Friday, February 12, 2021
I'm Bastard in the Head, and this is Trainwreckords
Skip this paragraph if you don't care about the metashit, but I want to explain my thought process here in why I'm choosing such a weird album to talk about in The Year of our Lord 2021. It's pretty apparent if you're familiar with any of my early reviews as a teenager in the late 2000s that I was a big fan of the trend of snarky internet reviewers, Spoony and Brad Jones especially. I've largely moved away from that entirely and tend to spend my youtube time with more broad, thoughtful analysis than just pointing at things and saying they suck while making wildly hyperbolic statements about how Album X makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a claw hammer and everybody involved in the creation of Album Y needs to be fed to mutated bees or whatever. However there's one from that era I still follow, Todd in the Shadows, the pop music reviewer. He's basically the only person from that era who nailed the double whammy of escaping with his integrity intact without a massive change in format. One of his occasional series is Trainwreckords, videos about albums that were so bad that they irreparably tarnished reputations and/or ended careers. Think of MC Hammer's gangsta rap album or Jewel's disastrous dance-pop sellout, that kind of thing. For about a year now I've been wanting to rip off that conceit and do a metal-themed series along those same lines. The reason the idea sat in limbo for so long is because I very quickly realized that the careers of metal bands simply don't operate the same way a pop artist's does. Almost every candidate I had in mind wound up not really working because metal bands bounce back from seemingly everything. Iron Maiden's The X Factor was loathed on release, but the band never missed a step, got Bruce back, and went on to essentially remake that album five times in a row with glowing fanfare each time. Everybody thought Judas Priest's Turbo was an egregious sellout but they just kept on trucking and wound up releasing their best album four years later. Metallica has survived like four extinction level events, Manowar had a clear dropoff but nobody can seem to agree which album was the last good one, Celtic Frost, Cryptopsy, Morbid Angel, Grave Digger, Slayer, all of them released huge bombs that they ultimately recovered from without much lasting issue. The only album I considered that wound up making sense was this one, Pantera's Reinventing the Steel.
Pantera may have never been popular in the underground necessarily, but it's impossible to overstate how much they dominated the 90s. They were the metal band (besides Metallica of course) that everybody knew, and they released four albums that decade, all massive hits with huge singles that dominated rock radio airwaves (less so with Trendkill but that one makes up for its lack of radio success by being the one Pantera album that Extremely Online Metalloids allow themselves to like), and then just... suddenly they weren't. Reinventing the Steel stands out precisely because it doesn't stand out whatsoever. I was a 90s kid that grew up loving the shit out of Pantera, some of my earliest interactions with other people on the internet come from when I was 12 years old and pretending to be 18 so I could join Metallica and Pantera messageboards on Elektra's website, and even then, barely a year after this album dropped, nobody at all was talking about it anymore. It's a strange bunny fart at the end of an otherwise very successful career that even meathead superfans with Confederate flag tattoos and Big Dog t-shirts forgot about mere months later. I want to revisit the album for the first time since Diablo II was released to see if I can suss out why.
Upon relistening, the first thing I was struck by was how fucking good "Hellbound" is. Seriously, Trendkill is remembered nowadays as the most venomous and unhinged Pantera album by a fairly wide margin and "Hellbound" kicks this swansong off exactly where that classic finished off. It's basically "Sandblasted Skin" part two, and from minute zero it acts as buckshot to the face and amps the adrenaline off the fucking charts. You'd be forgiven for expecting the spiritual successor to "Strength Beyond Strength" judging by its immediate intensity and short runtime to kick off the album, but... you'd be wrong.
As good as "Hellbound" is, it also immediately signals a huge problem with Reinventing the Steel. "Strength Beyond Strength" is meticulously structured in three parts, starting off fast and furious, downshifting into a brutally sludgy slow part in the middle, and building to a fantastically exciting climax that showers you in vitriol. It's by no means novel or unique but it knew what it was doing and executed it very well. "Hellbound" on the other hand just... kinda ends. It goes verse-chorus-verse-chorus and then it just stops and moves on to the next song. It's really jarring because Pantera is known for simplistic groovy riffs and an overall aura of lunkhead jocks headbanging on two notes, but apart from a few flukey bad songs they were never really lazy. This sounds like they simply couldn't be fucking bothered to finish writing this song but felt like it had potential to be a good opener when they started writing it so they just went down with that ship.
The rest of the album suffers from this same problem but in varying ways. Some songs sound like they're just unfinished (like "Hellbound", "Death Rattle", and "We'll Grind that Axe for a Long Time") while others sound like they weren't workshopped at all and just recorded the first riff Dimebag could think of with no tweaking or variation across repeats (like "Yesterday Don't Mean Shit", "Uplift", and "You've Got to Belong to It"). Dime was always good at solos and shit at riffs, but he's never been shitter at riffs than on tracks like those. Reinventing the Steel winds up being surprisingly difficult to talk about simply because so little actually happens in it. It very much stinks of a band that can't stand to be in the same room together and just wants to get recording over with. It's pretty telling that this is a good ten minutes shorter than anything else from their groove era. You'd think this would be a good thing since there's always been a filler track or two and it's hard to groove for a solid hour without getting bored, but really it's a result of the band clearly wanting to just put this behind them and get out as fast as possible.
It's impossible to truly take this album in a vacuum because the behind the scenes drama shines through so effortlessly. It's well known that tensions within the band had been running extremely high for a long while by this point, with the Phil Anselmo being a strung out belligerent junkie and the Abbott brothers wanting nothing more than to cut bait and leave him out in the cold. If the few paragraphs of Rex Brown's autobiography that I found previewed on Google can be believed, the brothers themselves were also just genuinely unintelligent meatheads, with Vinnie being a loudmouth bully and Dime being a perpetually confused dimwit who couldn't handle his money if it was glued to his hands. I get the feeling that three of the four guys (excepting Dime, who by all accounts was a very nice guy who just wasn't too bright) were giant assholes who couldn't stand each other anymore. This tension goes as far back as Trendkill, but intra-band adversity has resulted in artistic brilliance before, likely the most famous being Fleetwood Mac's Rumors but even within the realm of metal you've got Painkiller or Persistence of Time being birthed from similar circumstances. The difference seems to be that after that tortured work of stressed out genius, there's either a notable member parting ways or the band just breaks up. Pantera made the critical mistake of trying to do this twice, because Reinventing the Steel shows what happens when the album in question acts as neither a catharsis nor an exit door for unhappy members, and they try to just "stay together for the kids", as it were. Trendkill was dark and violent and explosive, Steel is just a paycheck that nobody really wants to bother with anymore.
As a result, this album sounds exactly like what you'd expect given that knowledge. The band is on the verge of total collapse, the trademark great album that can sometimes happen when these conditions are met had already happened, nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to really try. Vinnie shines on "Hellbound" and one weird off-kilter bit in the bridge on "Uplift" but otherwise he's just going through the motions, Dimebag had precisely two standout riffs under the solo on "Death Rattle" and the intro to "I'll Cast a Shadow" (the former being most well known nowadays for being featured in an early episode of Spongebob Squarepants, which might seem bizarre but it's honestly the best riff on the album by a canyonesque margin so whoever chose to include that riff is a genius) and (for the first time) zero exciting solos, Phil's vocals flip flop between strained and uninterested, none of the songwriting has that tightened polish that their earlier albums had, everything is just a dull simulacra of what Pantera used to be. "Revolution is My Name" stands as one of the only enduring tracks from this release despite not being particularly good, and I think it's because it's the most Pantera-ish song out of all ten tracks. Even though it's pretty boring on the whole and the squealy bit in the intro is obnoxious, it at least sounds like a fully thought out song with a catchy chorus that wouldn't have sounded out of place as a weaker song on Vulgar Display of Power (or alternatively, a filler song on a late-era Lamb of God album). Unfortunately most of the album is just lazy and uninteresting. "You've Got to Belong to It" and "Uplift" are some of the worst tracks Pantera ever laid to tape, "Goddamn Electric" and "It Makes Them Disappear" might as well not exist for all the adrenaline they fail to produce, "Hellbound" is promising but clearly unfinished, et cetera forever. I know it's uncool for underground metalheads to like Pantera, but I think it's telling that the underground hate is usually directed at Vulgar Display of Power or Far Beyond Driven while nobody can muster up enough bile to even acknowledge Reinventing the Steel. Pantera was divisive, but they were unmistakable and everybody has a hot take about their early 90s era. By 2000, they were, for the first time since their oft-forgotten glam era, completely skippable.
We all know how this story ends. It took three years after release, but Pantera finally split for good after this album, with Phil and Rex focusing on Down full time while Vinnie and Dimebag formed Damageplan. Any future fantasies of a reunion were dashed completely when Dimebag was tragically murdered onstage in 2004, and their legacy was firmly cemented for better and worse. Reinventing the Steel is honestly just sad. It didn't need to be released and it certainly shouldn't have been the band's swansong. It's a pitiful non-album with painfully few bright spots but is mostly droning and ugly. Like them or not, Pantera was an unescapable force of nature in the 90s, and the storm ended with nothing more than a little spittle before subsiding forever, and it turns out the old adage about it being better to burn out than fade away is entirely true.