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PENTAGRAM – Opening The Casket
Anthony Morgan
August 2015

Pentagram (l-r): Bobby Liebling, Victor Griffin and Greg Turley

April 2011 full-length album Last Rites – the seventh studio affair from Virginian doom metal outfit Pentagram – largely consisted of hitherto unfinished tracks culled from vocalist Bobby Liebling’s tape archive. By contrast, August 2015 successor Curious Volume is mostly comprised of fresh material authored by guitarist Victor Griffin and bassist Greg Turley.

“There’s still a couple of old Bobby songs, maybe three – like one that was written in the 90s, for example,” Greg notes. “For the most part though, all of the brand new material Victor and I wrote. Either he wrote, I wrote, or we wrote together, and then Bobby came in, and we kind of went back and forth with arrangements, melodies, and stuff like that.

“We come up with parts generally on our own, or when we’re rehearsing. We’ll play a part for one or the other. We don’t live very close together, so a lot of times, I’ll come up with some parts for a song and send them to him and he’ll do the same. For instance, I wrote the music for the title track at my house, and played around with it a little bit, and then sent it to him. He immediately came up with a melody and wrote some lyrics to it, and that’s how that song came to be. That was probably about two weeks before we got into the studio actually, so that was brand new (laughs).

“We wanted to write just more straightforward, heavy rock songs, like three or four minutes each. That was the intention going into it; to just kind of bring it back to the beginning, so to speak (laughs). Yeah, I think we accomplished that, and I’m very happy and pleased with the outcome.”

Each respective Pentagram songwriter has unique motifs to their writing style, the four-stringer submits. “The performance from each member is kind of their stamp on the song,” he reckons. “Victor’s leads, as soon as I hear them you can tell who’s playing them immediately. Obviously, Bobby’s voice is very unique, and his performance and delivery. All of the pieces add up to new Pentagram music, so absolutely. I think as far as my style, I grew up listening to Pentagram for one, so hopefully my style is in that realm. If listeners listen to some of the stuff off of Last Rites that I wrote and some of the stuff on the new album that I wrote, hopefully it all comes off sounding like Pentagram. I think it does.”

Early 70s acts inform Greg’s writing style. “It’s interesting, because having been writing music for a while…,” he begins. “And like I said, before I was in Pentagram, I would write songs and then people would immediately compare it to Pentagram (laughs). I guess interestingly enough, my writing style is along those lines, but also your influences show through. My early influences were Victor, and I’m a huge fan of the Alice Cooper group, Black Sabbath, Kiss, and stuff like that. You can’t suppress what you grew up with, so that hopefully comes through in my songwriting.”

Although having penned the lyrics to one track during the 90s, some of Bobby’s archival ideas used elsewhere on Curious Volume happen to be even older. “The song ‘Because I Made It’ was written in the 90s, which I think is a great song,” the musician informs. “The opening track ‘Lay Down And Die’ was written in 1968, and that I just happened to find. I have a lot of his old material on cassettes that got passed down to me years ago. After we recorded Last Rites, I was listening through some of these different volumes of cassettes and came across that song.

“I just thought that it was a great song, so I kind of pushed for that to be on the new album ever since Last Rites came out. Luckily, we were able to go in and record it – we added a few little things here and there. All the songs tend to be very short. We added a few things to make that song a little bit longer, and it still isn’t a very long song (laughs). I think it still comes in under three minutes, and then the other two were written probably in the early 70s – ‘Earth Flight’ and ‘Sufferin’’.”

Bobby’s aforementioned archival ideas mostly consisted of riffs. “Really up until we got into the studio, they were just a pile of riffs,” Greg shares. “We worked on a few of the choruses in the couple of months leading up to it, but really it wasn’t until two weeks before we went into the studio that we were working on arrangements, and adding parts and taking parts away, and finalising vocal melodies. So, it was very much written at the time we were in the studio.”

Despite having plundered the vault through the years, the vault nevertheless still contains many archival ideas which could be borrowed for use in future. “They keep re-releasing the old material as well, with First Daze Here (The Vintage Collection) (February 2002) and and First Daze Here Too (March 2006),” the rhythmist adds. “There’s talk of a First Daze Here Three, so with that, they would dip into the vault as well. It’s hard for us. We all want fresh material going forward as well, but part of the formula and the sound is always dipping back into the older material. I’m a little bit hesitant to record the songs that people know again, because I respect those songs as they were and really like them. We would just be setting ourselves up to fall short in all honesty, by trying to re-record something someone knows.

Greg Turley

“There are still quite a few songs in the vault, though, so to speak. I’ve got four 90-minute cassettes that are just full of the old rehearsal material, so there’s quite a few. Some people have heard before, some people have never heard – such as ‘Lay Down And Die’. That was one that had never been played since the 60s and we were able to have on the new album, so that’s great. I wasn’t even born in 1968 (laughs).”

Curious Volume bears comparison to past Pentagram efforts. “To me, it’s still fresh, even though we’ve been working on it for the last six months,” Greg judges. “I like to think that it has elements of the 70s stuff, like the heavy rock more than doom, but it also has the doomy elements – like the Relentless (Pentagram, February 1985) and Day Of Reckoning (June 1987) albums. To me, when I talk to people, I think it could be the album that came out after Day Of Reckoning possibly. I say that since after Day Of Reckoning, Pentagram started layering guitars and doing more harmonies. Before that though, it was more just straightforward – a couple of rhythm tracks, a lead guitar track, a bass track, a drum track, and vocals – and that’s what this album goes back to.”

Albeit boasting familiar traits, Curious Volume additionally features elements less familiar to Pentagram fanatics. “I think there are a couple of songs, like the songs ‘Misunderstood’ and ‘Sufferin’’,” the performer cites. “They kind of lean more completely out of the doom realm to an almost punky, Iggy style. If you’ve read much about Bobby, he grew up with that 60s, early 70s Iggy punk material. It’s very natural for him to go into that direction, but people hearing it on a Pentagram album are at first a little bit shocked (laughs). That’s fairly different and might take a little bit for people to get used to, but if they listen to it with open ears, it’s still Pentagram and it still has energy. I think the song ‘Because I Made It’ is kind of an early Alice Cooper group type of song, and then there’s still doomy songs like ‘Devil’s Playground’ for instance. ‘Devil’s Playground’ has slow, heavy riffs, more Sabbath-oriented which people are comfortable with when listening to Pentagram (laughs).”

Each Pentagram member respectively contributed towards Curious Volume’s lyrical content. “We all contributed equally, as far as lyrics go,” Greg credits. “Bobby and Victor definitely wrote the most lyrics, and that’s been fairly common throughout Pentagram history. It’s never been just Bobby or just Victor, but Bobby with the help of others around him.

“The first time through, the record might come off sounding a little bit dark, but I think that all of the lyrics turn around to have hope. A lot of it talks about Bobby’s past demons, like the song ‘Close The Casket’ for instance, talking about where he was at his lowest of lows to coming out of that and being able to go on tour, and see the world, and people see him. It’s triumphant, so to speak. Much of it is about day-to-day issues and problems that people have, whether it to be in a band or somewhere else. I hope that answers your question. There’s many different subjects in each song, I guess. It’s not hard to gather a message out of any of them. They’re pretty straightforward. I like to leave it up to the listener to come up with their meaning, and enjoy it.”

The bassist penned the lyrics to the composition ‘Devil’s Playground’. “The song ‘Devil’s Playground’ mainly deals with anxiety, and actually dealing with it and beating it,” he discloses. “I wrote the music to ‘Curious Volume’ and Victor wrote the lyrics to that, which I think is another really good song. Good lyrics, and the same with ‘Walk Alone’; I wrote the music, and Victor wrote the lyrics.”

Curious Volume’s title cut delves into the ‘curious life’ of individuals familiar to those around us, so to speak. “People can derive what they want personally from it, but at the same time, sports figures and entertainment figures – whether it be music or acting – it can be called a curious life choosing that path as a profession,” Greg muses. “People dedicate themselves to things. Some make it, and some don’t. I guess that’s the start of the lyrics. Again, I don’t directly want to say what to take out of it for the listeners. I’d like for them to derive what they will from the songs.”

Helming production was Mattias Nilsson, meanwhile. “That was great,” the four-stringer enthuses. “I think he really helped with the direction that we were looking for. Still, it was the band’s decisions in the end for the songs and everything, but we had that fifth member in the studio with us the whole time as that extra voice, unbiased. He didn’t write the songs, so he wasn’t biased one way or the other, but just gave us that extra opinion and know-how that was really welcomed.”

Recording sessions took place across several states, namely Maryland, Virginia, and Tennessee. “We all live in different states, so we worked on the rhythm tracks in Maryland,” Greg elaborates. “Then Victor lives in Tennessee, so it was just easier and convenient for him to be able to go to a studio closer to where he lived. Victor recorded with Travis Wyrick quite a bit. We recorded Last Rites there and he recorded some solo stuff there, so he was comfortable going back to Travis to do some of the recording there. It was convenient. Modern technology makes it easy to record at multiple places. Sometimes you just need a change of scenery to be creative. It was a matter of convenience, mainly.”

Although recording sessions for Curious Volume took place across several states, Mattias Nilsson oversaw each and every aspect of recording. “Even when Victor recorded down there, Mattias was involved to a certain extent as well,” the musician divulges. “He handled all of the mixing and everything, so in the end, everything came back to Mattias to put together. Basically, he wanted us to be comfortable, so we worked as we normally do, and he adapted to us. Like I said, he did a great job, and we appreciate everything he did.”

“We’ve always recorded a certain way. Last Rites was recorded a certain way. It’s just a matter of where we are at that end. In the end, it’s just a matter of giving the songs rhythm. You rehearse, go to the studio, play together, and then do all of your overdubs. I don’t know that there’s a certain special way to doing anything, but this is just the way we do it, and Matthias helped us do that.”

Bass wise, former Pentagram personnel influence Greg. “I’ve always been a fan of Marty (Swaney) and Greg Mayne, the past Pentagram bass players, so I’ve always tried to model myself after them,” he reveals. “Then there are other influences along the way, like Gene Simmons. I think I grew as a bass player on this album, and one of the ideas when going into it was hearing some of the separation in bass and guitar.

“I think in the mix, we can actually hear the bass parts and hear the guitar parts, and hear everything. You play for the song; you listen to the vocals, listen to the drums and listen to the guitar, and ask where you fit in the sound spectrum. That’s the way I interpret it. It’s open to opinion, but I’m really happy with the way the bass specifically came out. I think there are some fun bass lines on there. It really played well with what Pete was doing, the drummer. I can go back and listen to it, and still I’m pleased with what I hear.”

A resultant mix is arguably important for any given band. “Yes, and Victor has some especially thick guitar tones,” the rhythmist highlights. “It’s hard to get the bass to come through sometimes, but yeah. I could be playing all of this cool stuff, but if you can’t hear it then it doesn’t really matter. It’s a balance, but obviously no-one wants to hear bass guitar over the top of everything else. It is the glue that holds the drums and guitar together, so it’s my place to find my little space in the middle of all of that, and let people hear the whole thing.”

Cover artwork duties fell to Richard Schouten. “The title of the album – Curious Volume – again, you can take so many different meanings from,” Greg observes. “The original two words though, Curious Volume together, we took from the opening paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (1845) – that’s where we got the two words from. With that, it felt fitting to adapt a raven for the cover. Again, all the little things in the background you can pick out; there’s lyrics, there’s dates, and there’s sketches behind the raven. Also, with the electronic parts, it could be volume as in sound level for example. There’s just so many different things you can derive from it, but the artwork itself is kind of a play off of both; the modern volume as well as Poe’s ‘The Raven’.”

A music video to accompany Curious Volume’s issue is in the works. “We’re working on putting together a couple of different ideas for a concept video, so we’re definitely hoping to have at least one,” the performer tells. “We’ll see. We should have something in the works in the next few weeks.”

On February 12th, 2015, it was revealed that Pentagram had inked an album contract with erstwhile label Peaceville Records. “They reissued the first two albums, namely Relentless and Day Of Reckoning,” Greg mentions. “Then when Be Forewarned came out (April 1994), Peaceville put it out, so there’s always been a relationship over the last 25 years with Peaceville. It felt natural when we were shopping the new album to speak to them. They were interested, and they just put out the live DVD as well (All Your Sins, February 2015) – the compilation – so it was just natural to go back to where we were all comfortable. They were excited, we were excited, and now we’ve got this new album out on Peaceville Records.”

April 2011 jaunt Last Rites was released through Metal Blade, the relationship lasting a mere single outing. “I know that it was their option to have a second album or not, and they chose not to,” the bassist remembers. “It’s unfortunate, but as one door closes, another door opens. That led us to Peaceville. It is what it is. It’s the state of the music industry; the music business is always changing, and everybody feels like they have to do what’s best for them at the time. Again, we have a new album out either way.”

Curious Volume was released on August 28th, 2015 via Peaceville Records.

Interview published in August 2015. All promotional photographs by Keith Hyde.

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