“I had my Laney [Tony Iommi Signature] amps modded by Voodoo Amps for more bass, because sometimes I would go into a room and even though my bass was already on 10, it would feel like the sound was really thin.”
Many bands spend an eternity waiting for their mythical day in the sun. Pentagram is among them. The group, who emerged from Arlington, Virginia, in 1971, pioneered the doom metal genre alongside Black Sabbath and was pegged to be the next big thing. But drug abuse and inner turmoil plagued the band, and their day never came.
In recent years, with the mainstream’s rediscovery of early ’70s rock, Pentagram has returned to the spotlight with more cultural capital than ever. In 2009 Jack White’s supergroup, The Dead Weather, covered Pentagram’s “Forever My Queen”—first recorded in a warehouse during the winter of 1972-’73—as the A-side of a 7" vinyl single. They included the song in concerts and performed it on TV’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Hank Williams III also plays the grinding love pledge onstage. And Pentagram showcased at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin and has mounted several international tours.
After the band’s plight was chronicled in Last Days Here—an award-winning 2011 documentary that focused on the drug-ravaged life of singer Bobby Liebling—Pentagram became hip in an “I-want-to-marry-Charles-Manson” way. In addition to the expected aging, bald metal dudes, everyone from PBR-drinking 20-somethings to 6-year old European toddlers are coming to Pentagram’s sold-out shows.
Sadly, a second chance at stardom hasn’t changed much for the seemingly indestructible Liebling, who continues on a 40-year habit ingesting every drug imaginable and has been at death’s door for decades. So severe is his addiction that he scratched the skin off parts of his body—leaving his limbs ravaged by gaping, open wounds—because he believed he was being eaten alive by parasites. When he’s not on the road with Pentagram, he lives on the couch of his parents’ Maryland home.
Guitarist Victor Griffin, however, has aimed for a more stable lifestyle. The man who created dropped-B tuning decades before most metal mavens even thought about twisting their tuning pegs counterclockwise, and has been dubbed the American Tony Iommi, straightened himself out by seeking salvation not from Satan but, ironically, The Man Above. Griffin maintains a clear head by partaking in many adrenaline-junkie activities. In addition to stints with various bands, including fronting the Christian heavy doom trio Place of Skulls, he’s a pro racecar driver, former semi-pro BMX rider, and runs a custom motorcycle shop out of Knoxville, Tennessee, where he lives. Since his influences go beyond metal to embrace first-generation punk outfits like the Dictators and the Dead Boys, Griffin’s playing in the current edition of Pentagram—with the rhythm section of bassist Greg Turley and drummer Pete Campbell—is also defined by a vocabulary plucked from the haunted corners of blues and rock, and a remarkably low tone achieved with modded amps.
Given Liebling’s moribund state and the impossibility of actually having writing sessions, it’s no surprise that many of the selections on Pentagram’s new release, Curious Volume,had to be unearthed. Cuts like “Lay Down and Die,” “Earth Flight,” and “Sufferin’” were written way back in the ’70s.
But contrary to what you might think, Curious Volume isn’t just a perfunctory reheating of old leftovers. Many of the songs were deconstructed, then reconstructed, and given a contemporary shine. “With our style and tones, it kind of jacks everything up and they become whole new songs compared to how they were back in, say, the mid-to-late ’70s,” proclaims Griffin.
But the question remains: Is Pentagram’s day finally on the horizon?
The guitarist who created dropped-B tuning decades before most metal mavens even thought about twisting their tuning pegs counterclockwise has been dubbed the American Tony Iommi.
How did you create the dropped-B tuning?
I learned dropped D from some early Sabbath stuff. One day I was feeling creative, but also feeling kind of blocked. I sat around with my guitar and thought, “There must be another tuning besides just dropped D.” As I began to play around with the low E string, I kept down-tuning to see what would happen when I would make a fifth chord on the 6th and 5th strings. When I finally got it down to B and hit a fifth shape, it was octaves, and I’m plugged in and cranked up, and was just blown away by the thickness of it. You’re only dropped on that 6th string.
How do you keep the strings from getting too floppy with that detuned E-string?
People think that if you tune it down you have to go to heavier gauge strings, but I don’t. I use custom lights, from .009-.046. We only tune a half-step down for our standard tuning, so a .046 gauge low E-string tuned down to B is really not that bad. But you do have to play it gingerly. You can’t play it really aggressive like you would a standard tuned guitar because it will vibrate out of tune before the vibration slows down, and then it will fall back into tune. I’ve kind of cultivated my stage thing. It might look like I’m hitting it really hard onstage, but I’m not hitting that string very hard at all. The music drives you to want to play hard, but you have to restrain yourself.
Many of the songs on Curious Volume were written decades ago. Did you take creative liberties or play them verbatim, as on the original demos?
Sometimes we had to restructure a little bit. Sometimes the songs were very short. I would use the original recording enough to learn the song and everything beyond that I’d just put out of my mind and start playing as if it’s a new song. If it needs another part or an extension, I noodle around with different riffs and come up with a part that feels like it goes with that song. But I’m not necessarily trying to capture the effect that this song was written in 1970. By the time I learn a song and play it through my rig with my tone, it basically becomes a whole different animal and I can fit my new part into it based on how that song now feels to me.