Pentagram – 'Last Rites' review

Posted by Alexander Hay

Never heard of this band? “Last Rites” is your intro

It's all rather heavy, maaaaan

Pentagram is one of those bands that have been profoundly influential and yet have barely been heard of. Now in its 40th year, this group took the very early heavy rock sound of Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer and took it along a sombre but never anything less than melodic path. It was heavy metal at its most fundamental and still waving its blues roots about for all to see.

After a few classic demos (kindly packaged and released by Relapse as “First Daze Here” and “First Daze Here Too”), the band seemed to be on the verge of something big, before drugs, random bad fortune, more drugs and creative differences (plus drugs) did for the group.

After briefly trading under the moniker of Death Row and releasing some impressive albums in the 1980s, the band faded away, only to resurface in the late 1990s with a magnificent comeback called “Review Your Choices” for a small Italian independent label.

Two more albums later, and the jinx struck again – drugs took their toll once more and the ever-shifting line-up shifted its last. Once again, the band had not so much fallen at the first hurdle as beaten itself over the head with it.

And that would have been that for Pentagram had it not been for two things. Firstly, influence. As obscure 'who're they?' bands go, Pentagram has still left an impressive legacy - primarily, in the form of a sub genre called Doom Metalheaviermorbidpessimistic and yet more nuanced than you might think, given to a glance back at a melancholy heyday in the 70s (when the downers kicked in) yet looking forwards into often experimental and truly extreme directions.

Plus, when even Liam Gallagher name-checks you in a top 5 of favourite songs, you have achieved something, albeit something that's too unfashionable and primal for today's mainstream to admit liking.

The second reason lies in lead vocalist Bobby Liebling, who has doggedly kept the band alive when he wasn't being one of the main causes of its ruin. One heroin overdose too many in 2005 almost finally did for the band and him at the same time, but the time honoured method of not dying despite his best efforts and a stubborn need for it to work out has lead to a older, wiser and cleaned up Bobby (he even became a father last year), and a rejuvenated line-up making their big indy label début, in the form of new album “Last Rites”.

The first thing that's clear is that like all the other Pentagram albums, this record has its own 'sound'. If “Review Your Choices” was an ensemble album of differing variations on the band's style, and 1985's “Relentless” was the hardest rocking entry in the discography, so “Last Rites” has its own stripped down, raw and direct feel for the most part, in particular, with songs like “Into The Ground” and “Everything's Turning to Night” that pound you with a hard, muscular hook before the more discursive melodies kick in. It's a simple, effective formula that is careful not to outstay its welcome, and helped along by a clear, simple production.

Some tracks do stray from this model though and it's here that some weaknesses show. “Windmills & Chimes” is too schmaltzy at points but otherwise a fine melodic ballad. “American Dream”, meanwhile, is a rather staid protest song. There's a lot of effort been put into both tracks though, and at least it shows some attempt to add variety to an album. It could have been tempting to cling to one formula and just coast along on it for eight or so tracks, and to Pentagram's credit, it refuses to.

Of course, no latter-era Pentagram album is complete without a new version of a classic 70s track or two, in this case “Walk in Blue Light”. More ornate and less forceful, it sticks out from the rest of the tracks while remaining both a catchy little number and blessed with a good reinterpretation by the band.

Like the rest of the Pentagram canon (if that's not too pretentious a word for it), “Last Rites” isn't the album that has 'all' the classics. You have to take the long view and appreciate the totality of the band's output. But the album certainly adds to that legacy and may, if old habits don't get in the way, herald the recognition this band sorely deserves.

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Alexander Hay

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