On the heels of years of inactivity within the Pentagram camp (documented in the recent “Last Days Here” documentary), singer Bobby Liebling got clean, got his shit together, assembled a new lineup and – for the first time in the band’s almost four decade history – was able to get some nationwide touring under his belt.
Things were looking up, though for long-time fans of the band there was a definite sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It wasn’t a question of if Bobby would fuck things up, but when. And, sure enough, it wasn’t long before a disastrous tour found the doom metal legends shakily running through four or five songs and a half-hour long improvised blues jam. For once the blame fell somewhere besides Liebling, though, as their guitarist quit the very day the band left for the tour.
Celebrated guitarist Victor Griffin’s return to the fold was enough to raise hopes that there would indeed be another Pentagram album to rival their peak in the mid-80’s, but the ensuing album, Last Rites, was a scattershot affair that surpassed the two most recent studio albums (1999’s Sub-Basement and 2001’s Show ‘Em How) not on its own merits but merely by being less of a letdown by comparison. The one thing the album really had going for it was Liebling’s rejuvenated performance, sounding far better than he had since 1994’s Be Forewarned, the last truly great album in their catalog. On the road, however, it was a different story. A handful of songs from Last Rites came across better live, in the midst of a set of classic songs from both their 80’s era and their 70’s demo recordings.
So … Griffin’s back in the fold, Liebling sounds better than he has in almost two decades, the band’s wisely sticking to a mostly-classics set list … with all of those elements in place, Live Rites’ documentation of their 4/20/11 show in Finland should have been killer.
Instead, the one show from the tour that was recorded is the one show where Liebling was sick, and his voice is a hoarse, croaky wreck. There are numerous apologies from him for this throughout the night, though the crowd definitely sounds to be into it nonetheless. It’s really too bad, as the band turns in a great performance. Griffin in particular stretches out on a few songs and his playing is incredible, as expected. The energy level is high throughout as Pentagram cherry-picks the sparse highlights from Last Rites and fills out the rest of the set with classic songs both expected (“Sign of the Wolf,” “Forever My Queen,” “When the Screams Come”) and unexpected (“Day of Reckoning,” “Evil Seed,” “20 Buck Spin”). Liebling certainly tries hard in spite of his sickness, and his charisma still manages to shine through.
As it stands, though, the vinyl-only Live Rites (with suitably over-the-top packaging courtesy of Svart Records) is worth it only for the most die-hard of fans – the band’s performance is damn good, but kneecapped by Liebling’s voice. Those looking for a recent live Pentagram fix would do well to check out the recent When the Screams Come DVD instead, which features this lineup in much better form.