Pentagram is a band that, as most now understand, has had a long and very strange history. One of the first metal bands in the US (arguably the first, though I suppose Sir Lord Baltimore can lay a claim to the crown), their stuff was absolutely killer in the 70’s – Blue Cheer and Sabbath-inspired bludgeoning that was way ahead of the curve of most bands of that era. However, rampant drug abuse, most importantly on the part of main man Bobby Liebling, largely derailed the band’s efforts and made keeping a stable lineup impossible. They also went through several different name changes before resettling on Pentagram by the mid 80’s. The “Death Row” era – Liebling, guitarist Victor Griffin, bassist Martin Swaney, and drummer Joe Hassalvander – was perhaps the most stable one the band had (to a limited extent, more on that for this album in a sec), and was the lineup in which they produced their finest work.
Of their first three full lengths, Day of Reckoning is the one that took myself the longest to get into. The simple reason for that is, as superficial and dumb as it might be, is that the production mix I’d always been familiar with (basically all of the 90’s-issues on, as far as I know) is kind of shitty. It’s a very thin sounding album – when the Death Row-era lineup reformed in the early 90’s after a brief, Peaceville had Joe Hasselvander redub the drums on this album, as he’d only played on one track here and the rest were performed by a gentleman named Stuart Rose. The original album had a fatter production job in general and more reverb on the drums; the redubbing sucked that out and a lot of the low end out of this album in general (that’s how I understand what happened, anyway; somebody can certainly feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Fortunately, even in spite of this… rather unfortunate move, the quality of the songwriting transcends this, as it should be.
Pentagram’s greatest assets, in a curious move for doom, is their penchant for bludgeoning mid-tempo passages and general sense of brevity. Doom, of course, isn’t just about going Low And Slow – anybody can do that. It’s rather a mindset; a particular attitude that informs the atmosphere & aura of an album. And while Pentagram weren’t exactly sounding like Trouble on here (beyond the requisite Sabbath influence), the band weren’t afraid of throwing in brisk, snappy passages to frame Victor Griffin’s bludgeoning, leaden riffing. The title track is a pretty apt example of it – you’d never confuse it for a speed metal tune, but it has a nicely quick sense of pace outside of its breakdown in the middle, and generally carries itself with a sort of hurried urgency that makes the song feel generally faster then it really is, and generally showcases a band who understands knowing how to control momentum in a song is key. Context is key, naturally – the faster parts (well, more broadly mid-paced) feed into the slower passages, and works both as a counterpoint of sorts and as a sudden change up. This isn’t anything new, necessarily – Sabbath did it originally, and of course others like Trouble and Saint Vitus did it a lot, and semi-frequently respectively – but Pentagram’s use of it works exceptionally well because they’re just excellent songwriters.
Indeed, there’s a very intuitive sensibility behind how the songs come together. I’m not gonna harp on the virtues of song structuring/arrangement as much here – I’ve done it tons and tons before – but there’s an odd sort of smoothness to the way Pentagram’s riffing and quick tempo changes suddenly mesh together. Each riff and passage just fit well next to the preceding and following one, and it does so in a way that’s pretty effortless without turning into bland, smooth-listening nonsense. “Wartime”, indeed, is a masterful example of it – that opening riff is incredible, yeah and where everything in the song comes from, but the way it shifts from that main riff into that topsy-turning, rolling riff that’s kind of a chorus of sorts in context is remarkably easy, which is the sign of a band who knew what they wanted to do without having to overthink or force the action to get there. Perhaps the one exception being the aforementioned “Burning Savior” – it’s a really good song, with some killer riffage and absolutely tons and tons of atmosphere to spare, but it is a little awkward in some of its transitions in ways the rest of the album isn’t. It’s a song with a lot of good stuff going for it, but broad, cinematic epics weren’t Pentagram’s forte as much as, say, Candlemass’s was.
Even with that minor qualm, none of the songs on Day of Reckoning are really bad: most of them are genuinely excellent and, as I’ve argued, some of them are among Pentagram’s very best material. Griffin works in some classy harmonic material to go with the rampant bludgeoning every so often, and the occasional acoustic breaks are used exceptionally well. There aren’t use as a desperate attempt to prove that they’re Serious Dramatic Artists ™ – rather, their use is more elegant and punctuates the riffing as much as anything; frankly, the main acoustic melody that “Burning Savior” builds off is genuinely creepy as shit, and the one in the bridge of “Wartime” is legitimately pretty eerie. (that it goes into perhaps Griffin’s best solo on the album is even better) Even the re-recording of “When the Screams Come” is brilliant – it was one of the band’s best tunes in the 70’s, and it still is here, even if it’s more blatantly tied to that decade then anything else here.
The point is with all this blabbling: don’t sleep on this album. The first three Pentagram albums and the First Daze comp are essential to anybody metalhead’s collection; Day of Reckoning is no exception to the bunch. Excellent album, and at times absolutely stellar.
Favorite Track: Wartime
Final Rating: 92/100
Peaceville Records Website