"He's touching it! Make him stop!"
This is what a child might have said to you about halfway through Pentagram's set at Bristol's Exchange. Of course, if you had decided to bring a child to a Pentagram gig, any trauma they might suffer as a result would be your own fault. The volume alone would be prohibitive. But having seen Pentagram three times previously, I was still unprepared for the totality of the performance delivered by Bobby Liebling, the band's legendary frontman. Having ditched the colourful catsuits he graced audiences with at Norway's Hole in the Sky in 2009 and Maryland's Deathfest in 2010 for a leather jacket and jeans, his appearance had already become more menacing. Yet last year's performance at London's Garage did nothing to prepare for what happens tonight.
It's curious, as in interviews Liebling mentions how two things allow him spiritual release: his music and his wife. His focus tonight is definitely on the music -- the performance is the best I have witnessed the band put in with the reunited lineup featuring guitarist Victor Griffin. But you wonder how his wife feels, as Liebling devotes a fair bit of energy between songs to trying to 'impress' what would appear to be a rather attractive woman with green hair in the front row. It begins early in the set with him spreading his index and middle fingers across his mouth and sticking his tongue between them -- a grotesque vision, but perhaps not one that would disturb the young, its significance being likely to be lost on immature minds. But when he grabs his crotch and stares into the crowd with what a friend recently christened his 'sex face' -- we were watching "When the Screams Come"; it features no overtly lewd behaviour, but the expression is quite the same -- no-one could be confused.
Likely it's all an act, the result of a kind of possession which grips Liebling when he gets up to perform. He is a natural frontman, born for the stage. Perhaps the aftermath of tonight's performance was an argument with his wife, who is traveling with the band. Perhaps she's well aware it's all part of the show. In any case, it somehow enhances the experience. It makes everything seem just that little bit more dangerous, that little bit more unpredictable and raw, fun and memorable.
By contrast to Pentagram, main support Gentleman's Pistols are comparatively tame. Their grooves are big, their drive thrusting -- Bill Steer's chunky rhythm guitar is a great complement to a band who function beautifully as a single, cohesive unit, and of course his leads are a joy too -- and their guitar wielding lead singer is mesmeric, a sort of heavy metal Kenny Everett, incredibly camp in his skinny trousers and vest but no less commanding for all that.
It's a short time after Gentleman's Pistols wrap up that Pentagram took the stage, a little after their posted time but by a mere matter of minutes. When they begin with "Death Row" the suspicion is that they will begin by playing the classic _Pentagram / Relentless_ album in its entirety -- this batch of shows have been promoted with the promise that all of that tome will be aired. But that's not how things go, and it's all for the better.
You could say that this gig should never have happened. It's pretty incredible that it came together. Originally scheduled to play Bristol's Fleece on Wednesday night, Pentagram were delayed a day leaving the United States because of the devastation wreaked by hurricane Sandy. The notice was a matter of 48 hours or so, but someone found them this venue: it already had a punk gig scheduled, so as we walk through the door, we are asked which show we are here to see and directed accordingly. The room is tiny, maybe the size of London's Barfly. It's hot, we all pour sweat throughout the gig and before Pentagram have even taken the stage our feet are being glued to the floor by spilt beer while whiffs of vomit waft by. It all adds to the atmosphere. It's crazy that Pentagram, reunited with Victor Griffin and with a new album out, are still playing gigs like this: it's a privilege to be present. Even if you were to just hang by the merch table you'd be able to throw stuff at the band and, with a good arm, hit just about any member you like. With a little effort and some defence of your stance, you can stand close enough to get the full sound of the amps and see every crazy expression that crosses Liebling's face.Photo credit: Karen Toftera
If you missed this tour and this gig, you've probably missed your last chance to see Pentagram slumming it like this: touring toilets is not something they have time for anymore, it just doesn't make sense to travel so far for so little. We make the most of every minute. From immortal staples like "Relentless" and "All My Sins" to lesser-heard cuts like "The Ghoul" and "Dying World" as well as new numbers like "Treat Me Right" from 2011's _Last Rites_, it's all a joy. The physical discomfort we have to endure -- both in our limbs because of the heaving mass of people present, and in our stomachs from keeping a close eye on Liebling and his 'wooing' of the front row -- does nothing to dent the enjoyment.
The best thing is seeing Griffin warm to his place in Pentagram like at no gig before. As he himself admits, when he first got back with Pentagram he was so used to singing and playing guitar in Death Row that he really didn't know what to do with himself, freed from having to hang by the mike. Tonight not only does he look like a titan -- a leather waist-coat with a giant American flag emblazoned on its back making it seem that he arrived on his Harley and will walk straight out of the venue, jump back on it and roar off to the next gig -- he acts like one. His performance is measured -- he makes no attempt to upstage Liebling -- and he seems totally comfortable, despite the grotty setting. Coming forward to his own microphone to accompany Liebling in the chorus to "Pentagram (Sign of the Wolf)" you feel the camaraderie between the two filling the air, their different vocal registers complementing each other beautifully.Photo credit: Karen Toftera
Late in the set, after our fearless photographer has retreated from the front row to enjoy the show, Griffin and his longtime Death Row bandmate Greg Turley create one of the images which would have summed up the gig (had they warned it would happen) when they sandwich Liebling between them, his sparkling eyes indicating his willingness to be put in such a position. When you can go through so much as a band that would seem to put you above playing toilets -- have a film made about you, having put out a live DVD and a new album, be on a tour playing every cut from your most lauded album -- and -still- you can play a toilet and make everyone in it feel special, that's something beautiful. Thank you Pentagram, you made it happen, against all the odds.