Pentagram Presents: A Story of Tenacity and Stubbornness
There are serious consequences to living a devil-may-care lifestyle and chasing after your dreams. It is impossible to avoid making a choice at the crossroads; whether to set off on a Frodo-esque journey with the broken compass of Jack Sparrow or to sail the safe waters. Almost everyone knows this cliché and takes a position against life accordingly. You have to accept suffering especially as an artist, or you will have to allow the rest of the world decide how your art will take shape. It is even harder to work in the artistic fields in Turkey. There are two options in this case: Either giving up and letting your dreams pass you by or stubbornly embracing your own music.
Pentagram definitely belongs to the second group as the band has been following the path they believe in and adamantly toil to make their music despite the hardships they face for more than 30 years in Turkey. Making heavy metal music, which does not appeal to the general audiences, in a geography where permanency of art is rare and taken one day at a time. We will take a look at their adventure of 30 years in this article.
The initial musical activities at the end of the 80s
The foundation of Pentagram was laid by Hakan Utangaç and Cenk Ünnü in the 80s. These high school friends got close due to their shared interest in music. Hakan Utangaç and Cenk Ünnü listened to the same music and had similar outlooks on life, which resulted in them becoming close friends. Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Slayer and Metallica were on top of the list of bands they listened to together. Keep in mind that there was neither internet nor private TV channels in Turkey in the 80s, causing a delay in the global happenings reaching Turkey. Therefore, the flow of information about the bands they admired was limited at best. The heavy metal news were followed thanks to the magazines brought by those who travelled abroad. Video clips of Metallica, Slayer and Iron Maiden recorded on VHS tapes were watched until they were memorised. Akmar Passage in Kadıköy was the main meeting point in spite of the coup d’état of 12th of September which caused invasive restrictions in every aspect of life around the country. The atmosphere was not really suitable for such genres at the time. You were in for a tough time if you had your hair long, ears pierced and wore unusual clothes. Society might end up seeing you as an alien from another galaxy. Pentagram’s emergence and the music they wanted to make in that period was a loud protest against the “restrictions” of the country; a rebellion flag against a group of grumpy, unlikable people bossing them around!
The in-depth problems of the Turkish music industry at the time posed another challenge to those trying to make music in the 1980s. The industry had not fully taken shape or matured yet, making it very unlikely for musicians who made independent and idealist music to survive. This was the atmosphere that surrounded the initial musical endeavours of Hakan Utangaç and Cenk Ünnü. Two friends dreamt of forming a band like Metallica, Iron Maiden, Megadeth or Slayer. Pentagram became a fully fledged band when their bass guitarist, Tarkan Gözübüyük joined them. At the time, Gözübüyük was completing his education in Bursa and was also involved with music. They talked on the phone and found similarities between their tastes in music and outlooks on life. With Gözübüyük’s involvement, the main framework of the band started to take shape. The bands name changed and finally became Pentagram. Hakan Utangaç drew their logo.
They wrote their first compositions in this period. The band didn’t have an album yet but their presence was getting noticed and their first concert took place in a wedding venue in Bağcılar. Arabesk music was taking Turkey by storm in those years; on the streets, in the minibuses, cinemas, on TV; the same sounds and faces were circulating. On the other hand, there were almost no live music venues aimed at a younger audience. This made such events important for young people who wanted to listen to different genres of music. This was also the first time Trash Metal was played live in Turkey! The excitement of the audience when Pentagram stepped onto the stage was like nothing else; they even broke some chairs and tables. The band was happy with the attention they received during the concert, but had to owe the venue money due to their broken property. This was when guitarist Ümit Yılbar joined the band.
The most “eventful” concert of the band took place in Moda Cinema, which became a legend whispered through the grapevine. More chairs were broken as soon as the concert started; glasses were broken and tables overturned… The band was happy about the attention of their audience once again, but they would end up having to pay for the damaged caused. Tarkan Gözübüyük reminisces about that concert: “It is impossible to explain the excited atmosphere of the concert, people still talk about that concert in Moda Cinema now and again. Ask those who were there, and everybody would tell you that it was rather bizarre. However, we were not happy about chairs getting broken. I even remember a scene after the concert when we were embarrassedly standing in front of the management of the venue.”.
Pentagram continued their table and chair wrecking concerts as Ümit Yılbar left the band and Murat Net took over the guitar. They started working on their first album during these years; however, they were unable to find a company to release the album right away. The record labels were reluctant to release a heavy metal album with English lyrics, thinking such an album would never bring any revenue. As the band members visited labels with their demos day by day, NEPA music saved the day and released the band’s first album, making the band’s dream come true. Cenk Ünnü and Hakan Utangaç grabbed the boxes filled with their album right away and started their first sale ever on the ferry. People ended up buying three or four albums to support Pentagram. In Cenk Ünnü’s words: “The got the boxes from Unkapanı and started to sell the albums on the ferry during our commute. Nobody agreed to make albums in English at the time, Unkapanı was the only place. That day marked a milestone. We had so much fun.”. Tunç Örer’s watercolour painting became the album’s cover design. Rotten Dogs and Powerstage were typical trash metal songs that became popular among the tracks of the album.
Demir Demirkan and Trail Blazers period
The band underwent a transformation following the release of this album; Murat Net left and Demir Demirkan joined the group in his place. Demirkan joined the band during a period when finding equipment and recording were challenging jobs at best. He talks about those days: “There were barely any recording studios, equipment, drums, guitars or people who knew how to record vocals at the time. Generally speaking, everything was done by trial-and-error. There was no internet and we tried to learn as much as we could from magazines such as Guitar Player, trying to reach the sound quality and power we heard on LPs and cassettes. Say we had made the album; who would listen to it and how? Today’s Turkey is weird; it was even weirder back then. We must be the last generation who sees themselves as Westerners in this country. We were an idea born from a misunderstood, misrepresented country; a notion of the Republic and civilization; the last players of a game that passed through the grapevine. In reality, we stood apart from the majority. Of course, we did what we deemed was right and followed our own path. The band members had strong egos and this made us a powerful band. Pentragram has another gravitational pull in addition to its music, and that is the power of strong egos proceeding towards a shared goal. Undoubtedly this is a strong force to reckon with.”.
This was when Ogün Sanlısoy took over the vocals. The band started recording their second album Trail Blazer with the change in band members. This album is striking with its anti-war lyrics and progressive melodies. It also had an emotional and tragic side: The band dedicated Fly Forever to Ümit Yılbar, who died while fighting in Southeast Turkey in 1993.
The Gulf War and the national events of the period caused a shift towards protest in the band’s psyche. In addition to Fly Forever, No One Wins The Fight, Secret Misille, Vita Es Morte became the most popular tracks of the album, helping to spread Pentagram’s name.
Anatolia and the journey back to the roots
The band witnessed another transformation in this album’s wake. Demir Demirkan went to the USA, and Ogün Sanlısoy passed on the responsibility of the vocals to Murat İlkan. The band went into the recording studio once again in 1997 to record Anatolia, an album which would eventually become a building stone of Turkish rock music history. Anatolia was new for Pentagram in every aspect. At this point, it is important to note that it is not an easy task to interpret a culture that doesn’t necessarily belong to you in a country like Turkey, where modernity took place late somewhere stuck in-between the East and the West. In addition, the looming threat of imitation stood watch at the doorstep. Pentagram is a band that managed to take nourishment from the culture the members were born in while gazing upon this world that is forever in musical pursuits. In this sense, Anatolia was both a return to the roots and a new path the band followed in their musical journey.
Anatolia presented an epic critique on pre-modern civilisations, the endless power struggle on these soils and wars. This marked the first time the band chose to include a song with Turkish lyrics in their albums as well as a cover of Âşık Veysel’s Gündüz Gece. The Eastern motif was relatively pushed to the foreground and authentic motives produced by instruments such as “saz” and “ney” were included in the arrangements. Relatively more melodic pieces stood out in addition to the typical Pentagram melodies.
Followers listened to the Pentagram classics of today such as Anatolia, Dark Is The Sunlight, 1000 In The Eastland, Give Me Something To Kill The Pain, Sonsuz in this album for the first time. This album achieved the biggest number of sales as well as much attention with its synthesis of the East and the West. The band started to gain popularity not only in Turkey but also abroad. However, the band chose to use “Mezarkabul” as their name during their concerts and album sales abroad because there was another band named Pentagram in the music scene. The released “Popçular Dışarı” (Out with Pop), recorded live during their concert at Harbiye Open-air Theatre in 1997. The title of the album refers to how the crowd chanted “Out with pop” at the beginning of the concert. This album featured classical Pentagram songs and their cover of Slayer’s Black Magic.
Demir Demirkan left the band after recoding these two albums to pursue his solo projects, and Metin Türkcan replaced him. The band recorded two albums with this new formation in 2000 Unspoken and Bir. The recording process of these albums coincided with yet another moment of crisis in Turkey. The foreign currency exchange rate skyrockets due to devaluation, putting the band in a tough spot as they were trying to finish recording their albums in Greece. Turkish musicians were left to face great financial losses and crises, given that the equipment and recording technologies were imported from abroad. The situation also left the music industry in uncertainty.
The Marmara earthquake, which caused great loss and pain, also posed a big challenge to the country in addition to the recession. As if all of these challenges were not enough-the media was preoccupied with the newly-emerged topic of “satanism”. The lenses immediately turned to the heavy metal culture due to the murders that happened at the time.
Heavy metal had never been as popular in Turkey; but only for its negative connotations. Media criminalised heavy metal music and culture, broadcasting scary news about satanism. Everybody who had long hair, wore black T-shirts and listened to this genre was declared a potential criminal. The police made routine raids in Akmar Passage and disposed of magazines, t-shirts and albums. Pentagram managed to record their albums amidst this crisis. “Unspoken” consisted entirely of songs with Turkish lyrics while the tracks of “Bir” were in Turkish. Similar to Anatolia, these albums showcased Anatolian motifs. Main themes include the Ottoman rulers’ fight for the throne, religion, existentialist questions and the band’s stance against war. The members of the band themselves have experienced the war in the Middle East, ongoing for hundreds of years at this point, destruction, disaster, massacre and political unrest. Therefore, it was only natural for them to question these in their work. “For Those Who Died Alone” is an instrumental requiem while “For the Once Unchangin” advises this against the tendency of geography or the modern world to control individuals through fear:
“…dark thoughts in your mind will bring you tears like the dark clouds in the sky bringing rain anger in your heart will make your fears grow like the thunder in the sky screams in pain…”
Unspoken’s intro “We Come Nowhere” is an extension of the universal attitude of the band which strays from identities and boundaries. Anatolian motifs of “ney” and “cümbüş” were used once again. These two albums marked the band reaching climax in their maturity through the melodical infrastructures and deep song lyrics. Bir, For The One Unchanging, Lions İn a Cage, In Esir Like an Eagle, For Those Who Died Alone, Bir, Ölümlü, Bu Alemi Gören Sensin, Ölümü are worth paying attention to. Pentagram took part in Wacken, one of the few metal music festivals in the world, among the metal music royalty.
The band went silent after these two albums for a long while. The rumours of them disbanding were commonplace. Pentagram put an end to their silence with their 20th anniversary exclusive concert. They gave their first concert after their long break at Bostancı Show Centre which was followed by a tour in Turkey. This album was released as a DVD later on.
New Beginnings with MMXII and Gökalp Ergen
Murat İlkan left the band due to an unfortunate illness following this album. Pentagram has gone through many transformations throughout its history but Murat İlkan’s ailment felt heavy on the hearts. Climb’s vocalist Gökalp Ergen İlkan. Tarkan Gözübüyük explains the changes the band has gone through: “Pentagram is like a school for us in a sense that invaluable musicians such as Murat Net, Ogün Sanlısoy, Demir Demirkan, İlhan Barutçu and Murat İlkan contributed greatly in enriching the band’s style through time. I see their solo projects as the extension of this family. Gökalp Ergen plays an important role in the sustainability of this band with his contribution in the new compositions and his interpretation of the old pieces. We understand how great it is to be together more with every passing day.”
The band released MMXII with their new formation which now includes Gökalp Ergen. The new album consisted of new pieces with the theme of apocalypse and 2012 Mayan Calendar references. They maintained a balance between riffs reminiscent of the 1980s trash metal period and their choice of solos as well as the melodic character of some of the tracks. As previously, this album featured songs both in English and Turkish. Dark lyrics and ecological disasters were placed in the limelight. Turgus Berkes, who has worked with the band on their previous albums, contributed to the lyrics. He makes a cameo in the video clip of Apokalips, in which he declares the end of the world. The fans who were used to the voice of Murat İlkan were hesitant about Gökalp Ergen’s vocals at first; however, they warmed up to him eventually.
After this album, Pentagram turned its gaze on the acoustic project they have been planning for their 30th anniversary. They would be performing their high-volume music acoustically for the first time. Demir Demirkan, Ogün Sanlısoy, Murat İlkan were involved in this project as well and the band completed the acoustic recordings of their pieces. Following this, they went on a long-lasting tour together. Pentagram released two pieces titled Bu Düzen Yıkılsın, Pride and Sur in 2020 with the contribution of their old band members.
Standing like a rock against life for 30 years
Pentagram has been making its unique music for 30 years tenaciously without bending over at others’ will. The band has managed to continue making music despite the hardships of life, lack of equipment and not receiving much financial return of their work. They stood like a mighty rock against all these odds.
They had to work other jobs during the years when their music didn’t earn them much money, but they never sold out by opting for calculating manoeuvres to earn more money; they never winked at the unpleasant side of the music industry. Theirs is a story of tenacity and stubbornness; they made their own music without sacrificing the path or dreams they believed in. They were inspirational to many musicians who came after for this reason. The band has been pursuing their dreams for 30 years in a place like Turkey where harsh realities of life are constantly reminded and dreams are always postponed, advising “First go earn money, then you can play your guitar” as we continue to follow them, witness their history and accompany their songs in this long path they chose to take. May we have them around for many long years!
“Sözlerim gerçektir, yüreğim kardeştir, her zaman
Umudum sonsuzdur, uğraşım bitmez hiçbir zaman
Geliyor, geçiyor hayat, dönüyor durmuyor dünya”
(“My words are true, my heart a sibling, always
My hope is endless, my work is never done
Life comes and goes as the world keeps on turning”)
Rolling Stones, April 2008
Tarkan Gözübüyük interview Can Öktemer/Sertan Şentürk