Graded on a Curve: Pentagram,
First Daze Here: The Vintage Collection

I was never one of the Black-Sabbath-loving troublemakers who smoked Camel unfiltereds in the parking lot outside metal shop at my old Alma Mater–fact is I was a faceless geek who wore glasses and preferred Elton John and to be honest, those guys scared me.

But now I kinda feel sorry for that motley crew of greasers and long hairs, and this despite the fact that they posed an existential threat to my personal safety in high school (walking down the hall between classes was like walking point in Vietnam!). Why? Because they never got a chance to hear doom metal pioneers Pentagram but were instead condemned to play their Sabbath and Deep Purple and Kiss 8-tracks over and over until the 8-track players in their bitchin’ Camaros ATE ‘em.

And all because Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling was such a colossal drug abuser and all-around egomaniac fuck-up he blew every chance the band ever got to get out of Old Virginny and become the heavy metal gods they wanted (and perhaps even deserved) to be.

Indeed, so feckless and self-sabotaging was Liebling that Pentagram didn’t put out a bona fide debut album until 1985–a good DECADE OR MORE after they produced the demos and live rehearsal tapes collected on the 2001 compilation First Daze Here: The Vintage Collection. And by that time the guys who played on this one were (with the exception of Liebling, natch) long gone.

Which was far too late for my old high school tormenters who by that point in time had probably given up listening to metal years ago (or maybe not–I hope not!) in favor of who knows what… Commercial country? The NRA-era Nuge? Madonna?

And too bad, because they’d have loved Pentagram and especially First Daze Here, wouldn’t have given jack shit that the songs all sound like carburetor dung and are not at all polished and buffed like they would have been had Pentagram not blown an audition with Kiss (too ugly, evidently!) or their big-chance NYC demo session with Sandy Pearlman and Murray Krugman of Blue Oyster Cult fame (Liebling went prima donna on ‘em!).

Loved ‘em because this stuff is killer, and not at all undifferentiated straight-up monolithic doom rock, oh no–the boys were constantly experimenting, and most every experiment (the very Jethro Tull “Review Your Choices” being the sole exception) bears fruit. I hear some Sabbath (of course) and (surprisingly) the aforementioned Tull in hard rock mode along with some tasty echoes of vintage Blue Oyster Cult and even a frisson of Iggy and the Stooges, but they ain’t imitating anybody. This is sui generis stoner rock of the highest caliber, thanks in part to Libeling’s changeling vocals, Vincent McAllister’s feedback-heavy thunder of the Gods guitar, and the big menacing bottom provided by Geof O’Keefe (drums) and Greg Mayne (bass).

I’ve got my faves and they include the heavier than a ton of bricks “Forever My Queen” (on which McAllister wails and wails), the veddy Tullish “Walk in the Blue Light” (Liebling does a swell Ian Anderson imitation!), the nuclear explosion in your headphones that is “Livin’ in a Ram’s Head,” and the heaving heavy metal monster that is “20 Buck Spin.” Also recommended: “Starlady,” which could be (I swear!) by Billy Idol, the tres foreboding psychedelic garage rocker “Be Forewarned” (kinda sounds like a hoary old Bob Seger System song on steroids!) and sludgefest “Last Days Here,” on which Liebling comes on like (and I mean just like!) Iggy Pop in full Funhouse mode.

But what I really hear when I listen to this 12-song compilation is an almost tragic absence, by which I mean I hear the empty space it left in the universe way back in the mid-seventies. The music on First Daze Here (as well as its sequel, 2006’s First Daze Here Too, which ain’t as good but has its moments) is like the proverbial tree that fell in the woods but never made a sound because there was nobody there to hear it, asides from a small cadre of Virginia metalheadss who were lucky enough to see the band live.

And how sad is that, because these songs coulda shoulda changed lives and blown minds; instead they moldered far from the public ear somewhere while all kinds of shit that wasn’t half as good wound up on teen stoner turntables because said teen stoners didn’t (couldn’t have!) known any better. I mean, the tunes on First Daze Here stand up to the music that was being produced by UFO and Uriah Heep and Sir Lord Baltimore, a couple of the bands that inspired Pentagram in the first place, and the same goes for the likes of Budgie, Three Man Army, Cactus, Leaf Hound, White Witch, Stray Dog and a lot of other bands who were out there peddling their heavy metal wares when these recordings were made.

It’s a mighty long way down rock and roll, and the road is littered with deserving bands that never got their just desserts, so it’s hard to cry too hard for the guys in Pentagram; nobody ever said life was fair, for fuck’s sake.

Still, I feel for these guys just as I feel for the vocational kids in the heavy metal parking lot outside shop class at Littlestown High School. Pentagram mighta made ‘em a little happier, and perhaps just a tad less likely to knock the books outta my hands as I was trying to make my invisible way from biology class to study hall (which I used to spend playing Egyptian Rat Fuck with my pals!) although probably not.

Still, part of me wants to seek ‘em all out and send ‘em a copy!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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