band. After watching the band play, Ross’ decision was made by the end of the first song- finally signing the band to their first major label.

Originally wanting to work with Max Norman as the producer due to his work with Ozzy Osbourne, the agreement fell through as Norman instead chose to work on Lynch Mob’s debut album, Wicked Sensation. Instead, Terry Date was called as the producer- chosen due to his work with both Overkill and Soundgarden, both of which hugely influenced Dimebag Darrell.

Finally withholding a clear vision for the direction of their sound and under the watchful eye of their professional producer, Pantera used Cowboys From Hell to exemplify the diversity and technical ability of each member. Although high tensions still remained, with tracks such as ‘Psycho Holiday’ being written as a personal attack on Phil Anselmo’s temper and attitude towards the other members, songs including ‘Cemetery Gates’ solidified the band’s distinctive edge- helping pioneer the genre of Groove Metal.

Upon its release, Cowboys From Hell immediately galvanised crowds far and wide and came to be considered one of the most influential metal albums of all time. Conducting a 300-date tour in order to promote the release, the album became Pantera’s breakthrough release.

Their first album to reach the charts, Cowboys From Hell hit the number 27 spot on the Billboard Music Charts Top Heatseekers and has since gone on to reach Gold status in the UK and Platinum in the US.

Arguably more impressive yet, the release landed the band a place preforming in front of over 500,000 people at the legendary Monsters Of Rock gig in Moscow 1991, alongside metal icons including Mötley Crüe, AC/DC and Metallica

Now, three decades since its debut, Cowboys From Hell remains Pantera’s most highly acclaimed album to date- praised by Ozzy Osbourne as one of this top ten metal albums of all time and a vital part of any metalhead’s discography. 

One of the few metal bands that only became heavier throughout the duration of their career, Cowboys From Hell became a milestone for the metal scene, pioneering a new genre of Groove Metal and showing the band to persevere in the initial face of defeat.

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What are your thoughts on the album? Let us know via the comment section!

2 comments

  1. Oh yeah. Just didn’t know they had other albums. My brother showed them to me and immediately loved the album, a unique sound just like Metallica’s And Justice For All. You knew it was Pantera without any vocals. Ended up seeing them in 1992 in yakima wa with skid row headlining. Unbelievably cool. The tour was for Vulgar Display.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I absolutely agree, the sound they always captured was one of a kind. I especially love how they proceeded to get heavier over time- something bands usually go the opposite way with. Thanks for your comment, John!

      Liked by 1 person

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