“At that point in time, we truly were an army,” the late Vinnie Paul recalled to Rolling Stone in 2012, while looking back on the 1992 release of Pantera‘s massively influential Vulgar Display of Power, which landed at number 10 on RS’ Greatest Metal Albums of All Time list. “We pulled the very best out of each one of ourselves, and with each record that we made, that mountain got taller and taller to climb. After Vulgar, we had to make Far Beyond Driven; it was just another level to go to, and that was [reflected in] the title.”
While metal bands typically brag about going harder and heavier with each new release, Pantera actually walked it like they talked it. With every one of their Nineties releases – 1990’s Cowboys From Hell, Vulgar Display of Power, 1994’s Far Beyond Driven (which peaked at Number One on the Billboard 200 and also ranked on RS’ Greatest Metal Albums list) and 1996’s The Great Southern Trendkill – the tight-knit quartet not only pushed themselves to new heights of brutality and aggression, but they also raised the bar for metal as a whole in the process.
“They changed everything,” Zakk Wylde told Billboard in 2014. “Not just musical direction-wise, but they changed the way that records sound. Production-wise, you can use those Pantera records as a Model-T Ford for extreme metal; it’s like, ‘This is how these records in this style of music have to be made. The drums need to be recorded and mixed like this, otherwise they’re not going to cut through this wall of guitar and bass!'”
Indeed, as anyone who’s ever banged their head to tracks like “Becoming,” “Walk,” “Mouth for War” or “Primal Concrete Sledge” can attest, Paul’s powerful drumming was just as integral to Pantera’s assaultive power as his younger brother Dimebag Darrell’s next-level guitar pyrotechnics, or vocalist Phil Anselmo‘s vein-popping roar. His unparalleled ability to stay in the pocket while also thundering like a one-man stampede helped shape the band’s “groove metal” attack, and his tireless commitment to sonic excellence enabled him and Terry Date – who produced their albums from 1990’s Cowboys from Hell through The Great Southern Trendkill – to create drum sounds that were just as fearsome and envelope-pushing as his beats.
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“We used to get accused all the time of sampling the drums,” Date told Revolver in 2005, “and we never did; those were all just meticulously chosen sounds that we all worked really hard to get. And then of course the performances were played until they were right.”
While Pantera’s songs primarily grew out of Darrell’s guitar riffs, Paul’s beats were sometimes so badass that they inspired Darrell to write songs around them: “Becoming” began life as a double-stroke kick drum pattern that Paul was messing around with during the recording sessions for Far Beyond Driven. “I was just playing around [with] a drum thing, an idea for a drum solo,” Paul told Rolling Stone in 2014. “Dime heard me playing a pattern, and he ran in and said ‘Hold on, let me get my guitar,’ [and] we had a new song.”
Having essentially grown up together in a recording studio – their father, Jerry Abbott, was a successful country songwriter and record producer – Paul and Darrell shared a musical connection as strong as their fraternal bond. Paul, who worked closely with Date on the engineering and production of the records they did together (and who would officially co-produce Pantera’s final album, 2000’s Reinventing the Steel), was always on hand during recording sessions to help his little brother shape his guitar solos.
“Vinnie would run the tape deck [while Darrell tracked],” Date recalled to Revolver, “because when Dime wanted to go back and punch in a part or fix a little part some place, he would have to explain it to me; whereas, with Vinnie, they would just nod at each other, or Vinnie would go, ‘Do that Randy Rhoads part again,’ or ‘Do that Van Halen–y thing.’ Because they grew up listening to the same stuff, and they were so much one person, they didn’t even need to talk; if something was not right, they would just look at each other and they would know. And you know something else? I never once heard those two argue. Not one time in the whole time I was with them, not one brotherly squabble – those two guys got along better than any two brothers I’ve ever seen in my life. They were so close, it was scary. It was kind of always the two of them against the world.”
When Pantera dissolved acrimoniously in 2003 after two years of inaction, the brothers moved on together and formed Damageplan, a band with former Halford guitarist Patrick Lachman on vocals and Robert “Bob Zilla” Kakaha on bass. Damageplan released one album, 2004’s New Found Power, which Paul and Darrell produced with Lachman and Reinventing the Steel co-producer Sterling Winfield, and which continued in the groove-metal vein of their former band. Though they played significantly smaller venues with Damageplan than they had at the height of Pantera’s fame, the Abbott brothers approached every performance with the same intensity they’d displayed in their arena days. Tragically, their fraternal bond was severed forever on December 8th, 2004, when a deranged fan shot Darrell to death onstage during the band’s performance at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. (Darrell’s murderer, a former Marine named Nathan Gale, killed three others in the attack before being gunned down by police.)
Though it must have been incredibly difficult to get back behind the drums after watching his brother die in front of him, Paul returned to music in 2006 as part of Hellyeah, a heavy-metal supergroup that also featured members of Mudvayne and Nothingface. Though Paul remained heavily involved with the curation of Pantera’s legacy, he never showed an interest in any sort of Pantera reunion, preferring to focus on recording and touring with Hellyeah.
“We’ve got five records out now and I think we are starting to develop our own legacy,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016, upon the release of Hellyeah’s Unden!able. “I’ve seen the transformation in our fans of how they’ve been on the fence early on to how they’ve really embraced the band now. They sing all the lyrics when we play. And our meet and greets are nothing but positivity. And I don’t get the same old questions anymore: ‘When are you doing Pantera again?’ That kind of stuff went on for so long and it’s so great that it’s pretty much gone. People understand that this is what I’m all about now.”
In October 2017, Hellyeah announced that they were ready to start recording their sixth album. While it’s currently unclear what will become of the record in the wake of the drummer’s passing on Friday, there’s no doubt that Vinnie Paul made a lasting mark (or bruise) on heavy music while he was here. Groove on, Big Vin.