By Sean Palmerston
If you were lucky enough to have attended last year’s Maryland Death Fest then you already know that one of the most surprising sets of the weekend was the absolutely supreme performance given by legendary Maryland doomsters Pentagram. Despite all kinds of rumours, speculations and disappointing facts about what had happened to the band earlier on in the year, which had culminated with the band doing a West Coast tour with a guitarist that didn’t really know the material they were playing, by the time May rolled around Bobby Liebling had managed to get longtime pal Victor Griffin back in the band on guitar and they blew the fucking roof off at MDF. It was one of those performances that really made one think ‘wow, if they guys could keep things together to do a new record it could be a monster.’ Well, they have done just that.
Recorded late last year, Last Rites is the first Pentagram album to feature Griffin and Liebling together since the mid 90s and, unsurprisingly, it is the best studio album that Pentagram has made since 1994’s Be Forewarned. Like previous Pentagram releases, most of the songs here come from the band’s golden era. The current cover story on the band in Decibel Magazine lists that only three of the songs on the album are new, with the rest either coming from old cassette demos that Bobby has done over the years or from previous studio recordings.
The two songs that will ring most familiar with fans of the band are “Everything’s Turning To Night” and “Walk In The Blue Light”, the latter of which was included on the First Days Here compilation that Relapse released in 2002. There are apparently even older songs than those on the album, with the second track “Call the Man” apparently originally being a song by Liebling’s pre-Pentagram outfit Stone Bunny, but I have to say that I’d be hard pressed to tell you which songs were written when. The thing about this album is that it all fits really well together, it has been sequenced in a way that flows from start to finish. It feels whole.
A lot of Last Rites success lays directly in the hands of Victor Griffin. Now well established on his own with his Place of Skulls project, Griffin never disappoints with his guitar playing and brings his best to the album. He has an absolutely monstrous guitar tone that is heavy, fat and rich and is stamped all over these songs. Captured beautifully in the studio, even a mellower song like “8” has a sinewy, bending guitar line that jumps out thanks to that killer tone. Having him back in Pentagram in 2011 is a real godsend and he’s promised to stick it out with Bobby L as long as the reformed drug addict turned family man (dude has a new baby! at 57!) can keep himself on the straight and narrow.
And as for Mr. Liebling himself, I honestly don’t think he has ever sounded better. I’m not sure if it is just him just giving a better performance being in a proper studio or if his nearly three years away from his crack and heroin addictions have strengthened his singing voice, but his vocals are really, really good. At times even spine-tingling. The semi-spoken vocals in the latter half of “Everything’s Turning To Night” are so articulate and well delivered that you forget this is a recovering, onetime junkie and not a fucking absolute superstar singing these words. (Of course, in a perfect world Liebling would have been a star decades ago, but I digress.) Liebling sings like a star throughout, even doing a great job on backing vocals for “American Dream”, the album’s only track sung by Victor Griffin.
Last Rites is the album that many of us had hoped Pentagram would someday make but never thought they would. It is heavy, hooky and one of the nicest surprises of 2011. I don’t know if the band will be able to hold things together to do another one – this is the first of a new three album contract with Metal Blade – I certainly hope that they will, but in the meantime this is an album that needs to be savoured and enjoyed in the here and now. Here’s hoping Mr Liebling can keep things together and crank out some more gems like this one.