Sunday, August 30, 2015

Album Review: Pentagram - "Curious Volume"

Pentagram stands as one of the all-time heavyweights in American metal.  Working now in their fifth doom-laden decade, the band has not only been the continual standard bearer for American doom, but frontman Bobby Liebling has been idolized and celebrated more than most singers in the genre as a whole.  In all of metal’s menacing history, perhaps only Diamondhead stands ahead of Pentagram for the title of band that has influenced the most musicians while still having mainstream acceptance elude them.  Nevertheless, what’s old is new again, particularly in the digital age when history is easy to research, and Pentagram continues to thrive as they approach the age when most normal mortals would contemplate retirement and the rocking chair.

Whenever a band with as much experience as Pentagram releases new material, there is always the threat that it’s simply a cash-in, that the gears turn only just enough to cough out another excuse to shell out fifteen bucks for the album and more to have people come see the walking museum that the live show has become.  Rest easy fans, Pentagram is giving you a genuine effort on their new album “Curious Volume.”  If there is a silver lining in having widespread fame elude a band for forty years, it’s that the band remains hungry and Liebling and company still approach their music with wild eyes and calculated misery, rolling their ravenous appetite for metal into an effort that contains riffs of authentic malice and rumbling thunder.

There is an amusing scene in the Christopher Guest vehicle “A Mighty Wind” where The Folksmen’s bassist Mark Shubb (Principal Skinner, for “Simpsons” fans) quips “To do then now would be retro.  To do then then was very now-tro, if you will.”  That’s sort of the feel of Pentagram’s latest work, as the band provides us with a resurgent take on yesterday’s emergent sound, cut and packaged in an era where very few bands seem to recall the lessons of yesteryear.

Skipping to the end first, the slow churn of “The Devil’s Playground” bristles with magnificence, one of those great tunes that strikes the proper balance between foreboding storm clouds and head-nodding listenability (which isn’t a word, but whatever.)  These are the hallmarks of the genre – the ability to be infectious while at the same time narrating a dire story of trial and tribulation.

Not to be outdone, the vast bulk of the album is cut from the same cloth, as the sparse but churning riff of “Lay Down and Die” crackles with analog hum, standing in contrast to the burst of percussion beneath.  It is in these moments when Pentagram proves their mettle, channeling the experience of a long career into true, atmosphere-altering songcraft.

One of the base touchstones of doom has always been the ability to transition into different strengths and musical bridges, giving the listener a wide arsenal of sounds to enjoy, each section debuting just when it seems the previous cadence might run out of gas.  Here, too, we see Pentagram succeed where so many show their inexperience; the pummeling of “Walk Alone” shifts into a different gear for the outro, moving from a slogging dirge to a springy and memorable second life.

It is difficult to find fault with “Curious Volume” except to have the obligatory conversation that this album is ‘old skool.’  If listeners prefer their doom solely in morose, downtrodden tones, with mumbled, growling lyrics and at a rate of one note per ten seconds, well, tough luck.  Nor will fans looking for the deepest thematic depravity find much satiation, as the album never stoops to out and out visceral descriptions of surgery performed without consent or some other purely corporeal dreck.  Rather, this is an album composed out of the boiling cauldron of the genre’s auspicious beginnings, far more apt to examine the inner turmoil of an unquiet mind.  The lowest common denominator has little place here.

What Pentagram really proves by the slowly boiling conclusion of “Curious Volume” is that doom is not now, nor has it ever been, simply a matter of selecting three blues minor chords and playing slow.  The music must have character and color and tone and this new record broods with slumbering anger and the kind of intellectual understanding of doom that genre fans demand.  “Curious Volume” is a great record, Pentagram’s best effort in years and a worthy addition to anybody who thinks metal was at its best when Black Sabbath and Cirith Ungol and, well, Pentagram ruled the roost.

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