In the early ’90s, grunge was touted as the nail in the coffin of ’80s hair metal. So it’s fitting that it took a former ’80s hair-metal band, Pantera, to put the pedal to the metal even as grunge began to run out of gas. Pantera’s 1994 album Far Beyond Driven—which is being reissued as the expanded, remastered 20th Anniversary Edition—is technically its seventh full-length, but it was only its third since the band reinvented itself with 1990’s Cowboys From Hell and 1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power. Both were successful, but Far Beyond Driven debuted at No. 1—a clear signal that the band’s churning, guttural, angst-scarred heaviness had fully synched up with the mainstream.
The expectation for Pantera to deliver another Vulgar Display Of Power—its best album, then and now—is what shot Far Beyond Driven straight to the top of the charts. But Far Beyond Driven is not Vulgar Display Part 2. While frontman Phil Anselmo locks with murderous intensity into the trench-like grooves of Vulgar Display, he’s not always as connected on Far Beyond Driven—as on the album’s worst track, “Good Friends And A Bottle Of Pills,” on which Anselmo’s violently lascivious, spoken-word braggadocio sounds downright corny. It’s one of the album’s few missteps. Far Beyond Driven’s biggest anthem, “I’m Broken,” is as sinuous and sickened as a sing-along gets, and “Strength Beyond Strength” draws on the savage gallop of hardcore even as it opens the gate for metalcore hordes to come. Late guitarist Darrell Abbott—billed as Dimebag Darrell for the first time on Far Beyond Driven—gets his best moments on the Pantera staple “5 Minutes Alone,” where the swagger, fluidity, and dark melodicism of his riffage is chopped and sculpted into a monument to butt-ugly menace.
Far Beyond Driven may have been the antidote to grunge’s anti-metal naysaying, but it’s not above acknowledging its environment. The agitated squeals and grunts of “Becoming” bridge the gap between Alice In Chains and Korn (whose self-titled debut followed Far Beyond Driven by seven months). And while doom and stoner-metal were on the rise in ’94, the album’s cover of Black Sabbath’s moody, subdued “Planet Caravan” pays its own homage, albeit tepid, to the band that started it all. Pantera actually sounds more atmospheric with all amps cranked—as on the wah-pedal-slathered “Throes Of Rejection” and the seven-minute memoir of substance abuse, “Hard Lines, Sunken Cheeks.” The latter is not only Far Beyond Driven’s centerpiece, it’s Anselmo’s most arresting performance, a simmering fit of percussive howls and ghostly confessionals, aided by an eerie alchemy with Dimebag Darrell’s equally dimensional guitar.
The 20th Anniversary Edition’s inclusion of the nine-song concert recording, Far Beyond Bootleg: Live From Donington ’94, is icing on the cake, but it’s not as strong as Pantera’s definitive live album, 1997’s Official Live: 101 Proof—nor does it cast Far Beyond Driven in a fresh light. Not that it needs the help. Pantera was far from the only innovative metal band offering a vital alternative to alternative rock in 1994; from black metal to death metal to grindcore, the music flourished, meanwhile laying the groundwork for a new millennium of metal to come. No coffin nails needed. Far Beyond Driven is just one of the many albums that made that renaissance possible—but due to its impact, its tireless legacy, and its unflinching collision of craft and savagery, it’s a benchmark that can still bench-press the rest.