Turning it Up Early and Often
Do you remember when Ozzy Osbourne “sang” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at Wrigley Field in 2003? If not, here it is. One reaction to this performance could be: “Isn’t this guy a professional singer?” The obvious wasted-ness isn’t an excuse; he has been able to sing like proper Ozzy many times in various states of mental disrepair over the years. Similarly, anyone who has seen Last Days Here, the 2011 documentary about Pentagram singer Bobby Liebling and his struggles with addiction and his personal demons, would be hard pressed to imagine that lurking behind the scattered, garbled speaking voice might be shades of the authoritative and strong rock vocalist who is credited for the birth of doom metal in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Their latest comeback album, 2011’s Last Rites, the carrot-on-the-stick of the film, highlighted Liebling’s talent as miraculous, his vocals crystal clear while the music attacked with supra-Pentagram levels of heaviness. On the heels of that success, Curious Volume finds the stakes lowered, and therefore so is Liebling’s guard.
“Lay Down and Die” leads off the album in a direction similar to that of Last Rites, but the arrangement is so simple that it does not distract from the vocal quality, which is less pristine but more exposed despite being heavily produced. Liebling bares all on the second track, “The Tempter Push,” whose verse throws his vocals to the elements without guitar backup. Here, you can tell he has aged, has tired and has had struggled, as evidenced more by attempts to overproduce the incoherence than the incoherence itself. To be fair, the lyrics are more than decipherable; in deciphering them we can tell that Curious Volume contains some of Leibling’s most heartbreakingly personal lyrics. This line from “Walk Alone” speaks volumes with its double-meaning: “I can only see myself / in broken mirrors. / My voice sings in sorrow; / will it ever get clearer?”
The presence of guitarist Victor Griffin cannot be understated. He returned from a long hiatus on the last album, and he is largely responsible for Pentagram’s influential sound. The riffs are at once simple and familiar, yet original. New bands looking to delve into doom metal could take lessons from Griffin’s tone and approach. That is not to say he doesn’t know how to let loose as well, as on the fun “Misunderstood,” a straight up rock tune, including a 12-bar boogie-blues solo. He even takes the lead vocals on “Sufferin’.”
Griffin’s vocals, which are clean and untouched when set against Liebling’s, make it even more obvious how much work the engineers had to cover Liebling’s sins. The contrast feels appropriate, authentic even, and doesn’t detract from the album. Where Curious Volume falls short is with the variation between songs. It appears like the lyrics were written at one time and the music at a different time, and putting them together was an act of convenience rather than artistry. Regardless, the album succeeds in that it reminds us all that attitude and catharsis are ageless, and that it’s never too late for a second chance as long as one is alive.