Trouble - The Skull (1985)Release ID: 1915
Not incredibly impressed by Trouble’s debut album, their sophomore effort The Skull completely blew me away. I will say that this is the first Doom Metal album that makes the transition from Trad Doom to the more modern, melancholic Doom that I personally favor.
Musically, the lead guitar focuses on simple albeit effective melodies that add an extra layer of mood to the basic riffs that litter Trad Doom. The song structures are much more progressive – not that the music is incredibly complex, but there is a lot of variation, changes in speed, and many, many riffs in each of the rather long tracks. The solos have a fantastic balance of going for purposeful melodies that work perfectly with the rhythm work, or outright breaking into distorted, droning chaotic buzz. The drumming is another thing I love; I’d say this is also the first case of what I’d call “intelligent Doom Metal drumming.” Instead of simply playing slow, plodding beats, the drummer adds some progressive beats, and adds a great amount of double bass drumming in as well. Occasionally, all the musicians break out into speedy sections and just have at it, which I love in Doom. One song even has synthesized strings – a staple to modern Doom!
The lyrics and mood are the biggest separators from Trad Doom. No, I’m not talking about the Christian lyrics, I mean the references to depression, suicide, loss and death. The rich symbolism and more poetic style of songwriting is something that would be heavily expanded upon by Death Doomers of the 90’s, but it started right here. The music is also much more set to reflect the mood here, and there’s a clear difference to previously Satanic or drug and party influenced Doom of before.
Another aspect I haven’t seen in Trad Doom displayed here is passion. There is true passion in the lyrics and vocal delivery, even if those vocals are pretty rough. It’s clear the vocalist is not only 100% struggling with loss of hope and other issues, but also completely has faith in his God to help him, and to help others, and he’s truly thankful for it. This is music written for purpose; not just to sound good, but to deliver an important message. I myself am not a religious person of any kind, but I can still appreciate the passion and meaning to the music here, and the groundbreaking achievement that it was for my favorite music genre, Doom Metal.
Chicago five-piece doom outfit Trouble's 1984 debut album “Psalm 9” made a pretty big impact on me. It saw Trouble combining the dark doom metal sound of the first three Black Sabbath albums with the groovy stoner riffs of Sabbath’s “Vol 4” album & the chunky & more up-tempo heavy metal riffage of the early 80’s US power metal movement. There were also regular flirtations with prog rock, psychedelics, the NWOBHM & even full-blown thrash metal so it was a diverse record to say the least. And for that reason it sat very comfortably under the traditional doom metal tag as there was a lot more to it than just doom. The production & performances were also fantastic & it set the bar pretty high with regards to expectations for the follow-up just a year later. So does it deliver? Well yes & no.
From a production point of view, “The Skull” is a very solid sounding doom record. The down-tuned riffage & slightly flabby drum sound are perfectly suited to ultra-heavy doom metal & the vocals are a little bit more up-front in the mix this time too which works to further highlight front man Eric Wagner’s signature shriek which still reminds me of a combination of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant & Cirith Ungol’s Tim Baker. No one really matches this huge guitar tone to be honest as it oozes of the depth that only an organic 70’s analogue recording can provide. But in saying that, “The Skull” still doesn’t match the debut in the production department. I don’t think it highlights the strength of the musicianship the way that “Psalm 9” did as everything sounds a little bit looser.
The song-writing sounds a little less pieced together than we heard on “Psalm 9” where drummer Jeff Olsen did a fantastic job at making some fairly jarring changes work smoothly. He doesn’t have as big a challenge here as it would seem that the band have matured a bit in that area but it’s also worth noting that a good half of this material was actually written before the recording of the debut so it could just be the extra time they’ve had to bring these songs to the fullest realization of their potential. Stylistically we get a very similar record to “Psalm 9” really. In fact, perhaps a little bit too much so because I often feel that “The Skull” seems like a poor man’s version of “Psalm 9” in that it’s built off the same ingredients with only minor changes but none of its elements have the quite same impact across the board. There are some subtle differentiators mind you. For example, the psychedelic material I loved so much on the debut is noticeably absent here which is a real shame. The faster & more traditional heavy metal tracks also tend to have more of a stoner feel to them & given my struggles with groovy stoner metal riffs in the past this is probably not a positive thing. There’s no sign of the hints at thrash metal this time either. I really enjoy the strong use of acoustic guitars during a couple of the longer numbers. It ties in beautifully with the doomy atmosphere & creates a nice change of pace. But as with “Psalm 9”, the highlight of “The Skull” is the stunning use of harmonies by the twin guitar attack. They really did write the book on this technique for their doom contemporaries to follow, didn’t they, & I can easily detect their influence on bands like Autopsy, Cruciform & particularly Cathedral who it would now seem were almost a Trouble tribute act by now given that they seem to have borrowed so much from these first two Trouble albums.
It’s interesting to note that Eric Wagner was suffering from a serious substance abuse problem during this period & perhaps it’s these personal issues that are being reflected in the dark tone the lyrics have, despite being directed even more strongly towards Christian themes than we heard from them previously. Drummer Jeff Olsen would leave the band during the tour for the album too so that he could focus full-time on his studies. Not a very metal thing to do it has to be said. I hope he was studying Satanism or something bad ass like that. But given Trouble’s record I feel that’s probably a little hopeful. Could he have perhaps lost his faith which caused him to leave the band? I dunno but anyway… this is another solid Trouble album but you’ve probably picked up by now that I think it’s a bit of a step down from the exploits of “Psalm 9”. I don’t think the band showed enough development with both releases sounding a little too similar to cope with the fact that “The Skull” isn’t quite as good in every area. The faster material is also much weaker than the longer doomier numbers but that could just say more about my taste as anything else. I just feel that the thick down-tuned guitar tone doesn’t work anywhere near as well with the faster material as it lacks a little bit of excitement & for that reason I find a few of the seven songs to fall a little flat while the same tone works perfectly for the sombre material. There’s nothing as weak as “The Fall Of Lucifer” from the debut mind you but there’s also nothing that touches the brilliance of “Victim Of The Insane” either. Is it just me or is there also a touch more of that groovy stoner feel about this album? Particularly in those faster numbers which wasn’t the case previously & I still find myself tolerating those sections rather than enjoying them.
But all things considered, when Trouble get things right, like they do on the huge doom monster that is the closing title track, there are very few that can touch them for sheer heaviness & fans of Black Sabbath & Cirith Ungol will undoubtedly find plenty to enjoy here.