I’ve wanted to write this for years.
It’s one of those things you put off though, because there always seems to be a better time.
And, naturally, it’s a biggie. It’s an important album.
It was important when I was sixteen. So, in a bit, I’m going to write this from the point of view of when I was sixteen.
Firstly though: the weird thing is, you already know the conclusion right at the start. Some of their finest ever material; some of the undeniably shittest; true emotional paydirt; and that, tellingly, it winds up as many metallers favourite Pantera album.
But what exactly is it about it, that more than two decades later we can reach into and take out again?
Many albums take some illuminating, or some explanation, some peeling back of the onion’s layers.
Probably every single one of us reading this though knows each and every note and cadence of this album, forward and backward.
So I’m not the person to do that.
There’s no history lesson here either, save that they were all a bit pissed off with each other and recorded in rival camps, and that, remarkably for such a seminal album, no-marks like Seth Putnam were somehow involved.
What has always made me wonder about Trendkill though is where the band were at as people and as a unit in their hearts and minds that could have made them craft the darker songs.
I remember so vividly the rank confusion when I first spun this – I’ll spare you the usual ‘day of release’ talk, but I’d be amazed if it wasn’t.
Bottom line is that even an absorbed teenager could call out ‘Trendkill’ at first blush for some of its less forgivable moments. Of which there were many.
The chief callouts being: ‘that’s a rehash’; ‘Phil’s sounds wick there’ and ‘that song’s just shit’.
But check yourself: that same absorbed teenager could be moved (was) to the fathomless depths of the soul by ‘Suicide Note’.
What I’m trying to do with this ramble is to take myself back to exactly when I first heard it, and not the years of interpretation since.
So let’s get back to being sixteen.
On a sunny day in 1996, dossing around town and sticking it in the walkman out of the shop, I remember being impressed by the opening title track. Weaned on Peak Dime soloing, even I knew that the guitar in this one was special, by dint of its very difference.
As Phil says, its ‘Suthin Styyyyyle’ before that monster lick that beds down for the chorus effected solo.
Then that end section, with the wee lap steel whistle leading in to to the starry, reverbed, clippy harmonic overtones? Obvious genius.
‘War Nerve’ and ‘Drag The Waters’ though.
The first is laborious, with bad beats and the shadow of ‘5 Minutes Alone’ looming rather largely over it, somehow. And that ridiculous spoken slowdown, with its ungainly re-arrival back to the riff.
And even as a kid I knew how shit the second was. It’s just shit: a low rent re-hash of past glories done less than half as well.
But all of this is worth sitting through to prepare for ’10s’ properly.
Now, obviously bands like Alice In Chains and others had plumbed the depths of massive personal suffering in grunge and metal for years by this point.
There just remains something horrifically dark about ’10s’ (‘disguested with my cheapness‘) that’s emblematic of why this album is so rich, molasses rich, and so important.
Few bands will ever write a song like it.
The solo bleeds with emotion, every bit as much as the more widely lauded ‘Floods’. The warm, sticky, Texan atmosphere is shot through it; Dime plays it like a sweaty guitar hack alone in the blues bar with only the ceiling fan for company.
And the almost impossible sweetness of those high notes as they sing, played with an uncustomarily tight vibrato, before it ends – you just knew Dime was saying something more here, giving us a deeper insight, and a much more personal admission.
‘Like life itself’.
I remember, if I’m right, ’13 Steps To Nowhere’ being the end of the first side of the tape. There’s a strange darkness to its back section that again speaks to the mental ill health of the band at the time.
Even now when ‘Suicide Note Part 1’ comes on, I feel a pang at that reversed tape stuff. It is so, so winsome, even before those dark, tobacco coloured American twangs get anywhere near it.
I remember how it cut through right to all those quaint teenage feelings of alienation and heartache, with the particularly sarcastic ‘how smart are you to read this?‘ seeming to me especially vicious in the context.
I also remember, from many scans of the lyric sheet, as we did in those days, that ‘It’s a damn shame’ was unfinished on record, but was supposed to be followed by ‘but who’s to blame?’ on the sheet. A meaningless vignette, but these things stick in your memory.
Then Part Two. I needn’t describe the potency of it. It was on fucking point no matter what black metal or whatever you’d graduated into. It still is.
‘Hells Wrath’ couldn’t hope to follow it up, and doesn’t.
Again, all was mere precursor to ‘Floods’.
Rather than go about this the usual way (that solo), I’d like to remark on what else made it so very, very special.
The chorus pedal on that thin steel string providing the most ghoulish melody for all of its sections. It’s picked like a skeleton on a lute.
The lyrics. I’m still not really sure what it’s about, save Man being Bad at stuff (‘Then throughout the night, they were raped and executed – like what actually is that about?’) before a great cleansing.
And those bizarre chords – for Pantera anyway – before the ‘cold hearted world’ lyric – a strange, supernatural jangle.
But what really hit home was evilness of the misplacing of ‘Die, die, die’, which by degrees got ever more out of time. It was just sort of chilling for no real reason.
I know I’m trying to go back to how I felt when I heard this as a kid, but it bears saying: somewhat remarkably, I write these thoughts in the middle of a thunderstorm in Greece, where the rain is now deluging outside the window.
You almost couldn’t make it up, and Pathetic Fallacy is competing heavily right now with bathetic irony. But basically I had to clock that I never remembered all the hammy heavy metal thunder sounds before.
Truly. I’d forgotten they were part of it, apart from the trickling rain at the end.
Nonetheless, only an idiot couldn’t be moved by the feeling of clarity and fresh air as ‘Floods’ storm clears. Few bands have done this kind of tension and release better.
Dime wrote the end section in 1988, and indeed taken in isolation, it could easily be a Van Halen inspired vamp from a happier ditty. My own ear suggests its played with fingers, Mark Knopfler style, rather than pick – it has a that softness. Again, unsurpassable.
Thank goodness ‘The Underground In America’ is a rock song after it.
And then there’s the gammy fake fadeout in ‘Sandblasted Skin’. How neat.
What It All Means
But compare it with the one just a year before it: the incomparable ‘Far Beyond Driven’.
It is so much warmer, less conformist, arguably more ‘them’ – at least the ‘them’ at that stage of their life and career.
I always remember R.E.M. saying that ‘Automatic For The People’ was the real alternative music at a point when ‘Alternative’ was so far beyond saturated (see what I did there) into the mainstream as to be null.
At the time I thought “yeah right”. But of course, they were, yes, right.
I feel sort of the same about ‘Trendkill’. It’s homely sounding, in a way – of Texas, rather than Athens, Georgia – an album truly from Pantera’s own back barn.
For all the deep musical meaning in this album, of which there is much, it has to also be said however that there isn’t one single song, bar ‘Floods’, you’d want to hear from them at a gig.
Not in comparison to the rest of their discography to that point, whose almost every song could be said to jostle for a position on their setlist.
I did end up seeing Pantera once – and I’m pretty sure they did play Suicide Note Part 2, though my memory is that it wasn’t preceded by Part 1.
It wasn’t how I would have wanted to hear it, given how much my younger self had invested in that particular track.
The whole gig was a squealy, flabby mess, which didn’t really matter because I was blocked and at a Pantera show, and that was alright by me, but still.
A Final Word
I play Trendkill the odd time nowadays – not so much, given how rubbish too many of its tracks really are – but savour the timeless ones.
And the impression I had then is still the impression I have now.
Its that the overall mood and gist of the album is much more important than its collection of tracks.
But, for some reason, because of its inherent tonal and sonic gamble and its consequential dicey-ness, it’s just an incredibly important piece of work.
And so I thought, twenty one years ago this month.
True, you know.
– Earl Grey ::: 24/05/18
(If you liked this – remember our Dimebag obituary from the time.)