At the dawn of the uprising of nu-metal and the twilight days of grunge, Pantera would find themselves as one of the biggest defenders of the faith thanks to the success of their groove-crafted record Vulgar Display Of Power. To keep the momentum and sheer intensity that it brought them, the only way to go was to make something even heavier and more sinister. Pantera’s established image and sound from the two previous records would generate a lot of anticipation for those that stayed true to metal’s roots, thus Far Beyond Driven was an album that would do the unthinkable. While most heavy bands had to take a more accessible approach after making a dent in the timeline, Pantera managed to gain a number one record by doing just the opposite. Twenty-five years later, and it’s still quite an anomaly of a release to look back on.
With their glam days all but forgotten, this marks where Diamond Darrell Abbot would take on the nickname that the fans know and love him by, Dimebag Darrell. To go with this, he would inject higher levels of aggression, industrial-like tactics, and ear-splitting screeches atop his muscular riffs. His big piece for experimentation here was a new whammy pedal. The fuel for this fire was driven by the band pushing each other to their extremes, as Dimebag was not the only one stepping up his game and taking things further. Drummer Vinnie Paul Abbot would be forced to take on drumming techniques that he had never imagined doing before. Pressure from the album’s producer Terry Date would be the main force behind this, as he would encourage Vinnie to strive for more unique sounds whenever he would come up with something. Before Date even saw it coming, Vinnie was pulling off double kick-drum patterns that went above and beyond.
Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games from the Abbot brothers’ newfound weapons. Many of the songs composed for this record came from harsh experiences, particularly those of frontman Phil Anselmo. Hatred towards his life with his father (“25 Years”) or the aftermath of lawsuits from haters in the crowd (“5 Minutes Alone”) drove the lyrics. Naturally, some of his physical pain would be reflected in the music itself as well.
Although Far Beyond Driven didn’t take long for the band to get a start on, it took a long time to complete. Sparked from their cover of Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan” cover and “25 Years,” the songs would begin to write themselves. Meanwhile, Anselmo began experiencing excruciating back pain, and when the painkillers weren’t enough he would begin substituting it out for heroin. The anguish he felt and the tension it created within colliding with the push for a harder musical direction would ultimately provide everything this record needed to do what it did.
Changing musical styles such as rap and grunge being mixed with heavy metal riffs was hot in the music industry. Pantera’s drive to stay far away from this would wind up reaching new levels. Thus songs like album opener “Strength Beyond Strength,” “Slaughtered,” or “Use My Third Arm” would hone in on the intense speed that reflect tracks like “Rise” or “The Art Of Shredding.” Yet these were actually the safer songs, to say the least. They wouldn’t be the foundation of most of Far Beyond Driven. Dimebag’s ideas of incorporating the whammy pedal into his solos would make for noisy passages with a lot of resonance, generating more of a feeling rather a musical melody. Take the aforementioned “5 Minutes Alone,” where Rex Brown’s bass contributions would become imperative to its makeup since the melody would rely solely on his bouncy bass licks.
With an evolving attitude came blunt and borderline slam-like executions, where a lot of the guitars would create harsh, gradual rhythm sections that easily cross over into doom territory. What makes them so exceptional is the fact that the tempos are unique and take on time signatures that don’t always match Phil’s vocals. “Shedding Skin” is a solid example because of how well something so awkward can actually fit together. Others like “I’m Broken” are more focused on intricate vocal patterns, taking multiple tracks and piecing them together to create an atmosphere that’s overwhelming in the greatest way. What it ultimately boils down to is that Far Beyond Driven isn’t an easy listen; it’s rather uncomfortable and holds a lot of weight in its ability to still maintain a strong arm for (mostly) good songwriting despite how it’s executed.
The use of suspense was also a pretty critical piece of the puzzle, which you’ll find more of on the second half of the album. The longer tracks like “Hard Lines, Sunken Cheeks” and “25 Years” are built strictly on doomy buildups and oddly produced guitar noodles that leave the listener confused as to where they’re going. More often than not, the songs will end with a super sinister punch that brings on the heaviest riffs and angriest vocals to be found. Picture it like today’s version of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise” (Symphony No. 94), where he would bore the audience with slow passages that didn’t seem to go anywhere, only to burst into an epic composition that resolved everything. A bit of a reach in comparison perhaps, but I’ve always seen that as what helped Far Beyond Driven channel such a different attitude alongside the odd slamming rhythms and intricate layers of writing.
It’d be a lie to say that this is entirely gold. Despite it hitting number one, it’s quite clear that the timing of the release had a lot to do with that. There are many a screechy passage where Dimebag would get a little too pedal happy, to the point that Rex Brown and Vinnie Paul’s new found talent for double kicks couldn’t back it enough to make it seem worthwhile. Far Beyond Driven would also mark the first time where Phil would start injecting worthless screams that do nothing for the song, and his growing agony would continue to show on the next record The Great Southern Trendkill. It doesn’t ruin either record, but this would make for a lot of questionable moments that left fans wondering what the point was. This disc is also very top-heavy, as the four best-written songs were the first four; “Strength Beyond Strength,” “Becoming,” “5 Minutes Alone,” and “I’m Broken.” All of these tracks captured everything mentioned previously that made this record great, where the songs on the second half would be the ones loaded with the mentioned issues that went just a step too far with effects or screams. And the elephant in the room is “Good Friends And A Bottle Of Pills,” the fluff divider between the perfectly crafted tracks and those that could have been trimmed. All I can say is that if you haven’t heard this one, just listen to it and you’ll see why it needs no description.
Ultimately, this is a tough one, but really it’s one that isn’t meant so much for “hits” (save for maybe the first few tracks) as it is meant to be heard from start to finish. The cringier moments made the strong passages even better by comparison, and they also gave Far Beyond Driven more of an identity than it already had. This amplified the ability to use disorder as a weapon to create beefy resolutions and brilliant suspenseful moments. Closing with the Black Sabbath cover “Planet Caravan” couldn’t have been a better decision, because of how well it reflected the whole disc. It’s a great way of showcasing how chaos can still be smoothed out and end on a soothing note.
Far Beyond Driven was released on March 22nd, 1994 through EastWest. It can be found predominantly in cassette and CD, but there are vinyl pressings out there, including the original album cover with the rejected artwork. All are available through Discogs as usual.