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Doom metal cornerstone - 92%

gasmask_colostomy, August 29th, 2017

I had a discussion recently about how Trouble should be classified. As usual, it didn't end conclusively, but there are so many descriptions of the Chicago "doom" band that sail wide of the mark that it seems sensible to recount all of the different categories into which the group fall. In the first place, I just said that they were "doom" because there is certainly some recognizable element of Black Sabbath's early life and bands such as Candlemass, Pentagram, and Witchfinder General enter into the equation when Trouble play slow, not to mention the lyrics that open this album on 'The Tempter': "I am the tempter / Ruler of hell / Bringer of evil / Beware". I mean, how could a song like that not be doom metal, or 'Victim of the Insane' with those crushing slow chords and eerie ringing melodies? Yet there are moments on every Trouble album - moments on almost every song in fact - where the foreboding creep of doom gets thrown out of the window and the riffs leap forward with a clear thrill for the chase, utterly changing the mood and style of the music.

I've seen this labelled several times as doom/thrash, but that's so fucking lazy since not everything fast in metal is thrash, nor do any of the musicians in this band use thrashy techniques that might associate them with the genre. Nor are those speedy interjections anything to do with power metal or extreme metal, using too little double bass and no blastbeats to enter those territories. NWOBHM might have more to do with it, though that's also an easy get-out for any band releasing music in the early '80s (as this album was), especially due to Jeff Olson playing traditional beats on a pretty standard rock drumkit, rather like Joe Hasselvander did on Pentagram's debut. Early Savatage is a reasonably close bedfellow, sometimes lurching onwards like a massive cocky rock band such as on 'The Fall of Lucifer', while the simplicity of some of the chugging riffs in 'Bastards Will Pay' are in the way of Exciter or Raven. As such, I find it helpful to think of Trouble (on this album, which I call Psalm 9, though it was originally self-titled) as playing doom metal with influences from speed metal and whatever drugs Bobby Liebling (from Pentagram) was taking in the '80s because I just can't be hassled with this anymore.

What all that long pre-amble is leading up to is a simple comment: Trouble don't sound like anyone else. Well, hooray for that, since we wouldn't want it any other way! It's a great idea to balance the enormity of doom's scope and seriousness with something a little more vicious and unpredictable, ensuring that the listener is never entirely confident of the direction of the experience, nor is the mood as monotone as with some other doom outfits. The same sort of effect is gained as Pentagram profited from during their best period: one minute, Eric Wagner is warning you of the perils that lurk in the afterlife, then he's shouting "You bastards, you're gonna pay", then Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin are weaving intricate yet exciting solos around the great riffing. There are a lot of options in this style, that's for sure. What Psalm 9 does well and perhaps the main reason why Trouble is remembered as one of the founders of the classic doom genre is that everything fits together very nicely, there are riffs everywhere, and the atmosphere is continually charged despite a few mood shifts.

For this success, the guitarists are key, turning out great hulking doom demons in most of the songs, creepy melodies that give the chills easy as you like, some weird ideas that form a decent instrumental in 'Endtime', and top-class melodic leads that take the listener on a journey rather than just shredding noisily. There's little to complain about in the rhythm department too, with Jeff Olson doing everything he can to smooth the divide between slow and faster material, battling heroically with the fills in 'The Tempter', while Sean McAllister could perhaps be credited for doing what Leif Edling took all the credit for by using his bass as an extra guitar to create the broad boom of true crushing doom. Eric Wagner is of course the masterstroke, seeing as this kind of music needs a charismatic vocalist: he isn't showy like Messiah Marcolin or ropey like Ozzy and Bobby Liebling, probably coming closest to Scott Reagers, not so much in the torturously slow wails of the Saint Vitus vocalist but from the real-world strain and stress that he gets into his delivery, along with a deceptively wide range that he uses at times.

All this sounds like a lot of importance placed on an album that clocks in at under 40 minutes and hasn't aged terribly well since being recorded, the quietness of the bassy sound being a slight challenge to overcome at first. However, it's difficult to find songs to criticize, since there is a slightly different facet of the band shown in each one. 'The Tempter' is maybe the mother of all doom openers (yes, even that one) and has a main riff that utterly epitomizes the "second wave" of doom, while the changes of pace are skilfully handled, adding to the drama of the song. There are genuinely creepy moments in 'Revelation (Life or Death)', 'Victim of the Insane', and 'Psalm 9', the opening of the latter proving one of the finest examples of narration in any metal song and the darkest use of true religious themes (we're not talking black metal here) I can call to mind. Balancing the thunderous power chords and menacing melodies, the shorter 'Assassin' and 'Bastards Will Pay' are well-judged, especially the sweary shouting in the refrain, which is about as fun as Trouble get. 'The Fall of Lucifer' and 'Endtime' represent the weakest part of the album, the former missing the high standards of riffing exhibited elsewhere, while the instrumental is worthy of inclusion but cannot cap the drama of the other songs, partly due to some disorganized soloing.

Before writing this review, I don't think I had a full grasp of just how complete a package Psalm 9 really is, but considering that this was released in 1984, prior to the full-length debuts of almost every other doom band (I'm not sure if Witchfinder General really count as true doom, while Saint Vitus pipped Trouble to the post by one month) there is a great deal of praise to give to the five-piece for the tightness of their first effort. It's possible that the band found their feet more steadily by the excellent Run to the Light, though for sheer ideas and groundbreaking generic tropes, this ranks as one of the finest releases of the '80s. Bow down before it.