Jimi Hendrix had been dead for only a year, the Beatles had split up a few months earlier and the Black Sabbath dudes were savouring their first successes. And, in Aarlington, Virginia, Bobby Liebling formed Pentagram with friend and guitarist Geof O’Keefe.
That was 1971 and this is now. In the interim, Pentagram underwent a mind-numbing level of line-up changes, splits and re-unions, endured ugly incidents of substance abuse as well as other trials and tribulations that all in all might make a great movie-script. With a handful of albums and several demos up their sleeve, it’s a testament to the band’s resilience that Pentagram has never appeared as strong as now. Indeed the reception accorded to the band’s “Last Rites” album (released in April 2011) and a more recent European tour illustrate the allure that Pentagram still command.
While it might be true that Bobby Liebling’s persona is indivisible from that of Pentagram, fans familiar with the band’s history will concede that it was guitarist Victor Griffin who really got the ball rolling when the band released its first album in 1980. In the band’s current incarnation Victor is yet again proving to be a crucial catalyst for the band’s progress. So when I met him, one of the things I wanted to understand was how he felt in hindsight about accepting Bobby’s invitation in 2010 to rejoin Pentagram…..
Chris: Victor, how would you describe the current vibe between the band members, especially in comparison to the situation, say, 2 decades ago?
Victor: A huge difference, man. It’s just unbelievable. Everybody’s being so good to us….fans of all ages are coming from everywhere. You know, this [Pentagram] is something we’ve strived for for so many years and for some reason it’s only now that we’re being blessed with it. So we just want to take advantage of the situation, do the right thing, make the right choices.
How has the current European tour been going?
It’s all been going very well. We’ve done a lot of good shows. The biggest problem we had was with the ferry when we had to get to London from Oslo and we had to drive instead. But on the whole it’s been going good.
There’s always been a strong fan loyalty towards Pentagram and Doom Metal bands in general…..
Yeah, I think it’s just the music – people who are into this genre of music tend to stick with it. And it’s the same with Pentagram – we see people who’ve been into the band since the early 1980s. And now these fans have kids and they’re turning their kids onto Pentagram. That’s why we people we’re meeting go from 18 to 60 years of age.
Let’s speak about “Last Rites”, Pentagram’s most recent studio album – which in my opinion contains the best-sounding material ever recorded by Pentagram. How much of the songs were written specifically for that album?
I think there were four brand new songs on that album…..’American Dreams’, ‘8’, ‘Death In First Person’….[pauses]……maybe there were only three. A lot of the other songs were stuff Bobby had from old tapes from the past that we had dug out and basically restructured, reworked, rearranged and gave them the Pentagram sound, besides their 1970s sound. There are a couple of different areas of Pentagram’s sound: there was the 1970s stuff and then, when I came along in the early 1980s, the sound changed. That’s when it became more of a Doom Metal sound. However I don’t really think the new album is a Doom Metal album – I think it’s just a Hard Rock album that has a more modern sound.
I believe the contract Pentagram signed with Metal Blade was a 3-album deal. So have you started being involved in the next album?
That’s correct – it’s a 3-album deal. We haven’t really started to come together with ideas for the next album but I believe we all have some fresh ideas for the songwriting on the new album.
And will you personally be giving your creative input to the songs or will it once again be Bobby who’ll do most of the songwriting?
Actually I’ll probably be putting more input into this album. I didn’t put so much effort into the last album [“Last Rites”] – I mean I co-wrote a few things but I didn’t really contribute any complete songs. But at the time I had just come out of the studio with Place Of Skulls so I was pretty much used up on my own stuff. Regardless, “Last Rites” was a good collaboration but I think next time, yes, I will be able to contribute more.
And I guess the success of the band’s current European tour serves as an incentive for that…..
Yes. I’ve been encouraged by fans to be more involved so I’ll plan on doing just that.
Once you’re mentioning Place Of Skulls…..I confess I really love the emotional intensity of “Love Through Blood” (2005 EP). How do the religious themes of those songs evocate your personal concerns of the time?
Well, I’ve been through so many different phases since my teens through to my 20s, 30s and so on up. I feel I was being chased by God. I think at a point I was tired of running. A lot of the songs were written just after I gave up trying to do it on my own and basically turned to God. Obviously He can do a better job of running my life than I can because I’ve made a total mess of it.
So those songs came from my spiritual awakening where I felt I just had to start pouring out my heart. Really it’s the same with all the Place Of Skulls releases. And the cool thing about Pentagram now is that Bobby, myself, Greg and Tim all come from the same place in our own spiritual lives. I think it’s something that God’s looking upon and is basically the positive vibration that’s pushing us forward.
You know, Metal has long been associated with an altogether darker aura so it’s great to have a different perspective to the music…..
Absolutely. I agree with you 100%. I mean we had gone through darker days with Pentagram with the symbolisms and the bleakness and all. We just consider ourselves to be a Hard Rock band now – we play heavy Rock ‘N Roll but it doesn’t have to be in relation with dark images and all that.
Doom Metal as a genre tends to be associated with pro-Christian lyrics. Maybe this has to do with the introspective nature of the music.
I think it comes from Biblical themes, such as the struggle between good and evil. There’s always going to be something like that involved with Doom Metal. In fact some stories in the Bible can’t get any Doom-ier. But there’s always a bright side…..
…..the possibility of redemption……
Yeah, there’s always redemption that comes – the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.
What do you think is the role of religion in the increasingly secular world we live in?
I think if you’re talking about ‘religion’, well religion is a set of works that is put upon someone depending on what denomination you are. You go through a certain emotion, a certain ritual, and that is your religion. And basically you’re doing these things to try to please God. As for the guys in Pentagram and me, we lean towards a non-religious attitude because when you look to follow Jesus and what He taught, well Jesus taught anti-religion. He taught against the Pharisees, who were the religious hierarchy of the time. In His eyes the Pharisees were being hypocrites because they were forcing laws and religion upon people that people couldn’t live by those laws.
So we’re just trying to have the right heart and attitude about the whole thing – simply to do the right thing.
Around the same time you released “Love Through Blood”, you also released your solo album “Late For An Early Grave” (2004). What is the thought behind the title?
It’s sort of a definition of my lifestyle over the years: just living a crazy life as if it was one whole party.
The front artwork has a photo of yourself on a bike….I believe you have a passion for bikes……
Yeah, but you live by the sword, die by the sword. I was getting to the point of being lucky to simply be alive. And that’s where the title came from. Luckily I’m running late!
Do you play the songs of that solo album ‘live’?
Not really. However 3 of those songs became Pentagram songs: ‘Vampyre Love’, ‘Wolf’s Blood’ and ‘Too Late’ became Pentagram songs on “Be Forewarned” . The rest of the songs I’ve never played live. I’m actually working on a new project right now where we are re-recording the title-song ‘Late For An Early Grave’ and ‘Never Surrender’ [both songs having appeared on the “Late For An Early Grave” album].
No, not with Pentagram. It’s another thing I’m working on. It has Pete Campbell [Place Of Skulls, The Mighty Nimbus] on drums, Mike Puleo on keyboards, various bass players…we just finished recording 8 songs and we have 7 different bass players.
What’s the name of the band?
Actually we don’t have a name for it yet. It might just be a Victor Griffin solo thing.
And what’s the situation with Death Row? I had heard you were working on a new album?
Right now there is no situation with Death Row. We had tried to do something again a couple of years ago [in 2010 actually] – we did ‘Roadburn’ [a Dutch festival], a short tour and released a live album. We did it with myself, Joe Hasslevander (drums – Raven, Pentagram, The Hounds of Hasselvander…..), Martin Swaney (bass – Pentagram). Bobby was doing Pentagram at the time with another line-up. It would have been cool to put together the 4 original guys of Death Row…..but we just really couldn’t. There was a situation of personal issues from the past that kept popping up so it just couldn’t happen. Right now it’s on the backburner – who know what will happen in future? To be honest at present, however, that’s not even an issue.
You know, while preparing for this interview I lost count of the innumerable musicians who have played with Pentagram at one point or another. Isn’t it frustrating at not being able to focus on the creative aspect of the music due to endless line-up changes of both Pentagram and Place Of Skulls?
Well, it can definitely be a problem. Right now, however, we’re pretty much settled in as far as guitar, vocals and bass are concerned with Bobby, Greg [Turley – Pentagram bass player and nephew of Victor] and myself. We’ve been through 3 drummers in the past year and a half. Right now Tim [Tomaselli] is playing with us and everything seems to be going really well. Tim was on the “Last Rites” album as well although we had initially toured that album with a different drummer…..Albert Born. He was a great drummer but his style just didn’t fit with our own. Talented, but he’s more of a Speed Metal drummer while we’re more of a Blues-based Hard Rock band.
In the last 10 years or so, there’s been an unprecedented proliferation of Doom Metal festivals, especially in Europe. You have performed at a number of these, both with Pentagram and Place Of Skulls. Could you describe your own experiences of these niche events?
It seems to me that they’re usually pretty good. There seems to be a big hunger for the Doom Metal stuff here. Festivals are always fun and over here they’re really prolific.
You don’t have so many niche festivals in the States……
Yeah but the problem is that festivals just don’t seem to work in the States. People have tried to do Doom Metal festivals there but you’d end up with bands playing for bands with girlfriends and other close friends. But you definitely don’t get the draw in the States as you do in Europe.
Pentagram have often been compared to Black Sabbath, who have recently got together in their original formation. Black Sabbath have announced they’re planning a world tour for 2012 – would a Black Sabbath / Pentagram bill interest you if the offer came along?
Obviously. Yes. That would be insane!
Victor, what do you regard as the pinnacle of your artistic career?
[pauses] I think it would have to be the last 2 albums I recorded: the last Place Of Skulls album [“As A Dog Returns”] and the last Pentagram album [“Last Rites”]. In these albums I’m not trying to do anything that I cannot do. It’s my style, my guitar-playing and I’m not trying to be someone else. I’ve grown, musically-speaking, and have started to experiment in different things. I don’t feel I have to be nailed down to the Doom Metal label. If I want to play Blues or if I want to do whatever else, I’m not afraid to do that. I don’t really care if someone might say: ‘Aw, but this doesn’t sound like the first Pentagram album.’ Well that’s not really my problem. I’m not interested in recording the first Pentagram album or the first Place Of Skulls album over and over again. Sometimes it doesn’t please everybody but you’re never going to do that anyway. So you might as well just go out there and do the best you can, play the best you can and write the best songs you can write for that particular period of time and hopefully they’ll do well. Maybe they won’t but, you know, you gotta keep real with it.
We’ve come to the end of this interview. Is there anything we haven’t mentioned that you’d like to say?
No, I don’t think so, man. I think you pretty much covered everything. I just appreciate it and thank you for your time and consideration.
© 2011 Chris Galea
Interviewed by Chris Galea