Pentagram’s 2011 album, Last Rites, had the air of a miracle about it. Singer Bobby Liebling, after decades of drug abuse, somehow cleaned himself up and managed to convince estranged guitarist Victor Griffin to rejoin the band. The fruit of that reunion was far better than anyone could have hoped. Four years later, the follow-up to Last Rites, entitled Curious Volume has arrived, and it too could be considered a miracle, as I always assumed Liebling’s sobriety and maybe his very life hung by the thinnest of threads, and the wheels could fall off the Pentagram bus at any time. While it’s great that the band is still together (though Griffin did leave again for awhile), and Liebling is presumably still clean, Curious Volume does not have quite the same mojo as its predecessor.
In addressing the step down in quality between Last Rites and Curious Volume, it’s tough not to assign at least part of the blame to Jesus. Curious Volume lacks the sinister mystique that permeates the best Pentagram work. With Victor Griffin being a born again Christian of some sort and Liebling enjoying a new lease on life, it is reasonable to expect that the band would not choose to wallow in the darkness the way it has in its previous incarnations. However, as much as I’d like to heap my disappointment with Curious Volume on J. C.’s shoulders, it wouldn’t be entirely fair: Griffin became a Christian years before rejoining Pentagram, Liebling was obviously clean for the last record, and Last Rites still managed to be dark, doomy and magnificent.
Curious Volume’s fatal flaw likely lies in the fact that it’s more of a rock record than a metal record. Thanks to Victor Griffin’s always massive guitar tone, the album is still heavy, in a way, but the big riffs are mostly absent. It feels almost as if Pentagram sought to blend the rocking style of its 70s incarnation with the thicker sound of its 80s incarnation and somehow managed to lose the best aspects of both.
Curious Volume sounds great from a production standpoint, and the band seems to attack the material with enthusiasm, but for a riff-o-phile like myself, there just isn’t much here. “Misunderstood” is probably the best tune of the bunch. It’s a simple, formulaic rocker, but it’s catchy and drives pretty hard. “Walk Alone” is also notable, if for nothing else than the way it bops pleasantly along on a riff reminiscent of Black Sabbath’s “St. Vitus Dance,” before shifting to something a little harder-hitting in its closing moments. “Dead Bury Dead,” as its grim title indicates, comes closest to doom metal and has the meanest riff on the album, but it’s a little too soft in the center to be a true killer. Finally, there is the obligatory re-recording of one of the band’s seventies tunes – “Earth Flight” gets the nod this time around. The new version does the original justice, but I’ve never felt the track was much of a classic in the first place. It’s no “When The Screams Come,” that’s for sure.
Curious Volume is not a horrible album, not an embarrassment, nor a stain on the band’s career by any stretch, particularly if you’re not averse to a more hard-rock oriented version of Pentagram. But personally, Curious Volume is just not as good, nor as heavy as I had hoped it would be. It is, if anything, a victim of the high bar set by its predecessor.