On stage, Victor Griffin and Bobby Liebling are a study in contrasts. Griffin, a stoic, burly, six-foot-plus biker, is the straight man; he stands motionless on the right side of the stage and pounds out booming behemoth riffs and sweeping, soulful solos on a Gibson Les Paul. Liebling, a sinister, strutting elf with bulging bug eyes and a thick, gray mustache like a hairbrush, circles around the stationary guitarist, his black satin shirt open to the navel. He's a ragged, lecherous version of metal icon Ronnie James Dio; he flicks his thick tongue in and out of his mouth and contorts his tiny body in a pantomime of Griffin's guitar heroics that borders on the obscene. The effect is silly at first, but it takes on a tone of lingering danger.
It's late on a Friday night in May at a small, dingy punk club called the End in Nashville. Pentagram, a sort of legendary underground doom-metal band, is reaching the end of its brief spring tour, heading up to Baltimore in a couple of days for a headlining slot at the Maryland Death Fest, an annual three-day orgy of death, doom, and black metal. The floor in front of the narrow stage is packed with 200 middle-aged metalheads in leather and spikes, younger fans in their 20s and 30s who seem to know all the words to the band's songs, and even a handful of teenagers who were allowed in only because they were accompanied by their parents. It's an overwhelmingly male crowd, ferociously enthusiastic and spanning three generations of heavy metal, from its origins in the 1970s to its future in the 21st century.
They've all paid $15 to see a band that's only barely existed since the mid-1990s. Aside from a one-off festival appearance in late 2009, these spring tour dates mark the first time Griffin and Liebling, the backbone of Pentagram for almost 30 years, have performed together since 1996. Half the crowd probably hadn't been born when Liebling and Griffin first got together back in 1981, under the name Death Row, just weeks after Griffin moved from tiny, isolated Morristown to Washington, D.C. Even the handful of fans in the audience old enough to remember the band's self-titled 1985 debut album probably didn't hear it until years later. It's regarded now as an essential slab of American doom, but barely anyone outside the band's circle of friends heard it when it was released.
Griffin, 48, is the architect of Pentagram's gloom-drenched, slow and low, heavy rock sound, and Liebling, a decade older, is its seductively menacing frontman, an avatar of sleazy rock 'n' roll abandon. Both parts of the band—its intense, foreboding music and its even more foreboding image, built around satanic imagery like pentagrams, upside-down crosses, skulls, goats' heads, and ghoulish makeup—were enormously influential on the development of heavy metal in the 1980s and '90s.
Even now, with a recent spike in interest and a growing consensus among metal critics and journalists that the band ranks among the all-time great overlooked American metal acts, Pentagram is a cult band; for them, success is measured by how big the cult is. Right now, though, that cult is about as big as it's ever been, and getting bigger. This reunion, which they've recently announced is permanent—or as permanent as any Pentagram partnership has ever been—has provided the band more momentum than it's had since the early '90s.
Griffin has, in many ways, come full circle. But his life has followed a long and strange course to get here, from Pentagram's drug- and booze-fueled darkest days and reputation for bad vibes back home to East Tennessee, where he's found a fresh start as a born-again Christian. And it's that new life, he says, that has made possible his unlikely return to a group that helped set the grim, evil tone for the last 25 years of metal.
All Your Sins
Griffin and his wife, Anne, now live in a quiet section of Holston Hills, in a neat cottage on a hill with an immaculate front yard. (Anne's a landscape designer.) Griffin still looks the part of the guitar-slinging wild man, with long hair hanging down past his shoulders and a uniform of jeans, biker boots, and sleeveless black T-shirts. But his life is far removed from the debauchery of his early days in Pentagram. He has a part-time business doing custom motorcycle paint jobs in his garage, and he and his current band, the Christian heavy doom trio Place of Skulls, rehearse two or three times a week in the basement. Except for those rehearsals, it's been a normal, relatively quiet middle-class life since he quit Pentagram, moved back to Morristown in 1996, became a Christian, and finally settled in Knoxville a few years later.
Pentagram's history is the saga of a band lurching out of step, maybe even ahead of its time, but undermined by lineup changes, missed opportunities, bad timing, and even worse judgment. Griffin and Liebling were a potent songwriting team, and they had undeniable chemistry together. Unfortunately, sometimes that chemistry was combustible.
"Only until this year, when we're playing together again, have we been not bad for each other," Griffin says. "But back years ago, we just weren't a good formula to be together, as far as drugs. We'd feed off of each other's habits, as well as our own, and put those two together and it was a bad mix."
Liebling founded the first incarnation of Pentagram in Arlington, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C., in 1971. That version of the band had more than a dozen members over the course of the decade, but recorded only three demos and two singles. By 1979, after several years near the top of the local rock club scene, Pentagram was effectively done.
Around the same time, in Morristown, Griffin was still in high school, playing garage-band covers of Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, Steppenwolf, and, especially, Black Sabbath. Griffin and his friend Lee Abney were obsessed with the British band's brooding, down-tuned, down-tempo metal.
"We were Sabbath freaks," Griffin says. "Everybody I knew in high school was like, ‘Why do you listen to Black Sabbath? It's snail music.'"
Eventually Griffin started writing Sabbath-inspired original songs; he and Abney, who played bass, were playing together in his parents' basement under the name Death Row, even though it was mostly just the two of them. Then, in 1981, they met Joe Hasselvander, a veteran D.C. drummer who'd been in the most recent Pentagram lineup. His girlfriend was Griffin's sister, who had moved to Washington; when Hasselvander visited Morristown with her, Griffin and Abney recruited him for a jam session. The trio found a deep, slow, heavy groove together, something they had all been looking for and hadn't been able to find with any other players.
Within a few weeks, Griffin and Abney had moved to Washington, and Death Row, with Hasselvander on drums, was a full-time operation. The new band needed a singer, so Hasselvander—with some reluctance, based on earlier experience—called Liebling. Pentagram's sound had developed into something close to what Griffin, Abney, and Hasselvander were going for, and Liebling was a magnetic frontman. But he came with a price—he already had a reputation as a prodigious drug abuser.
"Victor was very young, bright, and very impressionable," says Jeffrey Lee, a friend of the band since those early days who now maintains the official websites for Pentagram and Death Row. "He was just like, whoa, this is all new."
Those early days were a grind—Abney left after just a few weeks to move back to Morristown, he was replaced by Martin Swaney, and the band played small-time gigs around D.C., Virginia, and Maryland with similar area bands like the Obsessed and Hellion, with little return for their effort. Under Liebling's direction, Death Row eventually changed its name to Pentagram. A fly-by-night label packaged a pair of early demos together as the band's self-titled debut album. (It was retitled Relentless in 1993, when it was reissued by the British indie label Peaceville.) Two more albums followed, in 1987 (Day of Reckoning) and 1994 (Be Forewarned), but the band never managed to tour—the farthest they ever got was a handful of shows in New York, in part because of Liebling's epic, ongoing drug use, which eventually started to poison the entire band.
Griffin actually left Pentagram after Day of Reckoning to go to California. He and his new girlfriend, Anne (whom Griffin has been married to since 1997), followed his friend Scott "Wino" Weinrich, who had quit the Obsessed to join rising L.A. doom outfit St. Vitus. Until then, Griffin had been a heavy drinker and occasional drug user. He partied hard, but that was pretty standard for anyone who was young and in a rock band in the early '80s. Everything changed in Los Angeles.
"Everybody I ran into, drugs was just a normal thing out there, man," Griffin says. "Everybody was into coke and speed and whatever else. Just having the personality I have, it got bad in California with cocaine."
Then, in 1993, Peaceville offered Liebling a deal to reissue the first two Pentagram albums and release a third record. Griffin was ready to come back East, and a reformed Pentagram offered him the opportunity.
"I had sort of a breakdown one night—stayed out all night, came home at 8 o'clock in the morning, probably feeling lower than I'd ever felt, and told Anne that we had to move, because that was the only way that I could see to get away from it," he says, referring to the drug culture he found himself surrounded by. Within a week they were back in Washington.
"I came back and was clean for two or three years, then got back into coke, then crystal meth was going around, I got into that pretty bad, crack, all that crap," he says. "Of course, doing speed and coke and drinking more alcohol—to drink alcohol breeds the urge to do speed, and it's just an endless circle of all that crap. By '97 or so I was pretty much a physical wreck, worse than I'd ever been."
"Badass Pantheon of Extreme Metal"
The music Pentagram made in those early days had a spark that was evident at their first rehearsals, and can still be heard.
"Victor was the guitar player," Lee says. "He had everything together. They immediately knew the direction they wanted to take the band and they just moved. Nobody stood in the way. I would say Victor and Joe and Bobby and Marty, as a unit, they knew exactly what they wanted to do."
That first album, despite its haphazard origin, is a blueprint for the doom bands that sprang up across the U.S. and Europe in the late 1980s—Candlemass, Cathedral, Trouble, and St. Vitus, who went on to inspire an even wider range of bands in the 1990s, from Gothic romantics My Dying Bride to redneck riff-monsters Eyehategod and the weed-baked psychedelic doom of Electric Wizard and Sleep. Relentless has at least a half dozen signature Pentagram songs—"All Your Sins," "Death Row," "Run My Course," "Sign of the Wolf (Pentagram)," "20 Buck Spin," "You're Lost, I'm Free." It's a compelling argument to support Lee's assertion. Decibel magazine this summer named it to its Hall of Fame, which honors "the badass pantheon of extreme metal," and it's been reissued three times over the last 20 years.
The band's greatest contribution, though, is Griffin's discovery of drop tunings, which give the guitar a deeper, lower tone than standard tuning. Griffin picked the technique up from Black Sabbath, who frequently used a D tuning, but he took it even further, dropping to B.
"I did this thing where I dropped to B, just playing around, and it was like, Wow, if I do that it turns these chords into octaves," he says. "I stumbled across it. Nobody ever did it before that. And then I wrote ‘Death Row' and ‘All Your Sins,' and since then I've kept it as one of my favorite tunings."
It's a small distinction, but an important one. Almost all metal bands use lower guitar tunings now, for the form's trademark rumbling, heavy tone.
"The world is really starting to accept that he invented the drop B tuning," Liebling says. "So many black metal and hardcore bands are doing it now, but he did it in 1979. He did it 30 years ago. He did it in Morristown."
Day of Reckoning
In 1996, Griffin's father was diagnosed with cancer. Griffin was at the end of his rope in Washington, unable to control his drug abuse and drinking and fed up with Pentagram's lack of success.
"After a few years, still no support for touring or anything, it just became really stagnant again, and we basically went through the same thing we had gone through before," Griffin says. "So '96, that was all falling apart, and I was looking for new direction, and my dad got diagnosed with cancer. I started driving down here every couple of weeks to see him, doing self-evaluation along the way. Long drives."
His father died in 1997, and Griffin settled in Morristown indefinitely to help his mother adjust. One night, alone in the basement apartment where he'd lived as a teenager, still struggling with the drug and alcohol abuse that had intensified in Washington and grieving for his father, he began a conversation with God.
"I started talking to God out loud," he says. "I said, ‘I never have been able to do this. I just thought I could, so I'm going to let you do it.' I just let everything go. I let music go, everything that I was trying to control and make work in my life that had not worked for years, for 20 years or however long. I just basically gave it all up. Once I did that it was literally a weight off my shoulders, immediately."
Griffin settled back in Morristown. After a few months, he started writing songs again on an acoustic guitar, and soon he and Abney—who had had a similar religious experience, and who had stayed in touch with Griffin since quitting Death Row way back in '81—were playing together again.
"When he finally moved back, it was kind of, ‘Let's get together and just play music for the fun of it,'" Abney says. "And just like any other time we played together, it was never just for the fun. It got serious pretty quick."
The pair worked up an acoustic set of new songs that they played at area churches. Then Griffin started adding electric guitar parts and soon the music was heading back in the same direction he had always been comfortable with: slow, heavy, and loud.
"We'd start to put the heavy parts in there, and it was like the whole thing of playing heavy again was starting to dawn on me again," Griffin says. "I just thought, you know, if I use this the way God wants me to use it, instead of trying to use it in some dark way, pentagrams and upside-down crosses and looking like I'm in a black-metal band or something—I literally prayed about it and it just sort of evolved back into that. I thought, this is what I was into when I first discovered music; that's just where God wants me to be."
In 2000, Griffin and Abney found Tim Tomaselli, a drummer who shared both their musical and spiritual inclinations. They took the name Place of Skulls, which refers to Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified. Griffin's association with Pentagram helped them get financing for a recording session at Travis Wyrick's Lakeside Studios in West Knoxville, but the label they were dealing with shut down before the album could be released. The tapes eventually made their way to Greg Anderson, who had just founded Southern Lord, a label devoted to a new wave of doom metal—droning, bottom-heavy, and experimental bands like Earth, Khanate, and Anderson's own Sunn O))).
"Southern Lord wasn't my first choice, because It's about 180 degrees from what we're all about, with the kind of stuff they put out," Griffin says. His concerns turned out to be valid. Anderson objected to four particularly religious songs on the album.
"The original first album was supposed to have the four songs [that eventually ended up on the 2005 EP Love With Blood] on it," Griffin says. "But Greg Anderson thought the lyrics were too Christian. So he said, ‘Yeah, I'll do it, but I don't want to put these four songs on it, because I think it's not what my label's all about.' At the time, I thought, do I want to start out compromising myself? Especially to some guy—this is not a major label. It's not like I'm working with Sony Records and they're trying to take over artistic control. You're putting out underground music."
The trio recorded three songs to fill out the album, which was released in 2002 as Nailed. The initial reaction from the metal community was mixed—some fans embraced Griffin's expression of faith, some saw it as a betrayal of everything Pentagram had stood for.
"I think after the first album came out, people realized it wasn't going to be some generic Christian-rock kind of thing, it's still basically doom metal," Griffin says. "But there are still naysayers, even now. There's people that won't touch a Place of Skulls album just because—‘The music's all right, but I can't take the whole Jesus thing.' But that's cool. I mean, I expected that. It could be a big reason that at this point we're still no bigger than we are."
Place of Skulls has plowed through the last decade, releasing two more albums (With Vision in 2003 and The Black Is Never Far in 2006) with a fourth, As a Dog Returns, due out on Giddy Up! Records on Nov. 9. A European tour is scheduled for late October and early November, with U.S. dates planned for the spring. (All four albums, plus the tracks released as the Love With Blood EP, were recorded at Wyrick's studio.) The band's been interrupted by a few personnel changes over the years; both Tomaselli and Abney have taken extended breaks, and Wino appeared on With Vision as lead singer and second guitarist. The group has a low profile in Knoxville—recent shows at Pilot Light and the Longbranch have been sparsely attended—but Griffin's reputation helps them get booked all over the country, and even in European festivals.
No matter what, Griffin will never be able to separate himself from his past. Pentagram was what it was, and is what it is, and that history—the songs, the image, the relationships—will probably always overshadow his new work with Place of Skulls. But part of the adjustment Griffin has made in the last decade has been accepting things that are outside of his control.
"When I played with Pentagram recently, I felt like it was a whole different acceptance for me, because I was playing with Pentagram instead of Place of Skulls," he says. "Even though I'm the same guy, the same guitar player. Dealing with the secular world, it's like, Oh yeah! Pentagram! and oh, Place of Skulls, yeah. I don't designate my songwriting to this band or that band. But the same song, if it were on a Pentagram album, people would dig 10 times as much than if it were on a Place of Skulls album."
In March, the almost-original Death Row lineup—Griffin, Hasselvander, and Swaney—got together for a short European tour. It was a shock for fans; Griffin had been adamant in interviews since his born-again experience that he wouldn't play under the Death Row or Pentagram names again. Then, just days before Death Row flew to Europe, Griffin got a very weird and desperate phone call from Liebling. The guitar player in the current lineup of Pentagram had just quit, and Liebling needed a replacement—fast.
"He actually called me and said, ‘I've got a tour tomorrow. Can you do it?'" Griffin says. "I was like, ‘No, I can't do it!'"
But he did agree, after setting out certain conditions—no pentagrams, no upside-down crosses, and certain songs were off-limits—to join Liebling, bassist Greg Turley, and drummer Gary Isom in May for a month of dates.
For more than a decade, Liebling had barely been able to keep some semblance of Pentagram together. On the band's last two albums, 1999's Review Your Choices and 2001's Sub-Basement, he and Hasselvander were the entire band, with Hasselvander playing guitar and bass in addition to drums in the studio. (The two have since had an acrimonious falling out over royalties and songwriting credits.) Liebling's few performances between 1996 and 2009 were erratic and unpredictable.
Now, at 56, all that seems to be behind him. He's gotten married, just had his first child, and, by all accounts, seems to have kicked his 40-year drug habit. "I'm an incarnate testimonial that there is divine intervention," Liebling says. "I should not be living. But all that's behind me, thank God."
The current Pentagram lineup—Liebling, Griffin, Turley, and Isom—is the same as in 1996, when Griffin and Liebling last played together. A documentary on Liebling and Pentagram called Last Rites is in the final stages of production. Both Griffin and Liebling have their demons in check for the first time in their career together, and they have a new deal with indie label Metal Blade for their first album together since 1993, also called Last Rites, scheduled for release in 2011. The once-explosive dynamic in one of underground metal's most influential duos has settled, finally, into something that promises to be much more productive.
"The fact that Victor got on the tour with Pentagram changed everything about Bobby," Lee says. "Bobby was nice, Bobby was easy to work with, he was approachable, you could talk to him, he wasn't doing the drugs. I think Victor, just by being there, it lifted Bobby's spirits, and it gave Victor a chance to see all the fans that he would normally not see, and you know, it added some credibility to a band that needed some PR and rehab."
Griffin didn't take the decision lightly. Beyond his concerns about the pentagram symbols and particular song lyrics, he was concerned about how he and Liebling had worked together in the past, and how the whole thing might look to his Christian audience.
"I've known Bobby for so long," he says. "But eventually I believed him, not because of what he was telling me but seeing how his life was working. It just came to a place where, yeah, I think Bobby's actually trying to do this. But I can't play with that insignia on stuff and be straddling the fence. I said, even the name is going to confuse people. I ended up calling a lot of people I know who I feel like are spiritually mature enough to give me honest advice, not just what I want to hear. I explained that I didn't know whether I should do this or not—you know, Bobby is really trying to do the right thing, he's agreed to certain terms that I have, and everybody I talked to said, look, man, the whole thing, it's not really about what people think, people judging you because you're in this band, that doesn't really matter. God knows what's in your guys' hearts and what you're trying to do."