April 5, 2021

There are bands that are acknowledged as having been highly influential in the development of rock music even if they failed to achieve widespread commercial success in their day. Then there are those that have been highly influential but seem to have quietly disappeared and been forgotten about. I think Illinois-based band, Trouble, despite being pivotal in the development of doom metal, falls into that latter category. But, thanks to Hammerheart Records their remastered catalogue is being rereleased and so long-time fans of Trouble can revel once again in these classic albums and younger metal fans can discover for the first time these real gems. To date, Hammerheart have released four albums from Trouble’s catalogue, corresponding to four of the first five albums, with the third album Run To The Light being the one skipped so far. In any case, most would agree that these four albums represent the core of the bands output.

First up is the debut album: 1984’s Psalm 9. Looking at other metal releases from that year –  for example Iron Maiden’s Powerslave, Judas Priest’s Defender Of the Faith, and Metallica’s Ride The Lightning, to name but three – one can see that heavy metal had become so much faster and heavier than its ‘70s roots.  Psalm 9 therefore must have been something of a surprise as the band takes us back to the musical soundscape of the early Sabbath albums with crunching slow chords occasionally mixed with faster riffs. In the opener The Tempter we get both of those styles delivered brilliantly and it surely must be one of the most irresistible first tracks by any rock band ever! The similarities to Sabbath are a little eerie sometimes – there’s a riff in Revelation (Life Or Death) that is remarkably close to Sabbath’s The Wizard, for example, and unless I’m mistaken there’s a deliberate tip of the hat to Sabbath in the last three chords of the title track (which closes the album) which are the same three chords that open Black Sabbath’s debut album. I’m probably making the band sound like a Sabbath clone and that would be slightly unfair. The twin guitars of Bruce Franklin and Rick Wartell give more depth to the music than Iommi could manage on his own and allows for some good harmonised soloing too, while faster tracks such as Assassin and The Fall Of Lucifer have more of a NWOBHM feel to them too. The amazing thing about the album is that the riffs just keep on coming. We even get a five-minute instrumental called Endtime that must have at least half a dozen brilliant riffs in it. It’s as if the band realised that they had more riffs than songs and so decided to throw a whole bunch of hooks into that one track! Endtime is also the perfect showcase for the blistering guitar work of Franklin and Wartell. How you perceive this album probably depends on your age: those who grew up with Black Sabbath are likely to see it as a brilliant return to riff-based heavy blues; younger fans instead are more likely to see it as Trouble creating the doom template (remember Candlemass’s debut album was two years away). Whatever your perspective, it’s a brilliant album and should be in every metal fan’s collection.

The band’s sophomore release was 1985’s The Skull.  The first thing to note is that the Sabbath heritage remains but is less evident – the band seem to have stamped more of their own identity on the record. There are just seven tracks with the longer and generally speaking slower songs anticipating what would become the classic doom template. Compared to Psalm 9 though, I sense that the ability to churn out an endless stream of catchy riffs had deserted the band. Opener Pray For The Dead has a simple but tremendously effective hook line, but the tension isn’t quite maintained over its six minutes. The Wish comes in at nearly twelve minutes and for the first time the band use acoustic guitars, which combined with hushed vocals open the track atmospherically, but the bulk of the song, which is slow and heavy, lacks a killer hook line to merit being extended to this length.  The two faster tracks – Fear No Evil and Gideon – are good Priest-influenced tracks, showing also more attention to melody. The album closes with the title track – a moody slow burner and yet another doom template in the making. The story goes that three of the tracks on this album were written before Psalm 9 was released (Gideon, Wickedness of Man and The Wish) and personally it’s difficult not to conclude that these were not considered good enough for the first release but time or other pressures meant they were included on The Skull. Of course, Psalm 9 was a very hard act to follow and The Skull remains a solid and influential album.

I confess I rarely note the production qualities of an album but in the case of 1990’s self-titled album, the difference in the way the music has been produced is quite striking. The band had signed to Rick Rubin’s Def American Records by that time and the production was done by Rubin himself. The sound is a lot crisper and cleaner, the vocals higher up in the mix, and the songs are much tighter and more concise with little or no waffle. From the brilliant riff of the opener At The End Of My Daze, there is no doubt there’s a new-found energy in the band. That opening riff is pure Sabbath once again but overall there’s a much more American feel to this album, for example in Psychotic Reaction which could have been penned by Kiss. There are new elements creeping into the band’s sound too including psychedelic elements in tracks such as the seven- minute The Misery Shows (Act II) where psychedelic/stoner elements abound, cleverly mixed with the more usual power chords. As with Psalm 9, creativity abounds, and the brilliant riffs just keep on coming. In a nutshell, the band had rediscovered the energy and creativity of the debut album but with more mature writing skills and better production. They created what should have been hailed as a classic album and the music press did indeed give it widespread critical acclaim but sadly this was not reflected in album sales.

Two years after Trouble came Manic Frustration. It opens again in energetic style with the Zeppelin-inspired Come Touch The Sky. The psychedelic elements have grown a bit stronger by now and tracks like Fear seem to have retreated to somewhere around 1969!  But, in general the surge of pure metal riffs has been replaced by a mixture of thrash metal (‘Scuse Me, Hello Strawberry Skies), perhaps reflecting the predominance of grunge at the time, good time rock ‘n’ roll (The Sleeper, Tragedy Man), and generally much more focus on the voice and melody than guitars and head-banging. I suspect fans may have been shocked by the ‘extreme’ version of this melodic approach – the track Rain which to these ears sounds like a shameless attempt to write an anthemic pop ballad for the MTV crowd. It has a very nice melody, I must admit, and is neatly accompanied by layers of acoustic guitars and harmonic backing vocals, but it does sound a little like an ELO outtake! The undoubted standout track is Memory’s Garden which mixes the metal and psychedelic influences with good melodic moments. Perhaps the most memorable piece here is the album closer which is Donovon’s Breathe transformed into a doom classic!  Interestingly, both Rain and Breathe demonstrate the warm tones of Eric Wagner’s voice when singing in more of a relaxed pop style.

So, why were Trouble not a big band then, and one revered now? That’s a hard question to answer, but it may have something to do with the inability of the band to produce consistently good albums to build up and keep a fan base. Psalm 9 and Trouble in my view are two outstanding albums but they stand six years apart and their successors didn’t quite maintain the same level. Whatever the reasons may be, the quality of the material cannot be denied and these Hammerheart releases are a timely opportunity to revisit a most underrated band.