A different kind of metal
by Jason Hillenburg
Ditch your preconceived notions about "heavy metal" at the door, though some of the conventional narrative holds true. By the dawn of the 1980's, an array of tragedies felled the genre's first wave of titans. Deep Purple turned blue in 1976, Sabbath fired Ozzy in 1979, and doubt shrouded Led Zeppelin's future. It is here the conventional narrative runs off the rails. The inordinate focus placed on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and burgeoning glam scene in Los Angeles obscures the larger reality. Outfits like Exodus, Armored Saint, Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax gleaned much from Sabbath and their English successors, but a populist American approach and strains of punk music informed their early efforts. Other bands like the reconstituted Pentagram and Saint Vitus debuted with primitive masterpieces influenced by punk music as well, but carried Master of Reality-era Sabbath's trademark tempos and dense, detuned riffing to darker sonic worlds than their English heroes had dared to travel. The signatures of this side of the American metal are as indelible on our musical culture of today as the congruent movements that flourished, though perhaps not as fashionable or profitable.
Out of sheer laziness and critical expediency, Trouble is often lumped in with bands like Pentagram and Saint Vitus. Objective scrutiny reveals a more nuanced tale. While Trouble offered up riff-based fare similar to their contemporaries, Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin's dual lead work sang with melodicism nearly absent from other bands of their generation. Much has been written about the band's use of two guitars, but the focus falls on the influence of Thin Lizzy and Judas Priest in Trouble's adoption of that sound. Surely these bands left a deep impact on the young Trouble, but there is a vocal quality in Wartell and Franklin's playing that points to other shadowy influences like Wishbone Ash. Rarely, however, have two guitarists seemed so perfectly matched and their precision and melodic gifts carried this configuration to a level their predecessors never explored.
Another important distinction is lyrical content. Trouble marked themselves as something different from the outset by writing about Christianity with directness hitherto unheard in the genre. There is a fundamentalist, apocalyptic strain running through the first two albums, Psalm 9 and The Skull, quite unlike any other major recording in the genre's history. What the band unconsciously accomplished, without realizing it, is a modern appropriation of the blues "guitar evangelist" role from the early 20th century. Men like Blind Willie Johnson and Reverend Edward Clayburn, among many others, employed their guitars to perform dire warnings for sinners and declarations of a world gone wrong. "The Tempter" opened Psalm 9 with an evocative, quasi-funeral march from drummer Jeff Olson. For such a young band, the track has astonishing unity - there is an inevitable, organic coherence between the song's sections and an absolute mastery of dynamics. The lyrics juggle multiple points of view, but the overarching message of the constancy of humanity's war with its own desires has a genuine rhetorical authority in Wagner's performance missing from the few similar efforts in the genre. Tellingly, the album ends with a strong cover of Cream's "Tales of Brave Ulysses." Its inclusion served notice this band resisted easy classification.
It did not stop the band's first label, Metal Blade Records, from using their spiritual leanings as a marketing tool to distinguish Trouble from counterparts who were offering up the cliché heavy metal smorgasbord of horror movie and Satanic tropes. Slapping a label like "white metal" on the band reeked of amateur hour and alienated the band from significant portions of the fan base they actively courted by suggesting they were interested in making converts rather than fans.
By the time the band's sophomore album, The Skull, hit record store shelves in 1985, a review of the song titles likely reinforced that impression. "Pray For The Dead," "Fear No Evil," "Wickedness Of Man" and others did little to dispel the notion that Trouble were, literally, on a mission. Those who bought the album, however, discovered a musical work much subtler than the first album's earnest creativity. The songs still confronted the connections between humankind and spirituality, but a deeper darkness prevailed over The Skull. There are no real warnings for the sinners here, just blues for lives lived badly. The songs are about desperate narrators teetering on the brink - suicide in "The Wish," eviscerating grief in "Pray For The Dead," a black hole of guilt on the title cut. The title track is a high water mark of the band's early years and uses the historical account of Jesus' crucifixion as a meditation on grief and personal responsibility.
1987's Run To The Light stands as a clear demarcation point between the band's early work and the middle period to follow. They broadened their sound by including keyboards in a significant role, but the clearest change came lyrically as lead singer Eric Wagner infused the texts with a growing poetic sensibility and invoked spiritual concerns with a lighter, subtler touch than before. The album's opener, "The Misery Shows," and the title cut are highlights, but the former song is particularly important. It is cleverly self-referential, but it isn't hard to hear a band clearing the decks for the future.
The future arrived soon enough. Trouble signed with Def American Records and, with wunderkind producer Rick Rubin, entered a Los Angeles studio in 1989 to record their self-titled fourth album. The result of these sessions, released in 1990, marked the dawn of a new era and is, arguably, the band's finest studio collection. Rubin helped focus a band rarely given to meandering and retooled them into a sleek, powerhouse musical unit whose songs connected like right hooks landing clean on the jaw. The single, "At The End Of My Daze," became a concert staple and one of a handful of songs embodying this era in Trouble's history. Its deceptively simple riff is unforgettable and the melodic playing throughout rivets and never lapses into self-indulgence.
The band returned to the studio two years later with Rick Rubin again operating the boards. Manic Frustration played as a further refining of the style they embraced on the self-titled effort and offered up another monumental instant classic with its opener, "Come Touch The Sky". The two releases elevated Trouble's commercial profile and the band toured relentlessly during this period and often shared stages with the biggest names of the time. Def American folded after the release of Manic Frustration, but Trouble released another strong album, Plastic Green Head, through the Music For Nations label in 1995. This release built on its predecessors with the band's increasingly complex fusion of poetic lyrics, psychedelia, and hard rock finding the creative space to likewise included wildly improbable and successful covers of The Monkees with "The Porpoise Song" and a knockout take on The Beatles’ "Tomorrow Never Knows."
Physical and mental attrition prompted vocalist Eric Wagner to leave the band shortly after its release and, outside of a few shows with future vocalist Kyle Thomas, the band laid fallow until reforming in the early 2000's with its songwriting nexus of Wagner and guitarists Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin. The 2008 release of Simple Mind Condition reestablished the band's penchant for memorable guitar work and ensemble playing while demonstrating with tracks like "Arthur Brown's Whiskey Bar" and "The Beginning of Sorrows" that their creative bravery remained undiminished.
Citing the challenges of touring, Wagner left the band again after the album's release. Many claimed his departure and the passage of time left the band a dead issue, but they returned with a new studio album in 2013. Featuring Wagner's one time replacement Kyle Thomas, former front man for thrash metal pioneers Exhorder and other bands, The Distortion Field thundered with back-to-basics muscle Trouble hadn't exerted in years. Thomas' authoritative wail and wide range stamped the album and live performances with his powerful charisma. Many have written about the extraordinary difficulty, if not impossibility, of replacing key members in long standing bands. In the end, however, Trouble chose a vocalist with respect for the material and his own considerable, unique talents.
As 2014 winds down, the band is preparing to re-enter the studio and begin recording their next album. Careers this sturdy will likely not come again. Trouble have endured the slings and arrows of critical and commercial misfortune, but stayed their particular path and continued delivering their own truths in the form of song. God, blind chance, whatever you are presiding over the universe, please send us more Troubles to clear away the bullshit.
See the official Trouble website
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