1. Digital Critic
2. What If…
3. Late For An Early Grave
4. Fading Flower
5. Thorn In The Flesh
7. Love Song For The Dying
8. Never Surrender
It was no big surprise when Victor Griffin walked out on Pentagram (again) after the Last Rites kinda-reunion album. Pentagram’s central figure and visionary, frontman Bobby Liebling has never been an easy person to work with, by all accounts, and it’s unlikely that the classic line-up of Liebling, Hasselvander, Griffin and Swaney will ever play together again for any extended period of time. More surprising was Victor Griffin’s decision to pull up stakes and disband his long-running act, Place Of Skulls. Your ability to appreciate or ignore that band’s frequently faith-influenced lyrics (Griffin isn’t just a high priest of the heavy guitar; he’s also a devout Christian) may vary, but the music was always right on target: heavy, dark and distinctly doomy. Nonetheless, Griffin has decided to make a fresh start with a new band, albeit one with many familiar conspirators on board, at least in the studio. These include drummer Pete Campbell, former Trouble bassist Jeff Olson on organ and a smorgasboard of bassists who’ve played with bands like 50 Watt Shaman, Goatsnake, Acid King and of course Pentagram.
So what makes this band different from Place Of Skulls? Perhaps not all that much; for one thing, I’ve heard that a couple of these songs have been in Griffin’s kitty for more than two decades, so it isn’t like everything here has been created totally from scratch. Such considerations fade away as the thunderous grooves of ‘Digital Critic’ stride into contention. The tone is thick and juicy – vintage Griffin – and the riffs are everything you’d expect from one of the most legendary hard rock/doom metal guitarists in the scene. Griffin’s vocals are assured and powerful, making Bobby Liebling only the third best vocalist of the classic Pentagram line-up. The song is apparently a screed against, er, online critics (like me!), but any faint sense of persecution is rendered insignificant as Griffin unleashes a swirling, hypnotic multi-tracked lead with a fiendishly groovy backing rhythm. ‘What If…’ is a more stately number, where Griffin’s warm, rich melodies are ably backed by Olson’s organ. ‘Late For An Early Grave’ would make a great fit on any vintage Pentagram album, and is a brilliant showcase for Griffin’s lead skills. Whether or not you share or even tolerate Griffin’s faith, it fuelled some very soulful songs on Place Of Skulls and this trend continues with the more downtempo track ‘Fading Flower’. An implacable, lead-footed riff surges like a force of nature, embellished with striving organ chords. Griffin’s vocals are passionate and his soloing is, in a word, divine. Best of all, that morose, melancholy aura you’d quite rightly expect from a doom song is never far away. ‘Thorn in the Flesh’ would have sounded equally in place on a Pentagram album or one by Place Of Skulls, but it’s all good, at least we have a band and an album to listen to an excellent recording of an excellent song. The organ adds another layer of drama to some of Griffin’s rhythmic breaks in the song. The next song is something of a coup – a cover of the early Jethro Tull single, ‘Teacher’, that somehow sounds like it’s been filtered through desert rock. I never thought Tull’s hard rock/metal Grammy was all that undeserved. There’s always been a central core of heaviness running through their music, and it is great hearing Griffin do his stuff with this track. ‘Love Song For The Dying’ is the album’s epic. A thunderous intro dwindles to a sustained organ note before a grinding, lugubrious riff steps in. Griffin’s vocals are dramatic and tuneful. The band is in fine form, pacing themselves through the changes. There are effective organ and guitar solos, but the focus is on the grooves and the lyrics. The song is a massive, brilliant downer, and maybe that’s why Griffin chooses to end the album with a Detroit-style uptempo rocker called ‘Never Surrender’. I understand the impulse, but frankly this song feels a bit slight after the majesty of ‘Love Song For The Dying’.
The album is very well produced, with the caveat that the organ sits rather low in the mix. Just a few notches higher and the music would have preserved its guitar-first focus but which just that little extra bit of texture. Still, it’s Griffin’s band and he calls the shots. I’m not complaining, and neither will you.
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