INTERVIEW: Rex Brown talks Vulgar Display

It’s twenty years since Pantera released Vulgar Display Of Power. That’s the same as the span of time between the Beatles’ first world tour and Van Halen’s Jump. Or between Led Zeppelin IV and Pearl Jam’s Ten. It seems hard to believe now, where crunchy metal riffs are used in everything from kids’ movies to breakfast cereal ads, but once upon a time the closest thing to metal heard outside bedrooms and car stereos was the likes of Poison and Bon Jovi. Vulgar Display helped to change all that. Along with Metallica’s Black album, it was enormously influential on musicians looking to break free of the stylistic quirks of cock rock without switching gears to the grunge sounds that were rapidly gaining prominence. Pantera combined jagged, hi-fi, post-thrash guitar tones with aggressive vocals, harsh production and a sense of groove – borrowed from Southern Rock – and in the process they ignited a revolution.

“We had a lot of hunger. A lot of the juices were flowing, big-time, and I just remember it being a really creative period for the band,” bass player Rex Brown says of 1992-vintage Pantera. “Very creative. We knew what direction we were headed and we were very aware of where we wanted to go, yet it just came out so naturally that we didn’t have to second-guess anything. There it was! Every day we were waking up just wanting to go to work.”

To mark the anniversary of Vulgar Display, the remaining former members of the band (guitarist Dimebag Darrell was tragically murdered onstage in 2004) have dipped into the archives with a deluxe edition featuring a bonus DVD with the album’s three official music videos as well as six songs from a Monsters Of Rock festival appearance in Reggio, Italy in 1992: Mouth For War, Domination/Hollow, Rise, This Love and Cowboys From Hell. But the set’s pièce de résistance is Piss, the one and only unreleased Pantera track. Twenty years on, Brown can’t pinpoint why Piss wasn’t included on the original album. It certainly sounds like vintage Pantera. “I can’t tell you why it wasn’t used: it just wasn’t. When it came to sequencing we had everything pretty much mixed and that one just got overlooked. That’s all I can say about that one! I listen to it twenty years later and it does kinda stick in with the usual crowd.”

One of the main riffs from the song was reused a few years later on a track from Far Beyond Driven. That album was one of the most aggressive, angry-sounding, filthy, fight-ready metal albums ever to debut at #1 on the Billboard chart, helped no doubt by the huge expectations growing out of Vulgar Display. “We wanted to get heavier with each album rather than get softer with each record,” Brown says. “So that’s where we were. There was a lot of hard work that led to [the #1 debut]. We played 200-something dates on the Vulgar tour, so it’s just one of those things. Our natural progression was to get a little heavier. We did our homework and just kept getting more and more intense as it went along. But not a bad record for #1 – in about 16 different countries!”

But the chunky, groovy sound of Vulgar Display has made it a particular touchstone for bands. The Pantera Sound has virtually become a texture that bands can consciously call upon, like Sabbath’s sludgy riffs or the Iron Maiden gallop. “It’s nice to be in that category,” Brown says. “That’s a very nice compliment. Sometimes it’s very flattering.” He pauses, seemingly holding back a word or two about some of the bands who have taken the Pantera groove and …misused it. “Sometimes it’s not, but for the most part it’s very flattering.”

With Dimebag Darrell’s huge, bass-and-treble-boosted, midrange-scooped guitar tone, it was sometimes hard for Pantera to find a place for Brown’s bass to fit in on the soundstage. “The way I call it, you could feel it more than hear it,” he says. “That was just how it went down. It was so hard to get the bass into the mix with that big loud guitar, the big loud drums, and everybody contending for a spot in the mix.” This was addressed on Far Beyond Driven, where the rhythm guitar dropped out during guitar solos, leaving Brown to hold down the low end just like at a live show. These days Brown’s bass is much more prominent in Kill Devil Hill, a 70s-influenced hard rock/heavy metal band featuring Black Sabbath/Heaven & Hell/Dio drummer Vinnie Appice. Their debut album is out at the end of this month, and will be supported by plenty of touring including a US run with Adrenaline Mob. When Brown’s previous band, Down (with Pantera singer Phil Anselmo) toured with Heaven & Hell, the bass player used to watch the rhythm section of Appice and Geezer Butler from side of stage, never in a million years guessing he’d one day be in a band with Appice. “It’s a wicked buzz,” he says. “We’re having fun with it, and that’s what makes a lot of difference: when you’re having fun with it rather than making it into this big conglomeration where you lose the edge and hunger after a while. So right now I couldn’t be happier, I’ll put it that way.”