The odds have been overcome, the story has been told, and really all that’s left for Pentagram at this point is to keep the momentum going. Their return to Peaceville Records comes with Curious Volume, their second full-length after 2011’s Last Rites (review here) reunited one of the most pivotal pairings in American doom: vocalist Bobby Liebling and guitarist Victor Griffin, and one could easily argue that it finds Pentagram — Liebling, Griffin, bassist Greg Turley and drummer “Minnesota” Pete Campbell as the latest addition in place of Sean Saley, now in The Skull — with the highest public profile they’ve ever had. 40 tumultuous (to put it mildly) years later, Bobby Liebling is legitimately a rock star, headlining at festivals like Psycho California and touring to packed houses on both coasts and in between.
It’s worth noting that part of that notoriety is owed to the 2012 documentary, Last Days Here (review here), but the band having a back catalog of largely-underrated doom classics has helped them influence an entirely new generation of listeners and artists. It boasts few surprises, but the 43-minute/11-track Curious Volume works well within Pentagram‘s strengths and proves a solid outing that will keep them on the road as they continue to expand their fanbase. One wouldn’t go into it expecting or even wanting much by way of experimentalism, and accordingly, Pentagram deliver on the promise of blending classic doom and Liebling‘s charismatic persona — see “Misunderstood” — and do justice to the band’s decades-spanning underground legacy. Recorded by Mattias Nilsson with additional vocal tracking by Travis Wyrick, it draws together with professional clarity and poise the best of Pentagram as they are today.
In doing so, it bears a significant stamp of Victor Griffin‘s songwriting. Guessing when Pentagram material was written is a trap — they had more than a decade of material before their first album came out — but songs like, “Lay Down and Die,” “The Tempter Push,” “Dead Bury Dead,” “Curious Volume,” “Close the Casket,” “The Devil’s Playground” and the closing “Because I Made It” carry a distinct feel that one can trace back through Griffin‘s work in In~Graved and Place of Skulls to Death Row, so whether the parts are new or old, they’re his. Near as I can tell, the only cut on Curious Volume that previously appeared on a Pentagram release is “Earth Flight,” which showed up on 2003’s A Keg Full of Dynamite live outing (good luck finding it), recorded in 1978, but that’s hardly the only inclusion on Curious Volume with a classic feel.
Following the opening rush of “Lay Down and Die” — which seems to directly acknowledge the notion of a live audience in its lyrics — second cut “The Tempter Push” nods directly at Deep Purple‘s “Strange Kind of Woman.” Its tense intro marked by Campbell‘s steady kick, “Earth Flight” has a classic-style shuffle, and the doomly “Sufferin'” and speedy good-timer “Misunderstood” follow suit. They could be brand new and “Dead Bury Dead” could’ve been written by Liebling or original drummer Geof O’Keefe for Stone Bunny circa 1970, but in terms of feel there’s a fair amount of variety between tracks in their approach — on “Walk Alone,” more rocking, on the title-cut, more morose, and so on — but Griffin‘s best-in-class tone and Liebling‘s vocals both tie the songs together, so that the entirety of Curious Volume remains cohesive across its span, speaking the crowd on “Lay Down and Die,” “Curious Volume” and “Because I Made It” — the opener, centerpiece and closer — but keeping listeners engaged throughout with its quality of craftsmanship and performance.
More perhaps than any other song on Curious Volume, the closer sums up the band’s position. “Because I Made It” finds Liebling and Griffin both on the other side of addiction struggles, each party very much in need of the other, and while I won’t downplay the role Turley‘s low-end plays in setting the heavy vibe of “The Devi’s Playground” or “Dead Bury Dead,” or the job Campbell does in stepping into the drummer role right before entering the studio, no question the focuses for most listening are the vocals and guitar. As much as anyone can in doom, they have made it. With Last Rites, the question going into it was whether or not Pentagram would be able to carry a full-length record across after seven years and a yet-again revamped lineup.
On that level, Curious Volume is an even more difficult record to make, because unlike its predecessor, the simple fact that it’s coming out doesn’t automatically stand it up as a triumph. It’s fortunate, then, that Pentagram have been able to sustain the momentum from their live shows and bring that energy and presence to the recording. The reflecting point of view of “Because I Made It” — in some ways, it and a couple of the other songs here seem to be retelling “Amazing Grace” — feels justified, especially given the context of Last Days Here, and the band make their victory through the classic doom that Pentagram helped to shape. No question that spectacle is a factor post-documentary, but there’s nothing one could reasonably expect of a Pentagram record 30 years after Relentless first surfaced that Curious Volume doesn’t deliver.