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What would have been considered traditional heavy metal in 1985 was simply not cool. Black Sabbath at that point had been reduced to a solo project with Iommi politely trying to accommodate the more up tempo and cleanly landscape of the day. Those metal bands who played in the vein of albums like Vol. 4 or Sad Wings of Destiny were an unwanted few. The mighty Pentagram's Relentless is a fine slab of heavy metal played by some of the progenitors of the genre. And the title of the record is absolutely apropos, for relentless it is from top to bottom. It's not full blown doom, with the majority of the songs on the fast-ish side, but it is 100% heavy fuckin metal.
"Death Row" sets the eerie and foreboding tone of Relentless with its stomping riffage and the demonic voice of the madman, Bobby Leibling. This record certainly has moments of bone-crushing doom, with the likes of "Sinister," and the masterpiece that is "All Your Sins." Goddamn, the drum fill that cracks that song into being is just fuckin bestial, and some of the undeniably heaviest riffs ever written can be found here. This is definitely one of the stand-out selections in all of Pentagram's vast catalogue, and a true gem of the doom metal genre. And let's not forget the moribund plodding of "The Goul." Leibling's demented vocal delivery will make you believe that he is not among the living, for the ghoul he shall forever be.
The title track of this record is one of the fast songs that will stick in your brain. That riff is smokin' and one of Griffin's finest conceptions. They drop it to half time for the verses, with some of the Gram's best lyrics on offer:
"Now I don my electric axe
I'm gonna lay you on your back
All psyched up and ready to go
Take you to hell and won't say hello."
What I like best about Relentless and Day Of Reckoning is the production. It sounds like they brought Rodger Bain out of retirement to get that compressed, crushed under the weight of the ocean Master of Reality guitar tone. The bass is clearly represented and Swaney's adventurous style definitely calls to mind a certain old Geezer. Joe Hasselvander's drums are bad ass. He's a very tasteful and creative player who knows exactly how to accent and color the songs by opening or closing the hi-hats when called for and he never wanks with his fills. Quite an underrated dude I must say.
Though there are a couple of songs here that are a tad forgetable, it's forgiveable considering it took these guys like 15 years to do a proper LP. And when it finally arrived the most popular metal was pretty black and white: either thrash or glam; there was no margin for the Sabbathian except for the darkened lairs of the long haired stoned out weirdos who worshipped at the altar of the archaic.
In the words of Wino, "Bobby was the first." What I'd like to think he means by that is Bobby Leibling was the first American to truly "get it" as far as concerns the heavy metal ethos that was spawned in England. Relentless is the first of a triumvirate of albums recorded by one of America's very first heavy metal bands. If the refrain of "You can never win/pay for all your sins" isn't scorched into your brain upon first listen, then I can't help you.
'Relentless' is one of these records that you hardly find words for, yet at the same time the urge to express your feelings about it is uncontrollable, because it is just so damn special. For my biggest shame, I heard about it a lot later than other doom classics. I couldn't believe that I've missed such music by the second minute of the opener 'Death row'. Anyway, when I did hear it, my heart instantly started to beat with its frequency and I think it will for years on.
To start with, this release gathers in itself everything that heavy metal (being doom or not) should strive for. It is absolutely honest, angry, H E A V Y, dark and what is most important for me - it really makes you feel free. I know that many people compare it to Black Sabbath's debut - you can almost never read something about 'Relentless' without seeing the former name written at least a hundred times. Well, I can see where this comes from - both Sabbath and Pentagram are bands from the 70s and this type of songwriting was too heavy for their time. But while on the debut of Sabbath there are really slow-paced songs like 'Black Sabbath' almost doom metal as we see it these days, on 'Relentless' most songs are rather dynamic and don't vary so much in tempo. Also, while BS have this mythical, even folk feeling to some songs, I don't really hear this on 'Relentless' - in that sense Pentagram are heavier and angrier. I almost always feel as if the songs are sang by a werewolf.
On the part of the vocals - they are clear, very hetero sounding and at the right pitch at all times. I think that this is how a male doom vocalist should do it. There are some really great bands in this genre that produce excellent music, but quite often their vocalist sounds too power. As much as I like Candlemass's riffs and harmonies, there are some albums I can't really enjoy because of Messiah Marcolin. So, the whole theatrical thing with the singing is missing here, thankfully. On the contrary, I think that Bobby Liebling's screams are absolutely unmatched. And since I mentioned the feeling of freedom in the first paragraph, maybe I should say where it comes from - the vocals. And who might present it in a better way? The lyrics, of course:
'A lone soul at night sits and bays at the moon
Though sometimes he's a man it's a Pentagram
Shotgun blasts as he runs with the wind
But he just can't win it's the Pentagram'
At certain times I can picture myself walking across a desolete and empty road, surrounded only by trees and the full moon. I guess this is what makes me love 'Relentless' so - its atmosphere is totally haunting.
The riffs and the downtuned guitars is what makes this album so damn great and memorable. While these days most riffs are written in one way or another - in 'Relentless' you can hear diverse and remarkable riffing. Also, the fact that so many bands try to copy this sound is one more evidence that it was something innovative and revolutionary (the down tuning in particular). And what makes records more evil if not downtuning and HEAVY crusty bass. Hell yeah. About the soloes - there are so many great ones here. The crushing soloes in songs like "Dying world" and "20 buck spin" add for the excellence of this release. Because you can never have a high quality doom release without the harmonies which make you shake your head crazily in the end.
Whoever has not yet listening to 'Relentless' yet, you should correct this mistake right now. For the others who are already enchanted by the magic - cheers, brothers!
Pentagram are in many respects the real heavy metal underground band. I look back at when they formed. 1971. Wow. Nixon was still serving his first term up the road in D.C. when this Virginia band got together. And yet here they are still playing the same type of heavy metal alongside other underground bands with members that weren't even born when the band was already a veteran of the bar and club circuit. Nor are they much more well known than some of those bands they sometimes even support(and have sold less records too). They've gotten more recognition in the last dozen years, sure. But then again, many "underground" bands have because of the internet. Pentagram has played Wacken and Maryland Deathfest in recent years but they were not a main stage act in either event. Yep, they have more service time than you can shake a stick at. They're just so..Relentless.
These guys are a live band through and through. And 1985 was when they finally decided to go into the studio and record all that material they've been performing on the road. It's common knowledge in the metal world that Pentagram are one of the premier Black Sabbath "rip-offs". What was once a rip-off is now its own subgenre: doom metal. The Relentless album lives up to that doominess. There's a sobering angst and cynicism felt in the lyrics backed up by Victor Griffith's moody minor-key riffing. The guitar intonation is a constant breeze of malaise throughout from song one to the end. Pentagram knows their source material/inspiration well. Death Row(the first track) begins with that tried and true doom hook of having an upper tempo riff compared to many of the following songs. Yet compared to Born Too Late or Witchfinder General's Death Penalty, I realized that Pentagram are actually more uptempo on average. Bobby Liebling's singing is more elemental and less imitative of John "Ozzy" Osbourne compared to many of the others but the token impressionism of Ozzy's style is of course still there nevertheless. But anyone who has listened to enough early heavy music will pick up on the fact that Liebling also sounds a lot like Dickie Peterson from Blue Cheer.
While I admire what is played on Relentless, the cavil with the album would be that it's not as good as Day of Reckoning. Relentless does have slowed down drifts of doom tracks and those-while good-seem too standard and lost in the shuffle. They're not as mixed in as well as the Day of Reckoning release. They also lack that drugged out flair that Saint Vitus has. So I guess Relentless is lacking only in comparison to other similar albums by themselves and other doom bands. That's not so bad but it does point out that there may be a couple more songs that are a tad redundant and the album may just be that much overlong. The guitar soloing on the record is done good if not very memorable. Griffith much of the time seems too comfortable with just the main fuzzy riffage filling out the doom trademarks. You're Lost I'm Free is a short song with him doing a nice electric blues type solo with mammoth opening riffs that reminded me most from Sabbath's debut.
Relentless has no shortage of highlights and it's a high quality offering in all the other respects especially when I look for more classic elements of doom. Sign of the Wolf would be my first example. It has riffs reminiscent of the cranky tone that Tony Iommi brought out on Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener. 20 Buck Spin does too. I would say Black Sabbath Vol. 4 would be the album that Relentless is most like if you want to look at it from a recommendation angle.
That brings me back to the point about the "niche" that Pentagram filled when this album came out in '85 because it pertains to what I was telling about how underground this band was back then. Obviously, Black Sabbath at that point in time had reconfigured their heavy metal sound while this album by Pentagram was doing the retro Sabbath sound. The thing is, 1980's American entertainment and culture was defined by glitz and materialism. An album as Relentless is fastidiously stuck to the 70's; a decade characterized by dazed paranoia and cynicism. A 70's antiquity like this was anything but marketable in the 80's even in heavy metal circles. No one wanted anything to do with the prior decade. Fast, sharp and fresh(but still angry) was why Metallica came up famous in heavy metal back then. That's how Pentagram filled a niche for those who would not give up the ghost. Relentless is indeed an antique enduring the prior decades.
After 15 or so years knocking around the underground, Virginia’s doom godfathers finally got around to making a debut album. Not to sound judging in that comment, the band had recorded (a lot, chiefly demo stuff and some seven inch singles) and gone under a host of aliases (Deathrow, Bedemon, etc.) before settling on Pentagram as a nome de plume. Tons of said recordings are available in bootleg form, but in far better form on two collections from Relapse Records (see reviews somewhere else in the book you’re holding). By around ’81 however, the former flirtations with psychedelia and even hard R&B had condensed into a formidable doom approach, informed but not openly imitative of that influence of influences, Black Sabbath. The pairing of singer Bobby Liebling and guitarist Victor Griffin was a very fruitful one, resulting in some molten, yet well-crafted material that has really stood the all too debilitating march of time.
Sonically this album is only slightly less unbaked than a demo tape, but that’s a good thing, as the raw underbelly of the band is a powerful organ indeed. Truly though, the proof of this album’s brilliance is in the songs, which are like stone tablets of divine law in the (as yet unpublished) Bible of Doom Metal. “All Your Sins” creeps with a sinister riff and tormented lyrics as Liebling informs a sinful soul that judgment is nigh and it will not be pretty. “Sign of the Wolf (Pentagram)” is a chugging, head wrecking monster that is (no exaggeration) one of the best heavy metal HM songs ever written. Liebling’s tale of possession by evil, in spite of heavenly guidance, matches the molten punch of the riffs perfectly, and DAMN that’s a killer guitar solo!! “The Ghoul” creeps back into semi-doom tempo, whilst “Relentless” is a speedy but weighty cut with more killer riffs. The remainder is good at worst, awesome at best, and would you believe that this band’s next album was actually better than this?
Issued in ’85 with very little fanfare, it was re-issued under the moniker Relentless by Peaceville Records in the mid-90’s. Bottom line – a must have with no excuses allowed. Non-compliance with this policy is punishable by death or a Nickelback listening marathon. God, oh God, which is worse?!
Though issued by Peaceville in 1993, this album originally was released by "Pentagram Records" (i.e. independently) back in 1985. Pentagram were a DC-based doom band which had actually existed since the late 70s (and even earlier, to hear the story from the band's vocalist/founder Bobby "Plugie" Liebling), and though they always called themselves influenced by stoner-rock band Blue Cheer, their sound actually landed VERY close to Black Sabbath - Thick slabs of power-chord sludge. Plugie's vocals were rather unique - not very forceful (he never really 'lets loose'), but he concentrates on weaving a good vocal melody into the songs - sort of like other 'sloth-doom' bands like, say, St. Vitus or the Obsessed. The rest of the band is also similarly competent: guitarist Victor Griffin just lays down the riffs and rarely indulges in solos, but when he does they're quite slow and melodic rather than 'noodly', and they fit well. Bassist Martin Swaney also basically sticks with the groove of the songs, throwing in the occasional well-placed fill. And finally, drummer Joe Hasselvander (who went on to play with Raven) sticks to the song's groove, choosing his fills well. The playing is understated, but in a good way, because each member simply plays to the song rather than using the songs to show off. It's rather hard to pick out a standout track, because the album is quite good overall, but the first track "Death Row" has some of everything that made Pentagram such a great band.
The music probably sounds dated to those used to the extremities of modern metal, but for fans of doom metal, Black Sabbath, or just that old 'vintage' crunch, Pentagram's first album is one album to check out.
(Originally published at LARM (c) 1999)