If you are reading this review right now, you probably are well aware of the Bobby Liebling story. If you don’t, just know this: It is one of the most amazing rock and roll survival stories of all time. For a man who started his dream of musical conquest in 1971, saw it all fall apart mostly due to his own heavy drug use and untimely bad decisions/breaks, it is damn near miraculous that 45 years later, Liebling is as alive and sober as ever and still touring with his legendary pioneering American hard rock/heavy metal band, Pentagram.
While Pentagram is on the road celebrating over 40+ years of its history, Relapse Records is busy giving devoted and new fans alike the chance to dive into remastered deluxe (CD/digital) and limited edition (vinyl) reissues of the Virginia-based band’s earliest gems that were tragically hidden away from widespread release until 2001/2002 (First Daze Here: The Vintage Collection) and 2006 (First Daze Here Too). Until sold out, a limited package of both vinyl releases or just FDH comes with a rare bonus 7-inch featuring two newly remastered tracks – “Be Forewarned” and “Lazy Lady” – from when the band was (briefly) known as Macabre in 1972.
For those who opt for the remastered CD version of FDH, a cool vinyl-shaped bonus disc comes with it, containing just those two Macabre-era songs. And as you would rightly guess, the digital reissue of FDH just adds these Macabre versions as bonus cuts at the end. Got all that? Good! (FYI: This review covers the remastered CD compilations.)
If you are into deep liner notes and hard rock and early heavy metal history, you’ll be in heaven with these releases. Original drummer Geof O’Keefe updated, corrected and expanded the liner notes and ’70s-era history for both releases, which also come with complete lyrics and songwriting credits to all songs, and also rare photography/artwork. The booklet for FDH is 26 pages, while First Daze Here Too’s booklet is 28 pages.
All told, these liner notes – which also have valuable track-by-track commentary by O’Keefe – read like a mini-autobiography of this crucial era of the band. They are essential to understanding everything from how the group recorded the tunes to where and what and who influenced them at the time – bands you’ve heard of like Blue Cheer, Mountain, The Stooges, and Black Sabbath, and others you might not have, like Dust, Trapeze, Bang, Budgie, Stray, The Frost, Sir Lord Baltimore, etc. Also worth noting is that the tracklisting of the new edition of FDH contains a font you can actually read clearly now. And so, though I don’t normally feel the need to grade multiple elements of albums, for the layout/packaging of these reissues, they each get A+ grades. You honestly couldn’t ask for anything more.
As for the music itself, I should tell you that though I first heard about this band about 10 years ago (in my last year of college), I only heard these recordings a few years back, and as blown away as I was by their awesomeness, I wondered then if some of the songs would ever get remastered. Needless to say, I was relieved that these two compilations of Pentagram’s first demos, live rehearsals and professional studio recordings from the early and mid-’70s have now been remastered just in time for summer. For the most part, I am happy with the results.
First off, track one of FDH, “Forever My Queen,” will forever be Pentagram’s signature song, no question. If there is only one song you have to hear by this band, that slammin’ song is it. However, the one issue that needed to be remedied was the sudden drop in volume of the ending. You’ll be happy to hear that this remastered version fixed that flaw perfectly – there is no dropout in sound whatsoever.
Other standouts from this first-rate compilation include the heavy groove rock of “Review My Choices,” Liebling’s impassioned Iggy Pop-ish vocals on “Last Days Here,” and my other personal favorite, “Hurricane,” with an explosive middle eight section straight out of “Paranoid”-era Sabbath being the highlight. I could listen to a loop of just that one part all day. According to the liner notes, KISS was rumored to have wanted permission to use it in the mid-’70s and was willing to pay thousands of dollars for it and another Pentagram song – but it didn’t happen.
As for the (bonus) Macabre “original mixes” of “Be Forewarned” and “Lazy Lady,” these are indeed slightly different versions of two essential Pentagram tracks from FDH. These mixes sound about a half key lower – and therefore heavier. I dig this fatter sound on both but honestly still prefer the original 2002 FDH version of “Be Forewarned” because it contains the ghoulish tremolo guitar chords/riffs that the rawer Macabre mix does not have. (The Macabre mix of “B.F.” also unfortunately has a very brief recording tape dropout moment that could not be rectified.)
As for the deluxe edition of First Daze Here Too, you don’t get any new numbers but rather some cleaned up mixes on a sprawling 22-track, two-CD collection that contains quite a few highlights. They include Liebling and O’Keefe’s Deep Purple-influenced “Smokescreen,” the “machismo” parody song “Man,” the heavy groove of “Catwalk” and the rough-sounding short burner “Virgin Death” – also yet another tentative name for the band at one time. There’s also a cover of The Yardbirds’ “Little Games” and of the The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” with a (dare I say) pretty harmony guitar solo by Vincent McAllister and second guitarist Randy Palmer.
Sadly, those two ex-members are no longer with us and these reissues are in large part dedicated to them. McAllister in particular was the most important guitarist of the ’70s period of Pentagram. Check out FDHT closing tune “Show ‘Em How” to see how truly gifted and versatile his playing was, from jazz-like flairs (alongside outstanding bassist Greg Mayne) to bone-crunching chords and Hendrix-worthy wailing and feedback. Don’t let the bootleg-level quality of the recording get in the way of enjoying this Blue Cheer-indebted gem.
Notice how I didn’t say much about “doom metal” in this review? That’s because contrary to popular belief, Pentagram didn’t quite fit this Black Sabbath-birthed subgenre of heavy metal in their ’70s lineups, for the most part. The Victor Griffin-led ’80s-era of the band is when it truly took doom metal to new and then-uncharted territory – that phase of the band requires a whole separate review.
That being said, some early Pentagram songs, including “Be Forewarned” (recorded in 1972) and “Review Your Choices” (recorded in 1973) were and should still be considered among the earliest non-Sabbath doom metal songs and definitely ahead of their time. But the latter track could also be considered early (non-Sabbath-related) “stoner” metal too – mainly due to the ultra cool Leslie-speaker solo by McAllister. Fans of modern day stoner/hard rock greats like Clutch will dig that one, “Forever My Queen,” and “Be Forewarned,” for sure. In fact, I would venture to guess that Pentagram is one of Clutch’s influences.
Bottom Line: What it all comes down to is that if you are an old school rock fan but are sick of the same old bands and songs being played on classic rock stations, you need to check out once overlooked groups like Pentagram, starting with these remastered twin treasures of First Daze Here (one of the best hard rock compilations ever) and First Daze Here Too, out now via Relapse Records. Click the links in paragraph two for more info and purchase opportunities.