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Pentagram should have been huge. They should have been America’s answer to Black Sabbath, our very own harbingers of doom. But somewhere along the way, things went horribly awry. Vocalist/mastermind Bobby Liebling let his drug abuse take precedence over his music, and the band couldn’t even get their shit together long enough to get signed to a decent label or release an album until fourteen(!) years after forming. More often than not, Liebling and Pentagram have appeared destined for failure. Yet here he stands in 2011, holding a Metal Blade recording contract and being backed by arguably the strongest Pentagram lineup of all time. Having never been addicted to anything (well, maybe caffeine and heavy metal, but I’ve managed to kick the former), I suppose I’ll never understand what Liebling has been through over the past four decades, but whatever that personal hell might have been, I’m glad he managed to claw his way out of it, especially when an album as stellar as Last Rites is the result. Liebling isn’t here to be a another rock ‘n’ roll casualty. He’s here to kick your ass, and uh, to quote the man himself, “show ‘em how”.
Looking like some kind of fucked up yet infinitely wise old wizard (possibly the same wizard that popped up in my review of Dawnbringer’s Nucleus), Liebling rocks harder and with more energy than a hundred men half his age can muster. The man is unstoppable, as his inimitable vocal performance on Last Rites attests. He’s one of metal’s last truly great, distinctive vocalists, sounding as vital and vibrant here as he did on the archival recordings featured on the First Daze Here collections. Like all the Pentagram full lengths, Last Rites is a collection of classic songs that never received the proper treatment as well as newer compositions, and Liebling attacks them all with equal vigor.
Then there’s Victor Griffin, Liebling’s right hand man. He is an out-and-out master of ten ton doom riffage, wielding a guitar tone that is best described as an iron fist sheathed in a velvet glove. It’s warm fuzziness gently caresses your ears as it pummels them on tracks like “Treat Me Right”, “Into the Ground” and “Walk in Blue Light”. Anyone who’s listened to Griffin’s Place of Skulls knows that he’s all about the savior, but you’d swear that he’d had to have struck a deal with Lucifer himself in order to command this kind of fiery six-string righteousness.
It’s interesting to me that many of the older doom metal practitioners, such as Liebling and Griffin, are down with the good lord. So many modern doom bands embrace the dark side, and it seems they missed the entire point of Black Sabbath (both the song and the band). Ozzy and Co. weren’t happy to see Satan standing before them, they were fucking terrified (“Oh please God help me!”). That to me is what doom metal is about; coming to the grim realization that conjuring up the forces of darkness isn’t a good thing and struggling to attain some semblance of salvation, even if there is little or no hope of it. That might sound strange coming from an avowed atheist, but for whatever reason I’ve always seen doom as a some sort of biblical struggle between good and evil taking the form of debilitatingly heavy riffs. Liebling and Griffin understand this inherently. They’ve danced with the Devil longer than any mere mortal has a right to, and somehow managed to come out of the ordeal not only alive, but at the height of their powers. Now it’s their duty to deliver the warning, keeping all of us from suffering the same fate. These are the things I hear when I listen to Last Rites.
Regardless of your stance on the spiritual matters of doom, you should have no problem appreciating Last Rights. This is timeless music played with conviction and craftsmanship, something all too rare in today’s flavor-of-the-minute fueled metal scene. Last Rites is one of my favorite things I’ve heard so far this year, and hopefully the support of a respectable label will wake more people up to the fact that Liebling and Pentagram are nothing short of a goddamn national treasure. Doom on, brothers and sisters.
Originally written for http://thatshowkidsdie.com
Pentagram has a mythical story going back four decades that would easily fit the mold of Greek tragedy. Mighty doom-bringers, they are said to be great enough to be America's answer to Black Sabbath. That is, but for the flawed character of vocalist/principal songwriter Bobby Liebling, whose attitude and drug abuse have thwarted them at every turn. But now he is supposedly sober, and reunited with born-again Christian Victor Griffin on the axe. Last Rites was anticipated and hailed as the band finally overcoming their problems to bring their full greatness to the world.
In reality, they're America's answer to Sabbath like Cactus is America's answer to Zeppelin. Who? Exactly. Like other semi-legendary bands of the underground, their influence on subsequent acts can't be denied. But as a listening prospect, they tend to be pretty hit-and-miss. That is definitely the case here.
I initially came to this album with trepidation. I had doubts a 57-year-old recovering addict has-been/never-was could pull off anything worthwhile. Thankfully, most of the songs on here are old material that is, today, almost impossible to find. Liebling is said to have written an obscene number of songs during the 70's and 80's, which have never seen the light of day. Some of them featured here are excellent songs built on simple but powerful riffs. "Into the Ground", "8", and "Nothing Left" are clear standouts. The performances are up to the quality of the songs, with heavy guitars providing the foundation for Liebling's voice, which (expectedly) sounds like a man who's been through a lot.
But on the other hand, much of the album is forgettable or weak. "Windmills and Chimes" or "Walk in the Blue Light" are two songs I could have done without entirely. Sometimes the riff is good, but the song doesn't hold up (e.g. "Death in 1st Person"). Which bolsters my alternate theory, that the band was never quite as great as they're made out to be.
The Verdict: Maybe this will shatter the myth. Maybe not. There are some good moments, but there are certainly better doom albums to spend your money and time on this year.
originally written for http://fullmetalattorney.blogspot.com/
Bobby Liebling claimed to have written about 80 songs in the earliest incarnations of Pentagram and many of those gnarly 70's heavy rock songs have made up the bulk of each Pentagram album to date. "Last Rites" takes some of the best (previously unused) early demo/rehearsal tracks, polishes 'em up and tucks in a few weaker tracks to fill out the bunch. If you'd followed Pentagram over the years this is pretty standard for the group. This time, though, the filler tracks are some of the band's least interesting moments and a few detract from the albums overall appeal.
The past is still very much alive in these old, dusty stoner rock songs. If you've heard that sloppy Stone Bunny bootleg EP "Nothing Left" you'll be pleased to know that the two best tracks "Nothing Left" and "Into the Ground" have been turned into solid stomping doom songs that bookend the album (as they did the EP). Two of my personal favorite rehearsal tracks "Call the Man" and "Walk in Blue Light" are given a similar polishing, and are two of the albums finest moments with their buzzing-bluesy Black Sabbath guitar tone. Half the fun of listening to this album is comparing the new versions to the compositions as they were almost 40 years ago and seeing most of them remain structurally unchanged.
For the uninitiated, Pentagram's heavy stoner rock sound is easily digested and enjoyable. "Last Rites" is a strong showcase for some classic tunes and overall represents a slightly above average package from Pentagram. One song wasn't necessary to unearth "Windmills and Chimes" and another is boring garbage "American Dream" but, the rest of the album is top notch stoner-rockin' doom metal from one of the genre's strongest die-hard groups. At any rate, this will tide classic doom metal fans over before upcoming Argus and Pale Divine albums see light of day.