[24 May 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Bobby Liebling has no business being alive. But somehow, after years and years of drug abuse, he’s still puttering along, trying to live a cleaner life with a young wife and child, playing shows, and basically trying to eke out some sort of living after practically throwing a good chunk of his life away. The leader of Pentagram, one of the most important early American heavy metal bands from the early ‘70s, Liebling fully deserves to be as revered as his peers in Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, but for all the cutting-edge music Pentagram created, so brilliantly compiled on 2002’s First Daze Here and 2006’s First Daze Here Too, the mercurial Washington, D.C., band could never keep its act together consistently enough to at least make a stab at some form of success. Instead Pentagram languished in the underground, influencing a wave of new doom metal bands in the 1980s, and despite a fleeting run of very strong albums that decade, success evaded Liebling and his constantly rotating band lineup.
While Liebling has benefited greatly from Pentagram’s 1970s singles compilations and a new generation of admirers those releases attracted, Pentagram’s live shows have been unpredictable and the band’s studio output has been decidedly less than sterling. The last time we heard from Liebling on record was 2004’s Show ‘em How, on which he sounded exhausted, and it seemed like we would never hear new music from Pentagram again. However, Metal Blade Records surprised everyone by signing Liebling and Pentagram to a multi-album deal late last year, an incredible leap of faith considering the singer’s reputation. But when you hear the first of those records, the ironically titled Last Rites, you realize that the somehow indestructible Liebling just might pull off the late-career renaissance so many people have been hoping would happen.
Granted, this isn’t an album of entirely new material at all, as Last Rites’ 11 songs have been culled from old tapes of songs Liebling wrote 35 years ago. In fact, Liebling has gone on record saying he’s finished writing songs altogether. But considering just how many unreleased songs he has in his possession, not to mention just how good this new album is, we’ll gladly take it. Part of the appeal of this new album is just how old school these songs feel. Written in the 1970s, there’s no trace of modern influences whatsoever. Just good, old-fashioned groove, heaviness and the odd touch of psychedelia. However, no matter how good the songs are, it all depends on just how “together” Liebling sounds, and remarkably, this is the best he has sounded on record since 1987’s Day of Reckoning. Liebling sounds rejuvenated, singing atop the massive stoner groove of “Treat Me Right” with a commanding presence. “Call the Man” echoes the menace of the original Alice Cooper band, and the thunderous “Walk in Blue Light” sounds even better than the version heard on First Daze Here, but Liebling’s most revelatory vocal moment on this album might be his wonderful, bittersweet vocal performance on the acoustic-tinged ballad “Windmills and Chimes”.
As strong as Liebling sounds, the talents of his backing band cannot be ignored, especially that of guitarist Victor Griffin, who returns to Pentagram for the fist time since the late ‘80s. A doom metal virtuoso in his own right, Griffin fronted the excellent Place of Skulls during the 2000s, but as good as that band’s material was, it’s great to hear that deep, resonant Les Paul churning out riffs on a Pentagram record once again. Griffin, who is no slouch in the vocal department either, takes over the singing on the excellent “American Dream”, but he’s best served as Liebling’s foil, and the two make the biggest impression on the superb “8”, a stately, five-minute epic that sees Griffin unleashing classy, highly melodic riffs as Liebling intones ominously, perhaps autobiographically: “Seen down every path of dark road/Just breaking myself taking too much load/You’ll never reach the clouds if you don’t take the bait/Ain’t no light in a tunnel that’s a figure eight”. It’s the most arresting moment on one hell of a stunning comeback, and we can only hope Pentagram will be able to sustain this momentum. The metal world’s a better place when Bobby Liebling is in top form, like he is here.