One of the most influential metal bands in history, Pantera have risen from the ashes and are bringing their music back to life – as they play Australia for the first time in twenty-three years, bassist Rex Brown talks to Samuel J. Fell

[First published in Rolling Stone (online), March 2024]

It began in Arlington, Texas. Clad in spandex, teased hair, shrouded in the miasma that was the 1980s. It began as a channelling of youthful energy set to the music of the time, that over time, warped and buckled and was rebuilt into something so sonically brutal as to stand on its own as a bastion to heavy sound itself.

Pantera was its name, and as that decade wore on and morphed into the next, the four young men from the American south who comprised the band’s ranks, came to define a time and place and way of doing things that is still adhered to, and idolised, to this day. And this day is different, make no mistake. But it’s no less poignant, no less urgent, no less meaningful to the millions it’s bruised, the power of this music on display so vulgar.

But, of course, you know all this. You know of the band’s ingesting of more hard-biting musical influence, of the addition of a young vocalist from the steamy streets of New Orleans that began so gloriously to pervert their sound. You know of the warning shot, 1988’s Power Metal, and the ensuing full-on assault that began two years later via the now-seminal Cowboys From Hell. You know the band ran hard and fast through the ‘90s before imploding in the early 2000s, seemingly ending what was, for so many, the greatest period in heavy music since it began, likely never to be repeated.

You know that the heavy metal world was changed as a result.

Plenty has happened since the release of Pantera’s final record, 2001’s Reinventing The Steel, and not a lot of it good, but you know this too. Addiction and estrangement and death has permeated the ranks of one of the most influential heavy metal bands of our time, of all time, and yet, like the proverbial phoenix, the band has, almost inexplicably, risen once more. And it’s different, in human terms, but it’s the same, from a musical point of view, their signature groove-addled power thrash still very much alive. 

It’s been reported that, in the middle of 2022, long-time bassist Rex Brown and vocalist Philip Anselmo began talking about resurrecting the band in some form or another, but this isn’t true. According to Brown, the conversations began “way before that”, and when pressed on how they began, how they progressed, says, “I’m not gonna go there,” suggesting it wasn’t as easy as it perhaps sounds. “We’ll let you know in the book,” he adds, the hint of a smile playing on his lips.

Brown and Anselmo, in Australia for the first time since 2001, are the only remaining ‘original’ members of the band, touring today (and for the past year and a bit) with Zakk Wylde and Charlie Benante filling the immense shoes of founding brothers Vinnie and Darrell Abbott, both of whom have died since the band went on hiatus, in 2001, and then was scrapped two years later. It’s on the memory of the Abbott brothers that this reincarnation is founded, the band’s current tour leaning heavily on the ideas of legacy and brotherhood.

And so it is then that, finally, after twenty-three years, we see the band back on Australian shores – older? Yes. Wiser? Perhaps. But very much aware of the time that’s elapsed, the time spent away from their fans, and now, the opportunity to reconnect, to reintroduce themselves once more. “We were just young, spry bucks, you know, very thirsty, fuckin’ angry young men,” Brown smiles, thinking back. “And here we are, grateful and it’s just a privilege to be here. We’re different fellas to how we were back then.”

“I mean, it’s a dream,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “I told Philip yesterday, man, pinch me when this shit’s over.”

For Brown, being on stage under the Pantera banner once again isn’t anything to be taken lightly. It’s not a gimmick, a money-making exercise, something he’s involved with just for the hell of it. This is, for Brown, for Anselmo, no doubt for Wylde and Benante, and sure as hell for the band’s millions of fans, a very real thing – “Two of our beloved brothers that just aren’t here anymore man, that’s life, you know?” Browns says on the deaths of the Abbott brothers. “They’re just not with us man, that’s just fate, it’s the way the ball rolls, dude.”

“It’s just one of those things that is sacred to us, you know?” he goes on, insinuating that just because the original lineup isn’t present, it doesn’t mean the music stops; indeed, its somewhat of a homage. “This is not… this is no tribute band, you know, Philip and I get to play these songs of ours that we haven’t played in 23 years. And to be able to do that and connect with the enormity of what’s happened, is just extraordinarily fucking insane, you know?”

The pair who have been recruited to fill these hallowed spots long left vacant are, of course, not just anyone, session musicians plucked from obscurity; Wylde, as well as fronting the well-known Black Label Society, has played guitar with Ozzy Osbourne for decades, while Benante is the long-time drummer for thrash pioneers Anthrax – no one but the best to fuel the current incarnation of one of the more powerful bands in modern music. “These guys are kickin’ fuckin’ ass,” Brown asserts. “Hard shoes to fuckin’ fill, I’ll put it that way.”

“We knew, we knew who would fit and who wouldn’t,” he drawls. “We knew what the obstacles were in front of us, and we knew after… I’ll put it this way – Charlie and I came down in September before we played that [first] show in December (2022), and we have probably one hundred hours of tape of us playing every fucking Pantera song that I could remember.

“And so, you know, me and Charlie lockin’ in like that… the drummer and the bass player, that’s your foundation. So when Zakk came in, there were certain things we had to go over and over and over, to get tight. And today, this band is about as tight and about as badass as I fucking want. You know what I mean, and that’s all I’m gonna say on that.”

“Look, I’ll put it this way,” he adds a little later. “If it wasn’t tight, if it didn’t sound as close to, you know, I wouldn’t do it. That’s it. But man, this band is on fuckin’ fire, and I couldn’t be happier man, I just can’t explain that as much as I need to, I could not be happier.”

Another thing you know: unless you’re at a Pantera show, you’re not going to get that ‘feeling’. As Brown concurs, “You’re not gonna get that feeling off YouTube, you know, you have to experience it live.” And this is how it is now. The Abbott brothers are no longer here, this is a fact of life. But the music is. It’s still, in the hands of Pantera as it is today, as pure and jagged and real and raw as it ever was. “That’s the whole thing… there’ll be the chants before we go on for a big show and I’ll just go, ‘Hey boys, let’s just fuckin’ look at each other and fuckin’ jam’, that’s it. We all know these songs in and out, man. But you’ve gotta bring a rock ‘n’ roll element to it, you know what I’m saying? You can get it as tight as you want, but the thing that we were really good at back in the day, was impromptu kinda territory, and that’s where we’re kinda headed, you know?”

So it began in Arlington, Texas. It’s grown and prospered and withered but it’s never died. On the contrary. So where will it end? Will it end? Will the joy in playing this music that Brown and his brothers in sound are so easily finding, ever fade? Time, which has had its wicked way with us for so long, won’t stop, but then nothing is concrete, nothing is written in stone; indeed, this is something you don’t know. 

“You’ll see this band go and go and go and go,” Brown says. “There’ll be a bunch of new songs in the set in 2025, maybe even this year… I ain’t givin’ it away.” He won’t be drawn on specifics, and in truth, it doesn’t matter. Not right now.

“The set list we’re doing now, goddamn, it’s powerful, man,” he smiles. “And I hate tootin’ my own horn, dude, you know… we’re just happy to be here, man, it’s a privilege to be here, I’m honoured and I am grateful to be here, and that’s all I gotta say, man.”

(Feature image by Ashley Mar)