It’s been a productive few weeks for long-in-the-tooth metal bands. Iron Maiden, who has been a band for 40 years, released their 17th album last Friday to pretty feverish acclaim (see my review). Motörhead, who also formed in 1975, has been even more productive, putting out their 22nd album a week earlier. Pentagram has been around even longer, though less consistently, since 1971, only managing eight full-lengths, and arguably their peak work was recorded long before their 1985 debut album in the form of demos, gathered in two collections. The youngest kids on the block, at least as far as these new releases are concerned, are Slayer, together just 34 years, with a dozen albums. Like AC/DC, the Ramones and The Fall, Motörhead in particular don’t worry about trying to experiment or break new ground. They got it right the first time, developing a completely unique, identifiable signature sound, and haven’t changed it much over the years. That of course can lead to a bit of catalog fatigue when a new album comes out. How could I possibly want more of the same? Yet they never have put out a bad album! Every time, Lemmy manages to pull more witty, clever lyrics out of his ass and lay them onto tightly constructed, rockin’ songs.
Pentagram – Curious Volume (Peaceville)
You could nearly say the same thing about Pentagram, except for the fact that they aren’t even half as prolific. Sub-Basement (2001) and Show ‘Em How (2004) may be the nadir of their popularity and critical stock, but both have plenty of great songs (though many were written in the 70s) that new fans may be pleasantly surprised by if they dig back into their catalog craving more. Is it possible that such a crusty, underground doom band could have new fans? Well, the film Last Days Here (2011) shows front man Bobby Liebling in his 50s, living in his parent’s basement and addicted to hard drugs. In the three years between 2007-2010, Liebling struggles with his addiction, but gets the band together for a triumphant tour in 2009 (I stood at the front and was mesmerized by Liebling’s crazy devil eyes!) and the film ends in 2010 with Liebling sober and newly married to the young and beautiful Hallie, who was pregnant with their first child. If that can happen, anything can happen! The comeback album Last Rites (2011) was solid, but perhaps not as great as their riveting live performances hinted at. After all, Pentagram are second only to Black Sabbath as the key architects of doom metal, pre-dating The Obsessed, Saint Vitus, Pagan Altar, Witchfinder General and Trouble (read more here). My expectations rose even more when I saw them live again last year, and they sounded better than ever. Happily, Curious Volume is definitely an improvement.
It kicks off with the rough-and-ready street doom of “Lay Down And Die.” The sound is a perfect balance of heavy low-end and rawness. If only The Stooges could have achieved that, their last two albums would have been far more listenable. Pentagram has always had some garage psych and heavy blues in their blood, rooted in their initial fandom of Blue Cheer, while Victor Griffin’s guitar tones also reflect more recent tendencies of bands to favor the thick desert rock fuzz tones of Kyuss. “Temptor’s Grave” dips into Liebling’s addiction backed by a suitably doomy, repetitive riff. “Dead Bury Dead” is the third winner in a row, featuring a southern rock swing found in the likes of Clutch. In fact, there’s no truly dud tracks, thanks to Griffin’s arsenal of riffs and Liebling’s inspired vocal performances. While some may raise their eyebrows at the handclaps and hooks on “Misunderstood,” it will inevitably a standout for others. “Earth Flight” has a slow, spacey build-up that suggests it could be a groovy epic, yet it’s wrapped up in just 2:56, with Griffin’s ascending chord sequence lifted to the sky by angelic female backing singers. By the closer “Because I Made It,” I’m left satisfied, though there is nothing that approaches their classics such as “Forever My Queen” and “Starlady.” But to be fair, that’s like expecting The Stones to surpass “Satisfaction,” or Motörhead to match “The Ace Of Spades.”
Motörhead – Bad Magic (UDR)
Since the late 80s I’ve gone through cycles where I would sleep on Motörhead’s albums for a few years, then feverishly catch up. Especially rewarding was rediscovering 1916 (1991), Bastards (1993) and Inferno (2006). I’m kind of on a down cycle right now. I love Lemmy and get most of my listening pleasure from their run of three perfect albums from 1979-80. With Aftershock (2013) and this one, I feel like Lemmy’s health issues are starting to affect his performance. His aura of cockroach/Keith Richards invincibility is wavering, as his vocals sound just a hint weaker, and his lisp more pronounced, like he’s in need of dental work, or needs his dentures adjusted. This may very well be irrelevant to most fans, as his voice is sufficiently gravelly for the music. We don’t expect him to hit high notes like Bruce Dickinson still manages. Lemmy just needs to assault those bass strings, crane his head up toward the mic and gargle those nails. While their albums may be fairly interchangeable, there’s always a few standout songs worth noting, and will probably end up on the boxed set once Lemmy succumbs to this mortal coil, probably on stage (he’s said so himself). “The Devil” and “Choking On Your Screams” have that something extra for me. Somewhat inexplicable is the tacked-on cover of The Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil.” It’s not horrible, but certainly does not exactly do the classic service. Oh well, Lemmy will do what Lemmy does, and does not give a flyin’ fuck what we think! Hails!
Slayer – Repentless (Nuclear Blast)
Even some of the biggest Slayer fans assumed the band was finished after guitarist Jeff Hanneman died in 2013, and Dave Lombardo quit again. I was lucky enough to see the band firing on all cylinders in 2010, where they blew away Megadeth and Anthrax, and my face off by playing Seasons In The Abyss (1990) in it’s entirety. It was definitely one of the greatest live metal shows I’d ever witnessed. Then after their devastating personnel losses, they did it again, this time performing Reign In Blood (1986), one of the greatest metal albums of all times, at last year’s Riot Fest. Drummer Paul Bostaph and Exodus‘ Gary Holt filled the vacant spots admirably. They made me believe they still have another album in them. Like Iron Maiden and most other metal bands, they had a rough time in the 90s, but emerged revived for the most part in 2001 with God Hates Us All (released coincidentally on September 11 — was it intentional that Repentless also came out 9/11?), with Christ Illusion (2006) probably the most satisfying batch. True to their recent performances, Tom Araya’s barking vocals are as potent as ever, with many of the hardest, fastest performances on record since at least Divine Intervention (1994). However, while Kerry King does an admirable job summarizing their strengths, Hanneman’s contributions are missed. His song “Piano Wire” is included, which of course was never meant to be his last statement, and may be a letdown for some. The production, performance and pacing are faultless. But it does sound like a solid late career album, rather than one that promises a new era of relevance. And when most bands artistically peter out after three albums, there’s certainly no shame in their track record of at least four essential genre-defining classics and another six solidly entertaining albums.