PHOTOS: CHRIS RUDY | “Pentagram should have been…” This statement can be ended a number of ways, but the most common answer from heavy metal fans is “huge.” They were the founders of what became known as “doom metal”—thick, huge, downtuned riffs accompanying grim, dark, subject matter. Pentagram’s name should be in the annals of history next to bands such as Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath as forefathers of heavy metal, but it was not to be.
Plagued over the years by lineup changes and enigmatic singer Bobby Liebling’s battle with addiction and personal demons (a battle that was documented in the 2011 documentary Last Days Here), Pentagram never made it to the limelight and achieved the commercial success of some of their metal contemporaries. They did, however, maintain a strong, loyal fanbase throughout the years.
Now it’s 2014, Liebling is clean, guitarist Victor Griffin has returned to the fold after a year-long hiatus, and they are playing a hometown gig in Washington, DC at….American University? As I looked around the room in the Mary Graydon Center Tavern at American University, I felt like I was at a well-organized DIY show. An open, almost cafeteria-like room, bright white lights in the place of stage lighting, and, much to the chagrin of the primarily older crowd, no alcohol was allowed on the premises.
Talking to bassist Greg Turley before the show, I asked him, “This is not where you’d expect Pentagram to play. How’d this happen?” He gave kudos to the AU Independent Arts Collective, the student-run group who put the show together. “These kids really wanted to make this show happen.” When speaking to one of the student organizers, he was over the moon that this show was happening. Hearing someone who wasn’t even born when the seminal album Relentless was released use words like “legendary,” it couldn’t help but bring a smile to my face.
The bill was rounded out nicely with three strong supporting acts. First up was Richmond, VA’s Unholy Thoughts. A decent-sized crowd had already gathered, and after a short instrumental intro, UT burst into a thrashy hardcore song, and a circle pit instantly went into full swing. Wasting no time, they charged full speed ahead from song to song, the singer’s face getting redder and hair going manically wilder.
The core of their music was crossover thrash with elements of punk, metal, and hardcore, but at its heart was a strong undercurrent of straight-ahead, pure rock n’ roll. In theory, this sounds like it could be a bit messy, but these guys were tight and made it work nicely. They pleased the crowd with a cover of Motorhead’s “Iron Fist” before returning to their originals, the pit taking cues from the music as if from a choreographer, adjusting their activity with every time change and tempo shift.
Next on the bill was DC straight edge hardcore band Coke Bust. The band took the stage, and after one little twang of the guitar, exploded into a hardcore punk frenzy. That was all the crowd needed, and the pit resembled a small indoor tornado. The barrage of songs continued, the full-speed-ahead hardcore broken up occasionally by a D.R.I.-like breakdown. As they broke into their final song, damn near the entire floor became jumbled circular mass of slamming bodies.
The final opener of the night was Herndon, VA’s Satan’s Satyrs. The stoner rock trio opened with a heavy, tight instrumental, very much in the vein of Black Sabbath or Fu Manchu. The second song featured some vocals, but was also heavily instrumental. The crowd had transformed from a frenetic pit into a sea of heads bobbing in time to the low, heavy tones. The sound from the 3-piece was huge, with bassist Claythanas (also of Electric Wizard) pulling double-duty on vocals as well.
The earlier songs of the set were very tight, but as the set went on, the songs got somewhat jammy at times, becoming disjointed and losing their way a bit. One of these moments came in the middle of one song, where it was hard to tell if guitarist Jared Nettnin was having technical difficulties, or just made a poor choice of guitar effects. Highlights were “Show Me Your Skull,” from 2014’s Die Screaming, and the closer “Satan’s Satyrs.” Minor song structure and sound problems aside, they put on a solid set and the crowd enthusiastically showed their appreciation.
The time had finally come, and the now-full room was ready for the doom metal legends to take the stage. As I looked around, I was aware of how mixed the crowd was. Old-schoolers who saw Pentagram back in the early days were side by side with the younger fans who had discovered them in recent years. The second the chugging riffs of “Sign of the Wolf” began and Bobby Liebling hit the stage, the crowd went wild and surged forward. There were some technical issues with the PA system, and Bobby’s vocals cut out from time to time. Without missing a beat, they went right into their classic anthem, “Forever My Queen,” to the delight of every person in attendance. As they played through songs like “Vampire Love” and “War Time,” the crowd had filled in the sides of the stage, standing on speakers and furniture to get a better vantage point.
The band was in fine form. Bobby was lively and animated, proclaiming “It’s good to be home,” while doing his trademark writhing and crazy facial expressions as he performed. Bassist Greg Turley’s Rickenbacker may have only been matched by Lemmy’s when it comes to pure heaviness, and drummer Sean Saley complimented him with a thunderous beat on the drums. Many (including myself) were thrilled at the return of guitarist Victor Griffin. After “Death Row,” the band jammed out for a bit, and Victor really let loose, expertly showing his chops and proving that he is truly an unsung guitar god of American metal.
After the jam concluded, Bobby announced that “You must PAY FOR ALL YOUR SINS!” The opening drum beat hit, and the when the main riff hit, Victor’s low guitar tone combined with Greg’s bass set a new record for heaviness, sounding like the musical equivalent of a slow-moving herd of mammoths. The guitar solo was smooth and flowing, then right back into the crushing main riff as the audience sang along, “You can never win/pay for all your sins!”
After a brief off-stage rest, Pentagram returned much to the crowd’s approval. They brought the night to a close with “Be Forewarned,” and the classic “20 Buck Spin.” As the crowd milled about and began to disperse, the most common reaction I overheard was simply, “That. Was. AWESOME.” The past 5 years have shown a new life breathed into the legendary doom metallers, and at the rate they are going, and with a new album and more tours in the works, there are still chapters yet to be written in the history of Pentagram.