Released: 2011, Metal Blade Records
Reviewer: Aaron Yurkiewicz
Pentagram’s LAST RITES has easily been one of my most anticipated releases of this year. Amazing as it is, LAST RITES is only the band’s seventh studio album in its 40-years of existence, but their impact on the doom metal scene is incalculable. The band’s been on intermittent hiatus since 2004’s underwhelming SHOW ‘EM HOW, but LAST RITES seeks to resurrect the Pentagram legacy and re-introduce the band to the masses. Bobby Liebling’s clean and sober, Victor Griffin’s back in the band, and for the first time, Pentagram has a legitimate label to support the band in North America; there hasn’t been this much positive buzz about Pentagram since the mid-80’s, and rightfully so. LAST RITES isn’t without its faults, but it’s easily the most competent and grounded album to bear the Pentagram name since DAY OF RECKONING.
Listening to LAST RITES, there were couple of points that jumped out at me immediately. First off, this is the best sounding album that Pentagram has ever recorded. Ever. As good as the band’s material has been on the earlier recordings, the production quality was always thin and weak. LAST RITES “sounds” full; it’s got a warm, analog tone and Griffin’s guitars are front and center in the mix. Needless to say, if you’re at all familiar with Pentagram’s previous body of work, hearing Pentagram properly captured in the studio is reason enough to check out LAST RITES. Secondly, LAST RITES is the first album in the Pentagram catalog that sounds like it was recorded by a band in its 40th year of existence. Bobby Liebling is pushing 60, and his voice has started to catch up with his age. He’s still got some pipes, but they’re noticeably more weathered since the last time you heard him. It was a bit of a reality check to hear (especially for an old fart like myself), but it adds a different dimension of character to the songs. And the songs themselves are unapologetically retro. I’ve read some gripes about LAST RITES that it doesn't sound “fresh” or “current.” Seriously? This is frickin’ Pentagram folks, this is what they do, and LAST RITES revels in that.
So yeah, the songs. Keeping with tradition, half of LAST RITES is comprised of older material from the band’s archives, with the balance being brand new material (duh). But with some minor exception, if you didn’t know that some of these songs were decades old, you really couldn’t wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Album opener “Treat Me Right” sounds like it could have been written in the late 70’s with its declarative swagger. It’s a short groover that just oozes coolness. “Call the Man” suffers from some goofy lyrics, but is saved by Griffin’s ripping guitar work and Liebling’s forceful bellowing. “Into the Ground” is one of the two songs on the album dating back to Liebling’s pre-Pentagram outfit Stone Bunny (the other being “Nothing Left), and has an expectedly retro flavor. It’s hard to believe that such a heavy, forceful tune is four decades old; one of my favorites on the disc for sure.
“Everything’s Turning to Night” goes back to the early Pentagram demos, and is a softer, flower child doom ballad. Liebling’s performance here is probably the most intimate on the album and lyrically the subject matter seems a more timely and potent given that Liebling is closer to the end of the ride than the beginning. “Windmills and Chimes” is a laid back, spacey tune that continues the introspection theme. “American Dream” is the first misstep on the album. Pentagram’s never been a particularly political band, so tackling the death of the American dream on the band’s comeback album seems like an odd choice. Victor Griffin covers vocal duties on the song, and musically it’s very un-Pentagram. It made me wonder if it was possibly a Place of Skulls leftover. “Walk in the Blue Light” is probably one of the more familiar tunes in the Pentagram catalog, but it’s never been on an “official” studio album. It’s a heavier version with a lower tuning, and I found myself enjoying this interpretation more than the older bluesier versions.
This is where LAST RITES starts to lose steam. “Horseman” and “Death in 1st Person” just never really seem to click. With so many catchy and memorable tunes on the first half of the album, they fail to stand out at all. Even the album closer, “Nothing Left,” is an anticlimactic ending. It’s a great track, but it’s not a finale. 40-seconds of “All Your Sins” brings the LAST RITES to its final closure, which serves only to make one ask “why?” I’d love to hear a new take on this classic song with a proper mix; personally I think that would have been the perfect way to close the show. At the end of the day though, there’s still plenty of great moments on LAST RITES. I don’t know that there’s many miles left for Pentagram to travel, so if this were to end up being the band’s recorded epitaph I think I’d be okay with that. Honestly, as a dedicated Pentagram fan, it took several listens for LAST RITES to fully connect, but when it did, it all made sense. LAST RITES isn’t Pentagram’s best, but it’s the best Pentagram has been in a long while.