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A Slight Lapsus On The Road Back To Glory - 74%

CHAIRTHROWER, July 4th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2011, CD, Metal Blade Records (Digisleeve)

While Pentagram and its exuberant front man Bobby Liebling's strong comeback with 2015's Curious Volume silenced the D.C. legends' detractors for good, it would be unwise of me to laud 2011's Last Rites, which many agree constituted a disappointing setback at the time for this otherwise ingratiating doom metal trailblazer.

I won't beat around the bush. The main drawbacks to Last Rites are thus: While a couple of reprises from the 70s in the form of the eclectically nightmarish "Everything Is Turning To Night" and a cool reprise of the third cut from Pentagram's fantastic First Daze Here compilation from '02, the kooky "Walk In The Blue Light" along with a craven smattering of newly minted originals - "Into The Ground", "8", "American Dream" and, to a certain degree, "Death In 1st Person" - on the whole on and off Pentagram guitar god Victor Griffin is lacking that certain je-ne-sais-quoi which initially drew me in like iron shillings to a magnet. Call it a certain predisposition to beautifully melded hard-driving jams with an unmistakeable psychedelic flair but what made tracks from the past like "Startlady" and "Wheel Of Fortune" along with the more recently composed "Goddess" or "Prayer For An Exit Before The Dead End (from 04's Show 'Em How) stand out seems to be lacking in Last Rites' openers "Treat Me Right" - more like "Treat Me Trite" thanks to rare, uninspired lyrics along with Griffin's criminally watered down, repeatedly sliding riff - and the equally tepid "Call The Man". Weak instrumentation again aside, (and I know Liebling means well overall) this song just doesn't sit well with me. As a hard-case recovering user (that's one more skeleton out of the closet!) I'm trying to distance myself from the whole drug subculture of rock n' roll and heavy metal, regardless of sub-genre. This said. I recommend skipping these two right off the bat in order to revel in the next three, which make up the better part of Last Rites' positive flip side.

Before I continue, rest assured that while his general riffing may dismay at times (the slouchy "Horseman" and "Nothing Left" are no prize either; aside from usual, par-for-the-course lead breaks by Griffin once again, these late filler tracks could have easily been dropped along with the unnecessary and stupidly cut-short "All Your Sins", which did a fine job mind you in its entirety back on 1985's wicked self-titled Death Row debut) his trademark raunchy yet always soulful and at times downright sizzling solos are for the most part largely unaffected, notably on "Into The Ground", which draws closer to 2001's dark & heady Sub-Basement or Curious Volume's output in terms of confidence and depth, and the second half's high point, the slowly budding "Death In 1st Person". In fact, his lead work following the final lines, "No child's life in vain/ vulture, walk your final mile today" tops out big time on this last. It wouldn't sound out of place on something from the Liebling/Joe Hasselvander collaboration, 1999's Review Your Choices, as it starts off quite lugubriously (think "Gorgon's Slave!") before Griffin & co. take the gloves off and turn things up a notch. Also, you gotta love drummer Tim Tomaselli's early drumstick patter ("tok! tok!" style) reminiscent of the mellow first few bars of Sabbath's "Hand Of Doom" - always a good thing. Actually, Tomaselli and bassist Greg Turley aren't to blame for this album's shortcomings (except maybe on..."Call The Man"? I found the rhythm section to "Treat Me Right" quite respectable in its "mow-you-downess; it's really Liebling and Griffin who are at fault on these two). With a thick stocky level of production all around - no complaints here - still, don't expect any "Lazy Lady" style wanderlust here. Check out First Daze Here and even Show 'Em How for such wild, wonky fare. Nevertheless, Turley and Tomaselli keep this bold grimoire bolted down while you flip through its pages. It's not the kind of release worth sticking with from beginning to end nor is it a page turner. A mediocre album with a handful of humdingers worth bookmarking is more like it.

Which brings me to another stand-out cut, the cryptically titled "8", which features an array of ominous, reverb laden progressions, tribally inclined thumping on behalf of Tomaselli and Liebling back on top of his game as the enigmatic and quirky front man long-time Pentagram fans have come to love. Richly textured and dramatically layered, "8" delivers right up to Griffin's distinctly Iommi-ish (circa Heaven And Hell as well as The Mob Rules) soloing, which, although somewhat cramped, is also more direct and bombastic compared to his standard soulful fare. "American Dream" happens to open up with some attractive reverb-ery and some brief wah-wah action before taking a pleasing turn of events, as Griffin competently takes over the reigns on vocals, which he decidedly has a knack for. It's no surprise then this track is a dead-ringer for an early "Place Of Skulls" track, fellow "D.C. Doom" acolytes for whom Griffin was front man, sole guitarist and founding member. This was definitely a smart move and it pays off in the grand scheme of things.

Unfortunately, I'm not quite as taken with the saccharine, hippie-like whimsy of "Windmills & Chimes" - despite, you guessed it, more of Griffin's expressive and well-poised axe work - which fails to match, let alone surpass the heavy psych groove of Show Em How's "If The Winds Would Change". It's a nice attempt but alas, bluntly put, it sounds very much out of place as it tries too hard to create an envisioned balance which isn't exactly called for this time around; I mean, as the 'gram's first release in seven years, balls-out hard-driving grit should have been par for the course. Lo and behold, a nice balance of sorts is certainly achieved four years later (as you may have gleaned from my much shorter write-up for Curious Volume).

Alternatively, I absolutely love the nostalgic renditions of "Everything Is Turning To Night" (originally appearing on the flaky First Daze Here Too) and "Walk In The Blue Light" (from its much superior predecessor, the shorter, 12-track First Daze Here, a bona fide desert island pick in my book). While the former is laden with creepy reverb laden progressions and Liebling's shuddersome invocations along the same lines as "Nightmare Gown", a fun and eerie Pentagram porte-manteau from Be Forewarned, the latter's intrinsically mysterious theme eludes me to this day. What should I make of:

"Come with me now the midnight calls
All are asleep as the kingdom falls
Seeking our goals as a life had planned
Walk in the blue light you'll understand"

(and so on...)?

Is this a case of "beam me up, Liebling?" Who knows...

While definitely obscure, it makes for a fun albeit perplexing occult mystery to delve into from time to time. As well, I can't get enough of Liebling's seldom employed, high-pitched crooning when he goes "Walk in the blue light, you can find out - You'll find out" for the last time before Griffin's redolent and tactful solo wraps things up while beautifully paying homage to the late, great Victor McAllister (RIP) from Pentagram's early days.

At the end of the day, longtime, faithful Pentagram fans such as myself were left sorely wanting coming on the heels of 2004's masterpiece Show 'Em How. Last Rites is basically a not-so-great album with a few great tracks scattered though out. In short, this makes it the ONLY release I DON'T recommend to those of you new to Pentagram's pioneering brand of devil-may-care, hard-as-it-gets blues skullduggery to the tune of Bobby Liebling's at times solemn, at other times hysterical vocal/ stage hijinks. To older 70s hard rock loving bluesmen I highly, highly recommend First Daze Here (not so much First Daze Here Too although it has its moments) and to a younger generation looking for grittier but no less gripping developments, ANY of the releases mentioned above. Thankfully, as conveyed by the title of this review, Last Rites constitutes no more than an unfortunate setback on the road to newborn success, namely the Curious Volume LP released a couple of summers ago. On a somewhat related note, isn't it uncanny how closely the cover art of fellow Americans Hessian's full-length debut, 2014's Bachelor Of The Black Arts, resembles that of Last Rites'? Just figured I'd throw this out there for shits & giggles.

Highlights:

"Into The Ground"
"8"
"Everything Is Turning To Night"
"Walk In The Blue Light"
"American Dream"
"Death In 1st Person"