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‚Äôs the ‚ÄúDoom Capitol‚ÄĚ for a reason) outfit, and with the much-anticipated release of Pentagram‚Äôs Last Rites ‚Äď a title they‚Äôve been tossing around since this latest inception of the band got going in 2009 ‚Äď 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‚Äôs influence, is reportedly clean and staying that way. Now married with a daughter (of doom), he‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôve had in more than a decade.
Of course, Last Rites isn‚Äôt all new material. Catchy single ‚ÄúInto the Ground‚ÄĚ and hard-hitting closer ‚ÄúNothing Left‚ÄĚ date back to Liebling‚Äôs pre-Pentagram band, Stone Bunny‚Äôs 1970 album, Nothing Left, “Call the Man” dates back to demo tapes from 1971, and Last Rites highlights ‚ÄúWalk in Blue Light‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúEverything‚Äôs Turning to Night‚ÄĚ were available in rougher versions on Relapse Records‚Äô First Daze Here (2002) and First Daze Here Too (2006) collections of vintage ‚Äė70s-era material. That still leaves six of the 11 total tracks unaccounted for in Liebling‚Äôs vast and sometimes murky catalog, and though a song like ‚ÄúTreat Me Right‚ÄĚ has that classic Pentagram feel, it‚Äôs easy to hear the modernity on songs like ‚Äú8,‚ÄĚ “Windmills and Chimes,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúAmerican Dream‚ÄĚ (on which Griffin takes the lead vocal with Liebling backing during the chorus), ‚ÄúHorseman‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúDeath in First Person,‚ÄĚ which, while definitely still riff-based and in line with what one might expect from Pentagram, have more complexity to them ‚Äď especially in Griffin‚Äôs guitar ‚Äď than the older, more rudimentary material. I‚Äôll add also that my estimation of what‚Äôs new and what‚Äôs not (apart from what can be found on prior releases) is speculative on my part and just based on what I‚Äôm 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. ‚Äú8‚ÄĚ is perhaps the most satisfying of the new-sounding cuts, and the record as a whole isn‚Äôt without its missteps, but taken in the context of both the Pentagram history and 2004‚Äôs disappointing Show ‚Äėem How outing, it‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúTreat Me Right‚ÄĚ and Griffin‚Äôs signature (and fucking excellent) guitar tone ringing out like a beacon letting you know this is, in fact, a Pentagram record you‚Äôve just put on. The song is short, repetitive of its title line, and as I already noted, vintage Pentagram. I‚Äôd say it‚Äôs definitely older, but can‚Äôt find it on any previous release, so can‚Äôt be sure. In any case, it‚Äôs an excellent show of what this version of the band ‚Äď over the years, more people have been in and out of Pentagram than almost any other of the Doom Capitol bands ‚Äď can do. To be fair, they‚Äôve had something to prove all along since Liebling got the band going again, and it‚Äôs obvious the intent behind starting Last Rites with ‚ÄúTreat Me Right‚ÄĚ was in shutting up the better part of the doubters out there among both critics and the general listening public. There‚Äôs no arguing with it.
Second track ‚ÄúCall the Man‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúTreat Me Right.‚ÄĚ To the credit of the band as a whole, Turley doesn‚Äôt get lost in the melee of leads and crash hits, and the material across the board sounds thick and heavy. There‚Äôs 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‚Äôre neither trying to ape their ‚Äė70s sound (as many are), nor affecting some bizarre and wrongly interpreted take on ‚Äútoday‚Äôs metal.‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs the first of the two Stone Bunny inclusions and Pentagram played it on their most recent live shows, and sure enough, ‚ÄúInto the Ground‚ÄĚ proves a high point of Last Rites as well. It‚Äôs an excellent balance of doomed atmosphere, classic heavy rock and Griffin‚Äôs 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 ‚ÄúCall the Man,‚ÄĚ and as he double-tracks the chorus, his voice seems to be in the best shape it‚Äôs been in, in a long time, and it doesn‚Äôt sound like studio trickery. Last Rites is unquestionably a modern production, and there are liberal effects put on Liebling‚Äôs 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. ‚ÄúInto the Ground‚ÄĚ leads almost directly into ‚Äú8,‚ÄĚ which starts with Griffin playing subdued notes over Tomaselli‚Äôs tom work before launching into one of Last Rites‚Äô 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‚Äôs also a highlight among the newer-seeming pieces. Griffin shows personality in his encompassing layers of guitar, and though it‚Äôs moodier than ‚ÄúTreat Me Right‚ÄĚ or even ‚ÄúInto the Ground,‚ÄĚ the lyrical chronicle of Liebling‚Äôs dark times feels heartfelt and is all the more compelling for it.
‚ÄúEverything‚Äôs Turning to Night, ‚ÄĚ has some keyboard ‚Äúooh!‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôre 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‚Äôs short-lived (on the scale of they could have ridden it out for seven minutes and I‚Äôd be happy to follow), but in direct dialogue with Black Sabbath‚Äôs 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 ‚Äúooh!‚ÄĚ I guess when a song‚Äôs 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‚Äôre not a band known for their ballads, and I don‚Äôt think ‚ÄúWindmills and Chimes‚ÄĚ is going to change that for Pentagram. Perhaps ‚Äúsemi-ballad‚ÄĚ is more accurate. Griffin rings out electric chords layered over acoustic guitar, Tomaselli provides heavy fills, but it‚Äôs not hard to imagine the power ballad-type video ‚ÄúWindmills and Chimes‚ÄĚ might have gotten had it been released 25 years ago. Liebling‚Äôs voice, soulful as it is, isn‚Äôt as well suited to this kind of atmosphere, and though Griffin can obviously handle it on guitar ‚Äď as he‚Äôs proved many times over with Place of Skulls ‚Äď the song as a whole comes across as awkward and ill-fitting the momentum Last Rites has already built. As the centerpiece, it‚Äôs perfectly positioned to break up the album, but that doesn‚Äôt mean I‚Äôm 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 ‚ÄúAmerican Dream,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôll probably always be more of a six-stringer, but he‚Äôs every bit as capable of carrying a song vocally as he is with his riffs and leads. ‚ÄúAmerican Dream‚ÄĚ finds him taking on more of a social commentary than a directly political one, as regards the lyrics. It‚Äôs 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‚Äôs pursuit of it. I‚Äôm 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‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe American dream/Has fallen asleep/If we wake the giant/What will the people reap?‚ÄĚ As I say, ‚ÄúAmerican Dream‚ÄĚ would have been enough to break up Last Rites without ‚ÄúWindmills and Chimes‚ÄĚ in front of it, and though the two tracks together throw Pentagram a little off course in terms of the album‚Äôs flow, the slower pace of ‚ÄúAmerican Dream‚ÄĚ should be a welcome and fascinating inclusion for any fan of Place of Skulls‚Äô work. After all, it‚Äôs Griffin, Turley and drums. Pretty much a Place of Skulls track anyway.
That‚Äôs 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‚Äôs just an assessment of the overall atmosphere of the track. When ‚ÄúWalk in Blue Light‚ÄĚ kicks in after ‚ÄúAmerican Dream,‚ÄĚ it‚Äôs more or less a return to the business at hand. It‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs a crowd-pleaser, definitely, but of substance enough to be more than just that as well.
Much like the way the ‚Äúooh!‚ÄĚ sounds came across perhaps not the way they were originally intended on ‚ÄúEverything‚Äôs Turning to Night,‚ÄĚ the backing vocals on ‚ÄúHorseman‚ÄĚ have a lightening aspect to them that probably wasn‚Äôt the original idea behind them. Liebling‚Äôs straightforward rhyming in the verses ends with a kind of howling up from underneath the lead vocal layer, and though it‚Äôs funny in a way, I‚Äôm more willing to give it a pass on a charm and classic metal level. I‚Äôll go with it, in other words, and even though Liebling is clearly struggling with singing the notes at the end of the song, it‚Äôs an effective track anyway for what it‚Äôs doing, the traditional feel of the verses and yet another excellent solo from Griffin putting the definitively Pentagram stamp on it. It‚Äôs a good lead-in for the spooky, theatrical weirdness of the first half of ‚ÄúDeath in First Person,‚ÄĚ where Liebling does a spoken-word vocal over Griffin‚Äôs riffing. The subject of the song being something the frontman can legitimately claim knowledge of ‚Äď he O.D.‚Äôed in 2005 ‚Äď the song plays more like a horror movie than confessional. Maybe the idea is that it‚Äôs both.
The back half of ‚ÄúDeath in First Person‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs best vocal on the album and an overall excellent performance from the band entirely. Of the newer Last Rites material, I‚Äôd be the most interested to see ‚ÄúDeath in First Person‚ÄĚ live.
Though you‚Äôd never know from the size of this review, it‚Äôs a quick 40 minutes to get to the three-minute ‚ÄúNothing Left‚ÄĚ and the conclusion of Last Rites. The second Stone Bunny track, it‚Äôs a solid echo of ‚ÄúTreat Me Right‚ÄĚ and an appropriate finish for Pentagram‚Äôs seventh full-length. Like the rest of the album, there‚Äôs little by way of pretense and much by way of rock and the band‚Äôs trademark penchant for mid-paced doom groove. I suppose that shouldn‚Äôt be much of a surprise, since Griffin and Liebling helped incite the genre in the first place, but it‚Äôs satisfying to hear them do what they do so well together on ‚ÄúNothing Left.‚ÄĚ The same goes for all of Last Rites. The reunion of Griffin and Liebling is pivotal to the album‚Äôs ultimate success, and since it‚Äôs Pentagram, who knows how long it will last, but for 2011, they‚Äôve managed to produce an excellent work of doom that‚Äôs both modern and classic. There will be those who refuse to get onboard, who say Liebling‚Äôs past his prime, or who refuse to move past either 1985‚Äôs Relentless or the earliest material as Pentagram‚Äôs best, but I think they‚Äôre missing a good deal of the point. Last Rites isn‚Äôt about recapturing something that‚Äôs 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‚Äôs a 2011 highlight. That it‚Äôs actually good, well, take that as a bonus.
Tags: Metal Blade, Pentagram, Washington D.C.