Records of the Week #18: Remembering Eric Wagner (Trouble, The Skull)
The idea behind this column is to share our picks for Records of the Week — not necessarily what's out this week, just whatever's on our mind or on our record players. This week, with the passing of Eric Wagner, ex-Trouble vocalist, the IO staff reflects on on some of our favorites from Trouble and beyond.
For Those Which Are Asleep
I only have one possible nit to pick with this album, and that's the album art: after Trouble's iconic and vivid album art, it was hard to come to grips with what can essentially be summed up as 'band name and album art on red'. But, thinking further, it fits the album well: The Skull might be considered a continuation of Wagner-era Trouble, but it also served as a vehicle for the now-matured Wagner and his bandmates, two of which on this record were also from Trouble (drummer Jeff Olson and bassist Ron Holzner). Coming thirty years after Trouble's debut full-length, For Those Which Are Asleep reflects a set of musicians still committed to creating absolutely tremendous doom, but one now burdened by the trials of life. Both as a step to distance themselves from the past and as a visual representation of their "elder statesmen" approach to doom, the refined and muted approach makes sense.
Some of that also translates to the music, though this record is definitely not tired or worn out: when The Skull wants to go fast, they do. (And holy shit, did you see them live?) But lyrically and musically, it's a darker shade of doom metal that reflects on past sorrows and regrets, considering if they might just be "Sick of It All" after so many years and other such musings. The vocals are tremendous, of course: Wagner was one of the genre's greats, unmatched in his iconic doomed timbre here and right up until his passing. Rest in peace, Eric.
Psalm 9 (a.k.a. Trouble)
This is a special record for me in more ways than one, and with the tragic death of singer Eric Wagner a few days ago I’ve been revisiting it heavily. My strongest memory of Trouble goes back to when I was a dumbass teenager that was loudly criticizing the idea of Christian metal in a forum; how, after all, could something so lame and conformist as Christianity be sung about by any worthwhile bands? Well, I was set straight by someone that sent me this very record, and I was mesmerized: some of the heaviest goddamn doom riffs I’d ever heard, amazing harmonies and melodies, and one of the most interesting singers in the entire genre.
Over the years Trouble have come to be my absolute favorite doom metal band, and I can be found saying that all over social media, forums, and chat rooms. Their logo is on my coffee mug, and their name is on thanks-lists of albums I’ve played on, and they’re easily one of the most found band names if you run a search of the ol’ band groupchat. What I’m trying to say is that the devastating and beguiling music that Trouble made together back in the 1980s is some of the best to ever exist, and that their impact on me was stunning. The buildup on "The Tempter" is a masterclass in creating tension, and the rest of the song alongside classics like "Assassin" are the ultimate proof to dipshits that think Electric Wizard invented doom that the genre doesn’t need to be slow to be true. Nobody had better transitions between balls-to-the-wall speed, crushing doom, and sections of genuine beauty, and even now, I think that nobody else ever managed to do what they did on Psalm 9 quite as well.
These days I listen to The Skull and Run to the Light as much as the debut, but Psalm 9 isn’t just where it started for Trouble; it’s where it started for me, and it remains the most personally significant record for me from the greatest band’s catalog. Pour a beer out, and for the sake of Eric Wagner, join me and blast some Trouble.
Run to the Light
Beginning with a self-reflective song like “The Misery Shows,” referring to song titles from their first two albums Psalm 9 and The Skull, Trouble weren’t quite ready to separate from the doom metal that established them on the scene earlier in the 1980s. As a matter of fact, 1987’s Run To The Light was the band’s farewell letter to the decade where they cut their teeth: the one before they redefined their sound. The whole A-side of the record is obsessed with the band’s own mortality, whether it be looking at past conquests or knowing something big was looming for the band about three years in the future.
Eric shines on this album with his unique vocal style; this big, haunted hippie of sorts fit the songs he performed on so well. “On Borrowed Time” is a slow-moving plod and Wagner can make his presence felt within this small space with the typical mastery of slow riffs, courtesy of Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin, able to convey the gloom and doom but also be melodic and complex. The title track is an uptick in speed, which commonly slows down in a stop/start style that the band was absolutely phenomenal at pulling off. The middle section again slows to a beautiful crawl where Wagner is able to swoon through the mic with some vocal effects thrown in for good measure, before the gigantic riffs again crash all over the listener.
The latter half of the album is just as powerful, but this time looking forward, especially on the closing track “The Beginning”. “Born In a Prison” preaches unity through the lyrics with the song itself being a speedy heavy metal venture chock full of doom and blues but with the band operating at their fastest speed. Run To The Light doesn’t garner as much love when compared to Psalm 9 or 1990’s Trouble, but it is another showcase of exactly what made the band special, what made them unique, and made them Trouble.
Side note: Like many heavy metal heavyweights, Wagner lent his talents to Dave Grohl’s incredible Probot project which included Lemmy (Motorhead), Snake (Voivod), King Diamond, Max Cavalera (Sepultura/Soulfly), and Wino (Saint Vitus/The Obsessed) among others. Luckily, one of the live recordings of this collective included Eric on MTV’s Headbangers Ball in 2004 performing “My Tortured Soul” featuring Dave Grohl on drums, Wino and Greg Anderson (Sunn O)))/Goatsnake) on guitars. Just listen to what Eric could do — and that lineup was just a thing of legends.