One of the earliest and most enduring metal bands of all time, Pentagram have been bringing the pain in some form or another since the early '70s. Co-founder and notoriously manic frontman Bobby Liebling has been part of the band's driving force since their underground beginnings, and over the decades he's been supported by a constantly-revolving cast of characters as the band evolved from straight-ahead hard rock to the seeds of doom metal. Pentagram marks their 40th anniversary this year, marking the occasion with the release of their seventh studio album Last Rites, and I got a chance to give this historic record a spin. Read on for a full review...
Despite their ever-changing lineup and a lack of serious label support for the first half of their career, it's a credit to Pentagram's creative power and innovation that they've managed to keep moving forward. The whole concept of drop-tuning guitars to create a dark, ominous effect is so common in modern metal we tend to take it for granted now, but it was pioneering guitarists like Pentagram's Victor Griffin who first tried this technique back in the late '70s in an effort to create a darker, heavier sound than their peers in Black Sabbath or Venom. The low, slow and sinister riffs they created would help form the foundation for the "doom" genre, before anyone had actually hung that name on it.
After a decade of misfires, shakeups and breakups, combined with their frontman's well-documented battles with addiction, it seemed like Pentagram's unholy fire was about to be snuffed out for good... until last year, when a reunion between Liebling and Griffin led to a string of successful shows (including a now-legendary performance at Maryland Death Fest) and a three-album deal with Metal Blade Records. Last Rites is the first of those projects, and I predict it's going to make their fans very happy. For the uninitiated, it's a perfect introduction to a band that deserves major respect.
Most of the tracks here have their roots in the band's early days – some of the songs were actually written by Leibling back in the '70s – but this record isn't some attempt to recapture former glory: in fact, to hear it you'd never suspect Pentagram were out of the picture for so long. Their last solid release was 1994's Be Forewarned (now considered a doom classic), and it's no coincidence that it's the last album with Griffin onboard. Now he's back, and that fuzzed-up, powerfully evil tone has returned.
Case in point: the opening track "Treat Me Right" surfaces with a fat, muscular riff, matched to a chunky bass line from Greg Turley and earth-shaking kick/snare triplets from Albert Born. Liebling's old-school vocal style still holds up – he's always sounded like he's been down a long, rough road and back, but he's never lost his demented energy. "Call the Man" brings just a touch of psychedelia into the mix, but it's also one of the album's most commanding anthems, and transports you right back to metal's golden era. Check it out for yourself:
Things get doomier when the grinding riffs of "Into the Ground" kick in, but Bobby's easygoing drawl gives the song a bluesy feel. The mood seems to mellow even further with the opening of "8," but that soon gives way to layers of mighty drop-tuned riffs with eerie blending harmonics. They dig into the '70s song stash with "Everything's Turning to Night," which swings easily between semi-ballad verses, prog-rock transitions and dirty, heavy choruses. Acoustic guitar is introduced into the airy ballad "Windmills and Chimes," which draws more from the band's earliest influences, including Jimi Hendrix. Griffin takes over vocal duties for the down-tempo "American Dream," and handles the job well, although the instrumentation doesn't really back him up with enough intensity.
"Walk in Blue Light" is another updated '70s tune, and it's not as dynamic as "Everything's Turning to Night," but the guitars have that great warm, fuzzy tone that seems to wrap you in darkness. "Horseman" blends quirky, disturbing riffs with gently swirling clean guitar and high vocal harmonies, a pendulum swing between pleasant dreams and nightmares. "Death in 1st Person" brings back the doom, with Liebling's softly sung/spoken lyrics adding a haunting touch to Griffin's spooky melody line. The mighty, snarling anthem "Nothing Left" is a perfect closer, creating a mini-apocalypse of stomping, twisting rhythms, smooth harmonized leads and acidic vocals.
It's a testament to Pentagram's legacy that they've been able to pull it back together and rule their genre again after so many rough spots in their personal and professional lives; Bobby's had an especially rough time of it, but through all his troubles he's never forgotten what makes his band great. Now that he's been rejoined by Griffin, that greatness has fully returned, and hopefully it will stick around for a while. I guess we'll know if they've still got it where it counts when the second of the three planned releases hits the streets. Until then, pick this one up and time-travel to the true birth of doom.