Little did I know when I agreed to review the latest release by Turkish metal band Pentagram that I would end up getting an education in the history of rock and metal music in Turkey. I initially took it on at the behest of the Lady who wanted a fresh perspective on the band, seeing as she has been a fan of theirs since she was a wee metalhead and that much of her present state of metaldom is credited to them. That alone was enough to make me want to dig into this band, I value her taste in music highly, and to be able to freshly dig into a band that had such an impact on her was just too good a chance to pass up. But as I dug, not only did I find a band who was certainly an exceptional group of metal musicians, but also a band who played a very integral part in the development of heavy metal music in Turkey. The ground that Pentagram first tread back in 1986 would be virgin forays into a realm that so many bands since have followed.
To understand their impact, we have to go back to the early days of rock music in Turkey, especially during the mid 60s when home born acts began to fuse Turkish folk music with rock into a new genre, Anatolian rock. With the rock culture branching out in all directions, heavy metal was an eventuality. Enter Pentagram, known as Mezarkabul to the rest of the world. In 1986, guitarist Hakan Utangaç and drummer Cenk Ünnü started the band, and in 1987 added bassist Tarkan Gözübüyük. By 1990 they had released their self titled debut album, and with the addition of the Anatolian influences to the metal genre, they were able to give a handle for the generations of metal musicians to hold on to in the country. In the ensuing years, their initial forays allowed musicians of all types of rock music to blossom and grow. Over the next twenty plus years, they had a career as grandiose and tumultuous as any heavy metal band, complete with world tours, groundbreaking releases of huge cultural importance, multiple lineup changes, the departure of lead singer Murat İlkan for medical reasons (though it couldn’t take the metal out of him permanently, he still does acoustic shows, and his career can be followed here), and even the death of a member, guitarist Ümit Yılbar, who was killed by terrorist while fighting with the Turkish army. Throughout all this, the initial three of Utangaç, Ünnü, and Gözübüyük endured. Now, with guitarist Metin Türkcan and vocalist Gökalp Ergen, and with so many years of amazing history and experience behind them, they give us MMXII.
Now is where I need to remember that this is an album review and not a retrospective. So let’s strip away the history. Shear off the impact on the Turkish musical culture. Let’s bring this down to five incredibly talented musicians who like to play some gritty and rough heavy metal, and who try to pass a darkly veiled message of hope in the process. Let’s give a listen to MMXII. The album begins with Sand, a deep and dark tune with a serious air of warning about it. Musically it is hard without being overbearing. A steady, solid riff serves as the backbone of the song, carried by the rhythm section and guitar. The vocals are solid and competent, low enough to help along the tone of the song without losing its way. There are some standout guitar moments, the notes being bent in some very unnatural ways, but nothing that will make the instrumentals stand out over the song as a whole. This is production with purpose, not for flash or style points. There seems to be a thematic element of things gone very awry throughout the album, with some glimmers of hope, but lyrically it is pretty dark overall. Next follows Now and Nevermore, which opens up with a more uplifting tone, but soon drops down into the trenches again. Ergen’s vocals here are much more expressive, something that gets through competently but not brilliantly until he gets to the scream moments, that is where he shines brightest. Again the rhythm serves as a plodding pace for the other elements to be spun upon. The guitars shine most here, especially the little hidden effects. As they go into the instrumental segment, we are given our first taste of the Anatolian rock elements, as a mournful flute tone lays the rich ethnic element across the metal, a pairing that really appeals to me.
The next song, Gecmişin Yükü, is a touch lighter in tone, and is much more expressive, though this might be an effect of being in Turkish, which comes across much more expressive sounding than my boring mother tongue. There is flare to this one, it is much more straightforward though the solo work does stand out. Beyond Insanity brings the pace of the album up though, this is a serious head bangers song. A good deal of the vibe of this album is very reminiscent of the early thrash metal bands, something I’m very cool with since I was raised on it.
The track Wasteland, one of the strongest numbers on the tracks, brings many of the strengths of Pentagram together in a beast of a song. Ergen’s vocals dig deep into that angry and despairing range where he seems strongest. The lead riffs are strong and in your face, and the rhythm elements are full of fills and flare, an altogether solid song beginning to end. It’s Dawn Again brings forth the Anatolian elements again, and though they begin with the more ethnic sounding tones, it does get heavy. But it doesn’t lose the ethnic melodies as it gets heavier, a really nice touch to the song. In Disturbing the Peace, the bass really comes out, adding a nice heavy blend of the two divergent sounds on the album, the ethnic and the thrash, everything seems to merge in this one as it did in Wasteland, but in a much more melodic way. Uzakta is very anthem-like in its tone, with loads of climactic moments amidst the endless riffage. The album closes with Apokalips, though not an epic by our usual standards, it does come across musically and thematically as the epic of the album. There is a soft dramatic beginning, with the slow build up in intensity all around. In the center of the album is a guitar solo that must have left the guys fingers bleeding, which flows into one more reprise of the chorus before winding down in an ominous and dramatic chant section before closing out in a resounding boom, an emotionally effective ending to a powerful album.
I wouldn’t say any new grounds are broken here, or are will any new genres emerge from MMXII, but its ok, Pentagram already broke that ground over twenty years ago. What there is here is a powerful and forceful album that is delivered with experience and expertise. As I said earlier, there isn’t too much extraneous flair in this one, they perform all their songs with purpose, not adding extras on for the sake of showing off or due to a lack of restraint. Those are the mistakes of rookies, Pentagram are veteran rockers. It clearly shows how they created and maintained such an iconic status in their own land, and why the Lady refers to them as “my heroes”.