Release Date Rivals is a feature that looks back on a specific date in history to note the simultaneous release of two albums—one a well-known and historically appreciated album by a commercially successful artist, and one lesser-known record that arguably deserves equal, if not more, time in the spotlight as its better-known competitor.
It doesn’t happen often, but metal—or, perhaps more accurately, appreciably accessible subgenres of metal—occasionally manage to reach the rarified air of the number-one spot on the Billboard 200, the chart ranking the most popular albums and EPs in the U.S., based on sales and streaming metrics. The rise of hair metal in the ’80s ushered in a handful of top-charting acts (Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, and Mötley Crüe), while the ’90s saw Metallica soften its sound and reap the commercial rewards, as well as the rise of rap- and Nü-metal in the back half of the decade, with avatars of each (Rage Against The Machine in the case of the former, Korn and Limp Bizkit the latter) claiming the top spot, some more than once. And at the beginning of the 2000s, Tool’s Lateralus gave genuinely progressive and conceptual metal maybe its one and only shot atop the throne, a record whose brilliant and complex arrangements had more in common with Rush than the average nü-metal of the time. From then on, the 21st century saw more metal and metal-adjacent albums hit number one than ever before—and some of them, like Slipknot’s All Hope Is Gone, are pretty damn heavy at times.
But almost 15 years before that testament to how deeply metal has managed to quietly (ironic, that) insinuate itself into the mainstream, Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven threw a molotov cocktail into the unquestioned dominance of alternative rock. The album came out of seemingly nowhere to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in its very first weeks of release; it was a warning shot across the bow of the oft-emo tendencies of Alternative Nation, one that hinted at the deep hunger for expressions of extreme angst and anger that also made windows rattle far more violently than the contemporaneous sounds of a Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots. There were plenty of innovative metal bands thriving below the alt-rock surface of the era, but none with the same lightning-bolt effect on the charts. Fitting, too, that it came from a group who had come up originally as a hair-metal act, before the members realized that they had absolutely had it with that shit.
Pantera reinvented themselves in 1990 with Cowboys From Hell, distilling their particular version of groove metal into a potent and intense wall of sound that got even heavier on 1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power. But Far Beyond Driven was where that sound received its commercial—and arguably critical—apogee, an album that crossed over to hook grunge fans, punks, and hard-rock aficionados at a time when such music was often anathema to mainstream music media, save for the metal ghetto of MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and magazines like Kerrang! Plus, it was a case of right place, right time; nestled between the onset of alt-rock and the subsequent rise of more guttural versions of metalcore, Pantera’s bombastic, more-is-more intensity held appeal for the same brooding goth kids who had just had their minds opened to the possibility of such pummeling riffs and screams a couple years earlier, as symbolized by Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish.”
Right from the outset, the record announced itself as a mission statement of everything the band had incorporated into its stylistic stew of aggro influences. Lead single “I’m Broken” remains a high-water mark for a singalong song that nonetheless stomps and fusses as brutally as anything in the band’s repertoire, but those hitting play on the album were immediately greeted by opener “Strength Upon Strength,” which went one better in its clever fusion of hardcore and metalcore. Time and again, the record nails its tone of straight-faced fury and raw confessional, with singer Phil Anselmo’s exhortations successfully alternating between the grunts and low-range ferocity of “Becoming” to the cathartic and harrowing screams of his addiction opus, the seven-minute “Hard Lines, Sunken Cheeks.” But everyone gets standout moments on Driven, especially late guitarist Darrell Abbott, a.k.a. Dimebag Darrell (the first Pantera record to credit him as such); as we noted upon the release of the 2oth anniversary edition of the album, the guitarist “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.”
It’s not a start-to-finish success. “Good Friends And A Bottle Of Pills” is downright embarrassing in hindsight, the nadir of Anselmo’s swaggering machismo that now sounds like the kind of thing Mike Patton would do as parody. And the repeated lyrical braggadocio can get a bit wearying at times, for those who actually discerned the words contained in Anselmo’s throaty howl. But the record still stands as one of Pantera’s finest achievements, where their freneticism, buffet-style selecting of metal influences, and rock-solid groove rhythms all came together to leapfrog over everything else happening in American popular music. That’s heavy in more ways than one.
Time has been extremely kind to the reputation and legacy of Unwound. Since its breakup in 2002, The Olympia-based band has achieved the status of cult legend, with this very site making an argument for the three-piece as the best band of the ’90s. Whether that’s true is debatable, but it’s undeniable that the band’s influence has grown far beyond the size of its fanbase during its existence. There are indie rock bands from that decade, there are art rock bands from that decade, and there are noise rock acts from the same time, but few bridge the gaps between those disparate genres with as much invention, passion, and musical catharsis as Unwound.
New Plastic Ideas was technically the third full-length that the band had written and recorded, but when Unwound shelved its first album after the departure of drummer Brandt Sandeno (the self-titled record was eventually released in 1995, after The Future Of What), it started over again with new drummer Sara Lund, who brought with her a very different style and feel to the drums. The trio’s first full-length together, Fake Train, was a heady stew of Sonic Youth guitar shredding and almost post-punk rhythms, executed in a deliberately looser and more raw manner that felt worlds away from, say, the metric precision of Fugazi, yet was undeniably related.
But if that record was good, New Plastic Ideas was where it all came together. From the opening riff of “Entirely Different Matters,” which explodes into a stomping, jagged number—as representative of the group’s sound as arguably anything can be said to—the record is a front-to-back document of a band coming into the best version of itself. And it’s a genuine album, in that it ebbs and flows, rises and falls, all of a singular piece, with songs complementing each other, calling back to different moments, and hanging together with a conceptual foundation that keeps it from splintering into an array of competing sounds and arrangements. If Fake Train was about abandoning the posturing and false narratives of rock music and its attendant scenes, in order to travel somewhere more authentic (even if that effort is doomed to fail), here the band takes the messy and universal insecurities of identity and imposter syndrome, and transforms them into something new.
“Envelope,” Hexenzene,” “Abstraktions”—these weren’t just songs that inverted the grunge-rock tactics of thick distortion and quiet-loud-quiet dynamics. Instead, the band adopted these techniques and subtly subverted them, allowing for spacious gaps between riffs on otherwise monstrous refrains, or launching from a deceptively mellow and lo-fi drum beat to a churning, almost shoegaze-like wail of melody. Singer and guitarist Justin Trosper could move from a mumbled near-whisper to a raggedy scream in the course of a single bar, let alone verse; album highlight “All Souls Day” showcases how the band could take what seems like a pure wall of noise and harness it to a downright hummable melody, all in the same song. And Trosper’s lyrics, confessional in an honest and forthright manner (“I won’t pretend to know what to do / about death and dying more than you”), help ballast the more abstract and elliptical elements of the record, reminding listeners that below the noise and artistic experimentation, there’s a fellow confused person just trying to make sense of things.
Unwound’s legacy seems assured, but even casting a long shadow over today’s noise- and indie-rock scenes doesn’t seem to have made them as much a part of rock’s canon as they deserve to be. Spotify streams are an admittedly loose metric, but to compare Unwound’s numbers (only two songs break the million-stream mark, Repetition’s “Corpse Pose” and the muted beauty of Leaves Turn Inside You’s “Look A Ghost”) to Pantera’s is to see the obvious contrast: Every track on Far Beyond Driven does upwards of triple those numbers, with the biggest songs, like “I’m Broken,” getting more than 60 times the airplay of Unwound. They’re apples and oranges—no one could mistake the tense push-and-pull of even Unwound’s noisiest work with the groove metal titans—but New Plastic Ideas deserves its place on any short list of the best albums of that year, and the band itself a spot right alongside its biggest influences, Sonic Youth and Fugazi, as an act that changed rock for the better.