Pentagram, Last Rites: Griffin and Liebling Return to Walk in Blue Light

The Pentagram story is as long as the story of heavy metal itself. In 2011, vocalist Bobby Liebling marks 40 years since the inception of the seminal Washington D.C. (it’s the “Doom Capitol” for a reason) outfit, and with the much-anticipated release of Pentagram’s Last Rites – a title they’ve been tossing around since this latest inception of the band got going in 2009 – the start of their fifth decade could legitimately be a new beginning for them. Liebling, who has a legacy of drug abuse trumped only by his band’s influence, is reportedly clean and staying that way. Now married with a daughter (of doom), he’s also reunited once more with guitarist Victor Griffin (also of Place of Skulls and Death Row), whose mere presence goes a long way in making the difference between Last Rites being Pentagram, the band, and The Bobby Liebling Show. Together with bassist Greg Turley (also Place of Skulls and Griffin’s nephew) and Place of Skulls drummer Tim Tomaselli, Pentagram 2011 present the first new studio album under the moniker in seven years, and easily the best batch of new material they’ve had in more than a decade.

Of course, Last Rites isn’t all new material. Catchy single “Into the Ground” and hard-hitting closer “Nothing Left” date back to Liebling’s pre-Pentagram band, Stone Bunny’s 1970 album, Nothing Left, “Call the Man” dates back to demo tapes from 1971, and Last Rites highlights “Walk in Blue Light” and “Everything’s Turning to Night” were available in rougher versions on Relapse RecordsFirst Daze Here (2002) and First Daze Here Too (2006) collections of vintage ‘70s-era material. That still leaves six of the 11 total tracks unaccounted for in Liebling’s vast and sometimes murky catalog, and though a song like “Treat Me Right” has that classic Pentagram feel, it’s easy to hear the modernity on songs like “8,” “Windmills and Chimes,” “American Dream” (on which Griffin takes the lead vocal with Liebling backing during the chorus), “Horseman” and “Death in First Person,” which, while definitely still riff-based and in line with what one might expect from Pentagram, have more complexity to them – especially in Griffin’s guitar – than the older, more rudimentary material. I’ll add also that my estimation of what’s new and what’s not (apart from what can be found on prior releases) is speculative on my part and just based on what I’m hearing in the music. In a career as long and

The effect that mix of old and new has is that Last Rites comes across as a healthily varied collection of songs. “8” is perhaps the most satisfying of the new-sounding cuts, and the record as a whole isn’t without its missteps, but taken in the context of both the Pentagram history and 2004’s disappointing Show ‘em How outing, it’s hard to think of Last Rites as anything but a net victory both for the band and longtime fans. They make the right move opening with “Treat Me Right” and Griffin’s signature (and fucking excellent) guitar tone ringing out like a beacon letting you know this is, in fact, a Pentagram record you’ve just put on. The song is short, repetitive of its title line, and as I already noted, vintage Pentagram. I’d say it’s definitely older, but can’t find it on any previous release, so can’t be sure. In any case, it’s an excellent show of what this version of the band – over the years, more people have been in and out of Pentagram than almost any other of the Doom Capitol bands – can do. To be fair, they’ve had something to prove all along since Liebling got the band going again, and it’s obvious the intent behind starting Last Rites with “Treat Me Right” was in shutting up the better part of the doubters out there among both critics and the general listening public. There’s no arguing with it.

Second track “Call the Man” has, like most of the songs, an excellent solo from Griffin, but also a classic stomp in its central riff that seems to go further than the mere 3:49 it lasts. Liebling is one of the rare vocalists in metal who can give a sense of his showmanship on a studio album and not fall completely flat, and that’s clearly at play here, but when it comes right down to it, the lyrics leave me wanting and there are other cuts on Last Rites I think might have worked better to back up “Treat Me Right.” To the credit of the band as a whole, Turley doesn’t get lost in the melee of leads and crash hits, and the material across the board sounds thick and heavy. There’s something to be said for striking that balance, and even though there are some less than landmark moments throughout, the sound of Last Rites in general is perfect for what Pentagram should be doing after 40 years. They’re neither trying to ape their ‘70s sound (as many are), nor affecting some bizarre and wrongly interpreted take on “today’s metal.” The vision of Last Rites is that of an accomplished doom band claiming their due. As the album proceeds, they seem more and more likely to get it.

It’s the first of the two Stone Bunny inclusions and Pentagram played it on their most recent live shows, and sure enough, “Into the Ground” proves a high point of Last Rites as well. It’s an excellent balance of doomed atmosphere, classic heavy rock and Griffin’s added ringing notes to the chorus do well to blend it in among the newer of the songs. Liebling seems to relax a bit on the vocals as compares to “Call the Man,” and as he double-tracks the chorus, his voice seems to be in the best shape it’s been in, in a long time, and it doesn’t sound like studio trickery. Last Rites is unquestionably a modern production, and there are liberal effects put on Liebling’s voice, but the underlying performance is there to start with, as it has to be for him to be able to pull off the material. “Into the Ground” leads almost directly into “8,” which starts with Griffin playing subdued notes over Tomaselli’s tom work before launching into one of Last Rites’ most effective riffs. The verses return to that quieter feel, and Liebling plays to that, but a driving chorus ups the energy, and as the longest song on the album at 5:02, it’s also a highlight among the newer-seeming pieces. Griffin shows personality in his encompassing layers of guitar, and though it’s moodier than “Treat Me Right” or even “Into the Ground,” the lyrical chronicle of Liebling’s dark times feels heartfelt and is all the more compelling for it.

“Everything’s Turning to Night, ” has some keyboard “ooh!” noises in its chorus riff that come off as kind of goofy. Listening back to the raw version included on First Daze Here Too, they’re there too, but more of a pinch-harmonic sound in the guitar than they are on Last Rites. In any case, the standalone guitar riff that kicks in a minute into the song is enough to redeem any silliness Pentagram might have otherwise included. It’s short-lived (on the scale of they could have ridden it out for seven minutes and I’d be happy to follow), but in direct dialogue with Black Sabbath’s best Ozzy years material and not wrongly so. The song is too short to really meander, but I could easily have done with another repeat of that break riff to close instead of a return to the “ooh!” I guess when a song’s been around for more than 30 years, though, at some point you have to just put it to bed and let it be what it is. Fair enough.

They’re not a band known for their ballads, and I don’t think “Windmills and Chimes” is going to change that for Pentagram. Perhaps “semi-ballad” is more accurate. Griffin rings out electric chords layered over acoustic guitar, Tomaselli provides heavy fills, but it’s not hard to imagine the power ballad-type video “Windmills and Chimes” might have gotten had it been released 25 years ago. Liebling’s voice, soulful as it is, isn’t as well suited to this kind of atmosphere, and though Griffin can obviously handle it on guitar – as he’s proved many times over with Place of Skulls – the song as a whole comes across as awkward and ill-fitting the momentum Last Rites has already built. As the centerpiece, it’s perfectly positioned to break up the album, but that doesn’t mean I’m pretty sure the long solo fadeout into wind noises would have been enough to do that on its own, without a whole song attached, and the aforementioned “American Dream,” on which Griffin takes the lead vocal, is different enough just for that, that it too could have served as the point of demarcation between the two halves of the record.

Griffin, as well as being one of the most influential and accomplished American doom guitarists, is at this point also an accomplished vocalist. He’ll probably always be more of a six-stringer, but he’s every bit as capable of carrying a song vocally as he is with his riffs and leads. “American Dream” finds him taking on more of a social commentary than a directly political one, as regards the lyrics. It’s a general statement on its titular subject, the changing nature of it and the corruption and greed that might get in the way of one’s pursuit of it. I’m sure that as a small business owner in his non-band life (see also: Griffin Cycles), he has no shortage of opinions on the subject. In the chorus here, it’s “The American dream/Has fallen asleep/If we wake the giant/What will the people reap?” As I say, “American Dream” would have been enough to break up Last Rites without “Windmills and Chimes” in front of it, and though the two tracks together throw Pentagram a little off course in terms of the album’s flow, the slower pace of “American Dream” should be a welcome and fascinating inclusion for any fan of Place of Skulls’ work. After all, it’s Griffin, Turley and drums. Pretty much a Place of Skulls track anyway.

That’s not to discount the contributions of Tomaselli, who came aboard a replacement for Gary Isom (ex-Spirit Caravan, ex-Valkyrie) and does a more than suitable job across Last Rites — the newfound Albert Born has since taken over the role — it’s just an assessment of the overall atmosphere of the track. When “Walk in Blue Light” kicks in after “American Dream,” it’s more or less a return to the business at hand. It’s another of the older works, and likewise a moment on Last Rites where Pentagram feels almost completely in its collective element. Liebling sounds comfortable vocally, Griffin’s riffing is second to none, and Turley and Tomaselli work well backing them up as the rhythm section. Longtime fans of the band or those who discovered their legacy through the First Daze Here comps will be glad to have a modern version, and the song fits well without sounding like a gimme. It’s a crowd-pleaser, definitely, but of substance enough to be more than just that as well.

Much like the way the “ooh!” sounds came across perhaps not the way they were originally intended on “Everything’s Turning to Night,” the backing vocals on “Horseman” have a lightening aspect to them that probably wasn’t the original idea behind them. Liebling’s straightforward rhyming in the verses ends with a kind of howling up from underneath the lead vocal layer, and though it’s funny in a way, I’m more willing to give it a pass on a charm and classic metal level. I’ll go with it, in other words, and even though Liebling is clearly struggling with singing the notes at the end of the song, it’s an effective track anyway for what it’s doing, the traditional feel of the verses and yet another excellent solo from Griffin putting the definitively Pentagram stamp on it. It’s a good lead-in for the spooky, theatrical weirdness of the first half of “Death in First Person,” where Liebling does a spoken-word vocal over Griffin’s riffing. The subject of the song being something the frontman can legitimately claim knowledge of – he O.D.’ed in 2005 – the song plays more like a horror movie than confessional. Maybe the idea is that it’s both.

The back half of “Death in First Person” picks up the momentum of the song and capitalizes on it for a more energetic conclusion. As well as the delivery of the titular line, it’s the first time Pentagram works in this kind of structure on Last Rites (the more subtle start and build to the end), and the shift is interesting and well done. At about 2:20, the twice-repeated verse/chorus riff sections give way to a solo and bridge that boast perhaps Liebling’s best vocal on the album and an overall excellent performance from the band entirely. Of the newer Last Rites material, I’d be the most interested to see “Death in First Person” live.

Though you’d never know from the size of this review, it’s a quick 40 minutes to get to the three-minute “Nothing Left” and the conclusion of Last Rites. The second Stone Bunny track, it’s a solid echo of “Treat Me Right” and an appropriate finish for Pentagram’s seventh full-length. Like the rest of the album, there’s little by way of pretense and much by way of rock and the band’s trademark penchant for mid-paced doom groove. I suppose that shouldn’t be much of a surprise, since Griffin and Liebling helped incite the genre in the first place, but it’s satisfying to hear them do what they do so well together on “Nothing Left.” The same goes for all of Last Rites. The reunion of Griffin and Liebling is pivotal to the album’s ultimate success, and since it’s Pentagram, who knows how long it will last, but for 2011, they’ve managed to produce an excellent work of doom that’s both modern and classic. There will be those who refuse to get onboard, who say Liebling’s past his prime, or who refuse to move past either 1985’s Relentless or the earliest material as Pentagram’s best, but I think they’re missing a good deal of the point. Last Rites isn’t about recapturing something that’s already in the past, but about showing Pentagram is still a vital band 40 years on, and worthy of the acclaim the underground has hoisted on them these many decades. The album does that and more, so to call it anything other than a success would be a mistake.

For its mere existence, it’s a 2011 highlight. That it’s actually good, well, take that as a bonus.

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5 Responses to “Pentagram, Last Rites: Griffin and Liebling Return to Walk in Blue Light”

  1. […] reading: The Obelisk » Blog Archive » Pentagram, Last Rites: Griffin and Liebling Return to Walk in Blue Li…. (Courtesy of JJ Koczan / The Obelisk) Share and […]

  2. LeGrisbi says:

    so, it’s…….good

  3. goAt says:

    Jesus Christ, man!!! Nice DOOM thesis!!!

    Decibel did a GREAT cover story on Bobby…what a mess, I hope Metal Blade don’t actually think that they are going to get 2 more records out of these dudes…

  4. Jake says:

    Well I can’t wait for this release! It’s been a long hall for them thats for sure. The timing seems to be just right and anyone who still believes in this band will be on board. As for two more records we’ll have to see what happens? The continued support always seems to spark creativity for a band. Pentagram through all of incarnations and issues has stood a lot longer than anyone probably could have imagined and well their doing one awesome job keeping it together. Doom out! Welcome back!

  5. Scott says:

    Very late here of course, but for what it’s worth, only ‘8’, ‘American Dream’ and ‘Death in First Person’ were new tracks.

    There are early versions of “Treat Me Right”, “Windmills and Chimes” and “Horseman” on various rehearsals and bootlegs that are out there.

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