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"Dimebag" Darrell: Forever Stronger Than All

Adrien Begrand

Darrell Abbott's influence on the entire genre of heavy metal is massive; after Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power, every notable young American metal band since has, in some way or another, copped their guitar style from those records: Tool, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, Hatebreed, Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Mastodon... the list is endless.

Heavy metal stars are supposed to live to ripe old ages. In a genre where age means little, many icons have gone on to ply their trade well past middle age: the likes of Lemmy Kilminster, Ronnie James Dio, and members of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath are all closing in on 60 years of age, while Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, hell, even Metallica and Slayer are still going strong in their 40s. Metal greats are a resilient bunch, always walking proof of the old adage, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." What happened on the evening of December 8, 2004, however, cut short the life of such an icon in a most heinous, patently unfair, and tragic way.

On a night that marked the 24th anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon, while guitar great "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott was performing with his band Damageplan at a club show in Columbus, Ohio, 25-year-old ex-Marine Nathan Gale strode onstage, and fatally shot the guitarist, killing three audience members as well, before he was shot and killed by a policeman who happened to be patrolling the venue. Metal has had its share of tragedies, be they accidental (the 1986 bus crash that killed Metallica's Cliff Burton, Randy Rhoads's death in a 1982 plane crash), or through illness (death metal innovator Chuck Schuldiner, from brain cancer three years ago), but the murder of Dimebag Darrell is especially devastating, quite possibly the darkest day in metal history. The most influential guitarist of the last 15 years, murdered at the young age of 38, for no reason at all.

Born Darrell Abbott in 1966, in Dallas, Texas, he and his brother Vincent, who went by the name of Vinnie Paul, went on to form Pantera during the early '80s, with Darrell on guitar, Vinnie on drums, and friend Rex Brown on bass. After vocalist Phil Anselmo was recruited in 1986, the band released Power Metal in 1988, but their recycled, big-hair image and derivative power metal sound failed to attract much attention from the public. Things would change forever two years later, as Cowboys From Hell marked an astonishing shift in style, not to mention image, with Anselmo taking on a rougher, more hardcore vocal style, and Darrell (then known as "Diamond" Darrell) eschewing slick guitar licks for a more unique, thrash-influenced, percussive guitar sound. If Cowboys turned heads, their next album, Vulgar Display of Power, catapulted Pantera to stardom, as the band went on to dominate the '90s, three of their albums reaching platinum status, and one, 1994's Far Beyond Driven, debuting at Number One on the Billboard album chart. As the years went on, though, Anselmo's behavior became more and more erratic (including a heroin overdose in 1996), and after the 2000 album Reinventing the Steel, acrimony in the band spilled over, and the members went their separate ways. Darrell and Vinnie went on to form Damageplan, releasing a debut album in 2003, and while a far cry from the greatness that was Pantera, it was still a likeable record, proof that the Abbott brothers still had plenty of good music in them.

Looking at Pantera's work today, it's clear that each member made their own valuable contributions to what made the band so great, be it Vinnie's powerful, ultra-tight rhythms, Brown's fluid bass, or Anselmo's distinct, drill-sergeant bark. However, it was Dimebag who sculpted what became known as the definitive Pantera sound. Cowboys from Hell was a huge surprise to metal fans when it came out, as his riffs derived heavily from the progressive thrash of Metallica's ...And Justice For All (notably, the ferocious "Domination"), but were much more taut, often providing more rhythm than melody. But Dime's playing was far from stiff, as the lithe riffs on the album's title track, which would go on to be the band's calling card, possesses a fabulous Southern barroom boogie feel. Especially impressive was the epic "Cemetery Gates"; in other hands, this song might have turned into a maudlin power ballad, but Darrell's evocative solos, and especially his eerie, sinewy lick during the chorus make the song forever memorable.

As beloved as Cowboys from Hell and the monstrously heavy Far Beyond Driven are, it's that one 1992 album that will go on to be Pantera's finest hour. Simply put, what Metallica's Kill 'em All was to '80s metal, Vulgar Display of Power was to the '90s, as it signaled the shift from classic '80s thrash, to more aggressive, punk-fueled metal, and it was all thanks to Dimebag, his riffs sounding more muscular than ever, thanks in part to the immaculate, yet raw production of Terry Date. Opener "Mouth For War" has a terrific groove, but its seemingly simple metalcore sound masks a remarkably progressive quality, as Dime slyly, masterfully uses three disparate, highly distinct riffs that flow into one another seamlessly throughout the four minute track. In direct contrast is the simple, monolithic aggression of "Walk", which foreshadows the nu-metal trend of the late '90s, made famous by Darrell's short, crisp guitar grunts that swagger as much as they stomp. "Fucking Hostile" is a brilliant exercise in thrash/death metal, the staccato precision of the chords sounding crystalline, as a surprisingly melodic chorus bursts in from out of nowhere. "This Love" begins sounding like an Alice in Chains clone, but its incendiary chorus jacks up the intensity, the song continuing that great quiet/loud combination, before taking off into a spectacular break, Dime veering from a wickedly deft thrash riff, to pure, mastadonian sludge, before going into a psychedelic-tinged solo. While songs like "Rise", "A New Level", and "By Demons Be Driven" maintain the momentum nicely, it's the closing track, "Hollow", that contains one of Dimebag's greatest ever performances. Anselmo's touching song about a friend in a coma has some of his most eloquent lyrics, but Dimebag's work that steals the show completely, as his guitar segues from contemplative harmonies, to a gorgeous, mournful solo, to a final explosion of blind, seething rage, echoing Anselmo's impassioned vocals.

Darrell Abbott's influence on the entire genre of heavy metal is massive; after Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power, every notable young American metal band since has, in some way or another, copped their guitar style from those records: Tool, Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, Hatebreed, Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Mastodon... the list is endless. Widely regarded as one of the friendliest musicians in the metal community, his death has shattered not only his friends and family, but every single person who loves this style of music, as fans, critics, and musicians alike are left shaking their heads in sorrow, spending the day playing their favorite Pantera CDs over and over again, hoping to find solace in the music. The cliché is right, Dimebag will indeed live on through his music and the innumerable guitarists whom he inspired, but it's going to take a long time for people to shake the pure shock of what happened that December night in Ohio. A legend has been taken from us, much, much too soon, all because of a sickening act of cowardice by an idiot with a gun.

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