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America may be known as a land of secondchances, but at this point, Pentagram’s Bobby Liebling must be on his 666th. The godfather of D.C. doom metal, Liebling has been making music in the area since 1965, when, at the age of 11, he formed his first band, Shades of Darkness. Since then, he’s led more than 30 different lineups, mostly under the Pentagram umbrella. His notorious, decades-long drug addiction and its concomitant effects—frequent arrests, an irascible personality, inconvenient on-stage collapses—have resulted in enough alienated bandmates for Liebling to be considered heavy metal’s answer to Mark E. Smith. If it weren’t for Pentagram’s frequent self-sabotages and endless string of bad breaks, the band might have been as big as Black Sabbath.
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I interviewed Liebling extensively for a Washington City Paper cover story six years ago, and had to adhere to an odd set of rules: 1) Always call after midnight; 2) all references to black magic and human sacrifices were to be off the record; and 3) at each 40-minute mark, Liebling would have to pause to smoke crack. After each break, he became a charismatic, logorrheic confessor until eventually his speech slurred, slowing to about 16 rpm. But Liebling, according to multiple close sources, has been relatively sober in recent years—three years off of heroin and methadone, another two off of crack cocaine. At 57 years old, he’s an unlikely newlywed and father to a newborn son. Even more improbably, he somehow convinced former bandmate Victor Griffin to rejoin Pentagram and record a new album, Last Rites.
Liebling met Griffin on Halloween in 1981 and agreed to join Griffin’s band, Death Row. Two years later, Liebling convinced the band to change its name to Pentagram. The pair’s on-again-off-again relationship resulted in a highly respected trio of doom metal albums: Relentless (1985), Day of Reckoning (1987), and Be Forewarned (1994). In 1996, Griffin left Pentagram amicably to get sober and find God, forming his own Christian doom band, Place of Skulls, in 2000. Last year, Liebling reached out to Griffin to get Pentagram back together. Griffin reluctantly agreed, but wanted to ensure Liebling was actually sober. Griffin had one other condition: Get rid of all the satanic imagery. (Not an easy task for a band named Pentagram.) According to a recent article in Decibel, that meant “(n)o more upside-down crosses, no more baphomets, no more pentagrams.” Liebling relinquished the beloved pentagram necklace he had worn for decades. Mo Moussa, Last Rites’ cover artist, even complied with the rule, depicting a crypt-keeper figure inscribing the names of the damned in an ancient tome.
Liebling credits family and faith for his sticking around, but he should give props to Griffin for making Pentagram sound great again. Never have the guitar tones on a Pentagram record sounded as rich, full, and menacing as they do on Last Rites. The album, produced by Liebling, Griffin, and Travis Wyrick, is a perfect showcase for Griffin’s wistful melodies, battle-axe riffs, and inventive Drop B tuning that out-Iommies Tony Iommi. Pentagram may be Bobby’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without Victor Griffin.
Pentagram’s last full-length, Show ’Em How (2004), was a phoned-in groaner. But Last Rites’ first track, “Treat Me Right,” bolts forth like a pent-up charger horse, allaying all fears. It’s one of the least doomy songs on the album: Griffin’s unrestrained guitar style and pedal-effect abuse brings to mind Blue Cheer’s Leigh Stephens. “Call the Man,” originally recorded as a demo in 1971, is a cocky strutter that shows that Liebling’s voice, despite the decades of abuse, is still a powerful instrument. The formula for most Pentagram studio albums is to take songs from the archives (generally meaning Liebling’s fecund period of 1970-1974) and add a handful of new compositions and at least one extended ballad. Last Rites, with only three completely new songs, is no exception.
The early ’70s demo of “Walk in Blue Light” was included on the compilation First Daze Here (2002), but the brawnier take on Last Rites should be considered the definitive version. Other reworked highlights include the infectiously morbid “Into the Ground,” which dates back to Liebling’s pre-Pentagram band Stone Bunny, and the melancholic traditional doom number “Everything’s Turning to Night.” “8,” a new number, is a down-tuned instant classic, one of the strongest songs on the album.
Last Rites has missteps like “American Dream,” whose half-assed political commentary and evangelizing come courtesy of Griffin’s lead vocals. The song, with a plodding pace and Book of Revelations-style lyrics—“the American dream has fallen asleep/If we wake the giant, what will the people reap?”—kills the album’s momentum.
The lone ballad, “Windmills and Chimes,” is a harmless trifle, unintentionally venturing into Spinal Tap territory when Liebling sings, “I’d like to take you in hand to the land of windmills and chimes.” (That must be where the Flower People dwell.) Luckily, Griffin comes to the aid of his friend with an emotive guitar solo that keeps the song from being a total loss. If he can trust Liebling again, then the fans, even after disappointing albums and canceled concerts, can as well. For the most part, Last Rites rewards that trust.