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Dark, Yet Soulful, Moving, and Inspiring - 100%

Mercyful Trouble, May 22nd, 2020
Written based on this version: 2013, CD, FRW Music

I've always felt that expressing one's message through emotional appeals, especially the more forlorn, downcast sentiments, paves the way for the greatest level of introspection, and such an approach is particularly effective when the message is that of peace and love. It is in times of sorrow that one truly gains a broader perspective on life, for in order to truly love one must first suffer the pain of loss and emptiness.

This thematic overtone, characterized by its own obscurity, meshes well with the circumstances of early doom metal bands throughout the 80's, being unlike the majority of the metal scene at the time, and largely disregarded by its acolytes. The doom bands were few and scattered, and nor was doom metal an intentional or recognized subgenre until the later part of the 80's. Other than the early material of the almighty Sabbath, you had Pagan Altar and Witchfinder General in the UK, Saint Vitus and Cirith Ungol in California, Pentagram in Virginia, The Obsessed in Maryland, Nemesis/Candlemass in Sweden, and the most adherent to the philosophy expressed in the previous paragraph, Chicago's Trouble.

Having released a series of demos and and making an appearance on 1983's Metal Massacre IV compilation, Trouble paved the way for their landmark debut album, Psalm 9. From these releases, it was clear that Trouble, while undeniably metal, had a different creative vision. Firstly, their lyrics centered around positive themes expressed through the Christian perspective. Singer Eric Wagner noted he had been brought up Christian and did not see fit to write lyrics of darkness and evil as the first wave black metal bands of the time had done, since there was genuine trouble to be addressed in the world. Second, Trouble's sound was obviously quite doomy, as even when they weren't playing at a crawl, their music still carried a sense of longing and despair, influences the band said they had picked up from the darker side of the NWOBHM and slower heavy rock before it. Furthermore, their image was more redolent of hippie culture than the metal community's favored attire in the 1980's, leaving no doubt that they identified more with the ideals of mutual understanding and concern for all their fellow humans than they did the hard-headed shunning of perspectives other than one's own that was the attitude of thrash metal at the time.

All of this paves the way for what is unequivocally the quintessential doom metal album, and Trouble's darkest yet most wholesome moment, 1985's The Skull. Being slightly more focused, sorrowful, and philosophical than its predecessor, it proves to be the epitome of the genre at its finest. "Pray For the Dead" crescendos in and uses such a tortured, melancholic melody to descend into its grooving doom riff that it portrays exactly what it feels like to mourn the loss of a loved one, and yet it feels oddly comforting at its sentimental, uplifting chorus, truly making the most of despondency.

Beyond this monumental opener, The Skull is quite a well-balanced release, with faster cuts like "Fear No Evil" still keeping the doom feeling consistent through the use of Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin's winding dual guitar harmonies, and mid-tempo pieces like "Truth Is What Is" offering a break from the more emotionally intense doom of the album's centerpieces such as "The Wish" and "The Skull". The former is one of the most powerful anti-suicide songs ever conceived, with an incredibly strong doom riff conveying the feeling of unending depression from day to miserable day. However, despite being such a massive slab of melancholy, this song still manages to be healing and introspective, and it does not feel like an 11 minute song due to how well structured it is. "The Skull", meanwhile, creates a truly menacing and ominous atmosphere with its somber acoustic guitar chords, surely an influence on Candlemass' acoustic segments on their masterpiece Epicus Doomicus Metallicus.

The mention of the latter band brings me to my next point, that being that The Skull is hugely influential to all future doom, especially the likes of Candlemass ("Darkness in Paradise" nearly borrows a riff from "Wickedness of Man"), Cathedral (Forest of Equilibrium is like The Skull but more bleak and extreme, but also oddly comforting), Solitude Aeturnus (literally Trouble if they were epic doom instead of traditional doom), and Crowbar (the intro to "Planets Collide", "The Lasting Dose"). One can even hear the sorrow-oozing guitar lines in the doomy drudge of bands like Autopsy and spot the influence of Trouble.

The distinctive, near-falsetto singing of Eric Wagner and the dual guitar sound of Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin also make Trouble's sound unmistakable and incredibly memorable, with the capable rhythm section of bassist Sean McAllister and drummer Jeff Olson enhancing the experience even further. This remarkable musicianship is one thing that makes Trouble stand out so much and makes The Skull, with its seven perfect songs, feel like the very definition of true doom metal focused on superb songwriting and conveying an ultimately positive and uplifting message. These characteristics all embody the hippie-like nature of traditional doom metal perfectly and make Trouble my absolute favorite doom band, with The Skull being my pick for not only their best album, but the best and most essential doom metal album of all time. It feels so real, grounded, intentional, philosophical, and honest that it is a monument to all the goodness that humankind has to offer, solidified by the wisdom of its lyrical content and its tremendously powerful heaviness.

"Close your eyes, look into your mind. See yourself as you really are..."