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Pentagram - First Daze Here Too

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Artist: Pentagram

Album: First Daze Here Too

Label: Relapse

Review date: Feb. 13, 2006

It’s tough sometimes being a collector of hard rock and early metal. We get burned. Our hands are dirty and our hair long (if only on the inside sometimes), bringing looks of derision and judgment from the Man. We just want our fix of what’s righteous.

When you get into hard rock, your needs are simply met but rarely satisfied. You want something that will satisfy the jones that a small number of bands planted within you. That dose of doom, raunch, evil, and flash. Instrumental prowess that cuts across showiness, drum solos, extended guitar elegies that really burn. A singer who can conjure up the right balance of what the music’s trying to bring across. It’s gotta be crazy, it’s gotta rock, it’s gotta hit hard, loud, and heavy. If it comes between ’69 and ’76 – between Woodstock’s love and Altamont’s hate plus the rise and peak of what critic Martin Popoff deemed the holy triumvirate of ’70s metal (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Uriah Heep), free-form radio, and where the music industry lost the script – it’ll at least qualify. Anything earlier runs the risk of being too hippy-dippy; anything later and you end up at a rather confused time in rock history from the business end, when the conflation of glam, punk, new wave, metal, and AOR had to work overtime to compete with disco for sales percentage. You also have to compete with progressive rock in a corporate sense (Yes, Tull, etc.), folk, and pop music taking a bite out of the heaviness and leaving you the crumbs. Not that the crumbs don’t sell, mind you, as some of us deep into metal palsy will pay top dollar for albums that have, at best, one good and heavy track on them. Hence, a thriving and unfortunately gray reissue market is taking a lot of dudes for a ride, not the least of which are the people in said bands who aren’t seeing dime one.

The music business, sensing danger in the cavalier attitudes of the bands that made this evil music, tried to make it easy for us to get lost, as labels were quick to deceive a less-educated buyer’s market with the leverage of there being considerably less information about new artists. If it wasn’t on the radio, it was a quick trip from the front racks back to the warehouse, and then to the cutout bin of the same store you shopped at, minus a chunk of the cover. It wasn’t at all uncommon for a marketing department to deck out a band in whatever “heavy” getup and tough band name/font was lying around for a boost in sales, concealing an album full of blowsy crud. Also, bands would all too often hit their peak with one album, then ride out a career with the most diminishing of returns thought possible, often changing their sound under pressure to win over a larger audience – Frijid Pink comes to mind, a.k.a. Nixon’s favorite metal band. Moreover, there’s still a distinct thrill of being able to find something truly amazing for a dollar. If you don’t collect (and aren’t the kind of jackass who prices everything based on eBay or Goldmine), there’s a good chance the really good stuff will slip right by you and others, and your sole competition will be DJs and producers looking for drum breaks. The best records can still go undetected in used bins and by the buyers who put them there.

Pentagram didn’t even get the chance to make that record. There was no DIY element for them to work with, no MP3 blogs and CD-Rs. Pressing up an album privately was for hobbyists, and Pentagram played a brand of hard rock that would have required a sizeable recording budget, which they couldn’t afford without major label backing. While in their prime, from ’71 to ’76, they slipped by just about everyone, working hard for meager ends and gigging regionally around their homebase in the DC suburbs, coming close to that brass ring but always falling short. Sure, the group had reformed with vocalist Bobby Liebling using the name and different players, and would go on to record under that name throughout the ’80s, but when this band peaked, it offered forth an embarrassment of riches that hardly any of their contemporaries – the bands that metal collectors now rightfully covet – could match. The classic lineup of Pentagram (rounded out by guitarist Vincent McAllister, bassist Greg Mayne, and drummer-turned-group-historian Geof O’Keefe) was borne out of its members love for bands on that second tier, like Sir Lord Baltimore, Dust, Bang, Split-era Groundhogs, Blue Cheer, Captain Beyond, and the like. These groups took the ringing, crushing dread of Sabbath, the amphetamoid white man blooze, the inverted cross thrust upon the backs of the early ’70s by the decaying peace ‘n’ love generation, to various extremes of pummeling rock gymnastica and recklessness against volume, decency, decadence and common sense.

First Daze Here Too, then, represents the working side of Pentagram. Where their first collection (2002’s First Daze Here, also on Relapse) focuses on collecting tracks in their signature doom metal style, this new collection shows the band’s last-ditch efforts to get industry recognition and at the same time maintain their own sound, uncovering loads of new ideas that they have no problems working through. Yet there’s nothing on here that suffers under this fact. If anything, First Daze Here Too provides a much more rounded view of the group as it likely existed, from set-fillers to shorter numbers, from covers to demos and alternate versions of songs from the first collection. Culled from live rehearsals and a handful of studio sessions, what these recordings lack in luster and post-production are more than made up for in grit, wisdom, foresight, and musical abilities that are frighteningly realized. These guys really had it all. A rhythm section of alarming complexity and right-in-the-pocket chops, with a drummer who had Bill Ward’s swing and a bassist who played chords in rhythm to fill out the space left by one guitarist. That lead guitarist with innate and expressive rhythmic solo abilities, astounding taste, and unreal timing. A singer who wore the role of frontman with uncanny zeal, who could get away with giving the most ridiculous lyric a grim and serious effect. Hearing a grown man yell “Now Satan makes your rules!” will sort you out, any day of the week.

“Wheel of Fortune,” a demo cut for Columbia Records in 1976, kicks off First Daze Here Too with force and menace unparalleled by anyone that year outside of Judas Priest. The backbone riff is mean and sinewy, framed by a simple drum pattern and a momentous structure that doubles up its intensity by the end. It starts out sounding like Dead Moon and ends up like the best Jesus Lizard song they never recorded. “Target” and the epic “Show ‘Em How” build out a simple blues riff into something new and unreal, hybrid dirt/metal/swagger that’s enough shades different from any of their contemporaries or followers that you’ll get angry these guys never got their due. Quick, effective bad-ass boogie squiggles like the wah-dominated “Yes I Do,” glam-influenced pre-hair metal shakes like “Teaser,” full-on screamers like “Virgin Death” … even their cover versions (the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” and the Yardbirds’ “Little Games”) unearth nuances only dreamt of in the originals, and show just how good these guys were at adapting material into their own worldview. With almost more than twice the number of songs than on First Daze Here – 22 tracks altogether – this album has a slight tendency to drag at moments, but never for a whole song, and only very rarely.

It’s gotta be said here that nobody’s closer to this material – and willing to discuss it – than drummer Geof O’Keefe. He makes up for the humble liner notes on the first compilation with detailed stories of what conditions these recordings were made under, anecdotes on their history (blown chances under management by the guys behind Blue Oyster Cult and the Dictators, and a tale of how Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley watched them play in someone’s living room), and notes on every song included here, right down to the material that influenced each track. I’ve heard all the bands O’Keefe cribbed from; he’s right, they do sound alike, but never in any sense a blatant rip of others’ material. It took guts to admit these things, but moreover it takes a hard-bitten determination to realize how far Pentagram pushed the scope of ’70s metal, and how far they could have spread their righteousness if only they’d been able to surface in their day and age.

By Doug Mosurock

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