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Two things have come to my attention recently. One is the genre defining magnificence of Trouble's second opus "The Skull", and the second is thrash fans un-failing quest to assert that any reduced thrashiness is unequivically a negative thing. In general, when facing hordes of baggy pantsed zombies, brain-dead hipsters and bizzare crablike deathcore dance routines this is a natural and understandable reaction. However when the osmosing party is soul crushing doom, the result is more than palatable - hence we get to "The Skull".
Trouble's second album is not a sophomore slump, it is the shedding of dead skin. In fact, the sophmore slump is a disease that rarely seems to strike in the metal realm and was near non-existent for any half decent early 80s metal band. As bands were being picked up relatively quickly by labels during that time the overall trend was for bands to evolve to a heightened plane as they honed their skills over two or three releases. This is exactly the case here where Trouble emerged from a NWOBHM/thrash doom cocoon and blossoming into a soul destroying depressive machine. Now don't get me wrong, I love every second of "Psalm 9" and will stuff that down your throat too. But god damn it, this album is a cornerstone of doom metal.
To dispell any fears right now we must look at the fact Trouble had written songs like "Gideon", "Wickedness of Man" and "The Wish" (previously titled "Death Wish I/II") before "Psalm 9" had even been released. Not only that, but the incredible guitar tone and Eric's vocals have improved since the debut so we are talking about a step up. We'll get to that in a second - lets mention the lyrics. Yes, the lyrics really are hippie infused Christian morality spiced with dark themes. And yet despite this they come across as an ingenious doom metal ploy - instead of preachy songs, they appear more like depressing stories of death and hopeless salvation, not unlike say how Nile might sing of Egyptian gods and yet it is palatable because you know Karl Sanders isn't truly trying to have you submit yourself to Ra - he's weaving a fantastical tale. If you're not struck down by the impact of Eric's grief when singing the opening of the opening lyrics:
"The one you love is dead
feeling so empty inside
I know it hurts"
...you will never know true doom. Right onto the music.
"Pray for the Dead", "Fear No Evil" and especially "The Wish" are an incredible opening force. This is doom metal, in all it's glory. The touches of NWOBHM and thrash are still there, but the tempo drops most of the time and the guitar tone is something that other bands of the period would never come close to achieving. There are neoclassical touches and harmonized leads which really bring about the desponding atmosphere, and Eric Wagner's vocals are hands down some of the best in metal. His range is good and sure he sings with good melody, but the emotive force in his vocals to back up the lyrics is the real element that's incredibly unique to the man.
"The Truth Is, What Is" has a fantastic chorus despite being a mash of riffs and continues the high trend. Surprisingly it's the next 2 pre "Psalm 9" tracks which seem more out of place, but the riffs on display still slaughter most doom and NWOBHM from around this period. Finally, just when you think they couldn't really top the power of the opening tracks comes the incredibly ominous "The Skull". Once again the riffs here are inventive, memorable and yet shine with psuedo-prog brilliance; the mind boggles that this release hasn't been praised more.
Trouble's follow up album "Run To The Light" was also a solid effort before they moved onto the depends-on-how-you-look-at-it psychedelic doom, but it was "The Wish" where they perfected 80s doom metal. Save yourself, get this god damn album.
After releasing one of the most monumental metal albums of the 80's, Trouble eased up a little for their sophmore effort, "The Skull." While their debut was an astounding mix of Black Sabbathian doom, with the twin guitars of Judas Priest, this album is more straightforward 80's metal. The guitars are not as heavy. The songs don't switch from slow to fast, they stay at about the same speed throughout. None of these songs come near the almost-thrash of songs like "The Deceiver." Nothing at all on this album seems like an improvement over their debut.
And that may be the biggest problem here. The intensity is toned down, the riffs aren't as striking, and the songs themselves just aren't as memorable. Trouble just seem like they're going through the motions, none of the songs (excluding the title track) measure up to their previous counterparts. I give them credit for writing an epic, "The Wish," but it's still a rather tedious listen. Don't get me wrong, none of the songs on here are outright bad, they're just not as good, and in most cases, boring.
The one exception to everything mentioned above is the album closing title track. It starts out with acoustic guitars and creates an incredibly doomy atmosphere, even with the Christian lyrics. The song builds up until the inevitable, but still satisfying heavy crescendo at the end. Damn, that riff is good. And I don't care if you follow Satan, Buddha, or Asatru, you WILL be yelling "Christ have mercy!!" at the end.
So while this album is not a complete waste, it certainly is not worth the full price. This is not really anything different from anything that other bands were putting out at the same time, and they were doing it better. The title track should be required listening for all metalheads, but the rest of the album is far from essential.
“…close your eyes, look in to your mind, see yourself as you really are…”
Whenever a band releases a pivotal debut or any strong lp for that matter, I’m always leery of the next step in their evolution. We all know of bands that unload one killer album where just about every song has your head spinning, then for follow-ups the creative bank seems to run dry and meaningful songs flow like roofing tar = disappointment. Admittedly, these were feelings I had during the months between Trouble’s debut and the unveiling of The Skull.
While I feel The Skull isn’t at all the monument that the debut is, it’s not the band’s tombstone either. Unfortunately, some of their renown doom influence has subsided for more mid-paced or faster speeds, their overall power seems more reserved, and I'll tell you isn’t exactly what fans were expecting. What hasn’t changed over the year is the lineup, nor have their Christian ideals been abandoned and even includes a Bible passage on the back cover. This signifies that despite lyrics saying to “beware the son of Satan”, “share the love”, and other things traditional underground metal fans of ‘85 would consider cuddly and gay, those fans still take to their vibe like a bat to a flying beetle. With the debut, hardly anyone was rolling their eyes to the band’s ideals because they were busy being flattened in their sockets by their music. With their sophomore effort, whether it be Christian or the clashing messages on Hell Awaits, Infernal Overkill, Feel the Fire and other ’85 releases, the music still retains enough sledgehammer delivery to slake the one year thirst. Stryper were more image oriented and glammy, plus they weren’t helping themselves with the gaudy and inane yellow and black attack ticket.
The lp and “Pray for the Dead” rises quickly and dramatically from silence with the commanding riff that would later back the chorus and is a fine song to kick off the project. Anyone who complained the vocals were buried on the debut would be pleased to know they’ve been unearthed here. Leaving behind the doom influence for a bit is “Fear No Evil”, one of their adventurously fast tracks, but shortly afterward “The Wish” stirs with many soft-spoken acoustical interludes that accentuate the surplus of momentum and wailing solos roaming this 11+ minute epic.
Side two’s “Truth is – What Is” incorporates a pretty conventional riff, doom-tinged yet somewhat predictable before throwing the velocity into top gear. “Wickedness of Man” builds more epic proportions that fortified their debut, meanwhile mid-tempo quickness dominates “Gideon”. The title cut is more your customary epic, mingling many moods, and is something one would anticipate to finish off an lp: satiny acoustics supporting saddened vocals, heavy lethargic tragedy, anger, drama, and a forceful ending of two-toned guitar.
As a reader of this, you may be thinking that my description of these tracks is a bit lacking, perhaps even somewhat disinterested. Unfortunately, that's the way I feel about The Skull. Would I have heard this initially instead of the debut, perhaps the atmosphere of this review would've been more vibrant, but I can't help but listen to this and wonder if the band were attempting to discard some of the doom for more of the driven or spare themselves the Sabbath finger pointing and forge a sound more their own despite the success of the debut.
It would be two years before Run To The Light sees the horizon. Tune in next time.