Sunday Old School: Trouble
Looking at how big and branched out the doom metal scene has become in recent years, one can't help but look back to the pioneers of the first wave of Black Sabbath/Coven worship. Besides Witchfinder General, Candlemass, St. Vitus and Pentagram, there is the almighty Trouble. I respect the hell out of this band for its sheer heaviness and iconic style, making them a true American treasure. I've had the pleasure of seeing this great band live three times in my life, each time a complete and total assault of my auditory senses.
Back in the late seventies, guitarist Bruce Franklin and vocalist Eric Wagner were in a high school band in Chicago by the name of Wisecrack and eventually joined guitarist Rick Wartell to form Trouble. The line-up was rounded out with Tim Brown on bass and Jeff 'Oly' Olson on drums. By 1983 the bass was taken over by Sean McAllister, who had ironically borrowed a bass guitar from the man who would become Trouble's bassist for sixteen years - Ron Holzner, who had went to school with Trouble's number one roadie. Jeff Olson was from Maine, but his family had relocated to Chicago where he attended high school. The rest is history.
"Last Judgement" was the song that got Trouble signed to Metal Blade and ended up on the Metal Massacre IV compilation. From its onset, Trouble was one of the few bands in the scene not doing thrash or glam. They kept it heavy, low and downtuned - creating doom metal before the genre actually got labeled that. Eric Wagner was the consummate 60's flower child, deriving his influences from such acts as Pink Floyd and Iron Butterfly's first album "Heavy." The rest of the band shared his retro vision and they set about releasing that first self-titled slab of tunes in 1984, which later got referred to as "Psalm 9" after that mantraesque song from it. A B-side for the Cream classic "The Tales of Brave Ulysses" also came out around the same time.
That first Trouble album, which the band spent eight thousand dollars producing, continues to be a timeless classic to this day. "Bastards Will Pay" and "Assassin" are some of the heaviest no-nonsense material ever recorded, crushing your speakers like heavy farm equipment playing bumper cars. The lyrics on that album are sometimes spiritual, which led to Metal Blade randomly classifying them as 'white metal.' This tag hindered the band and years later Wagner would lament over it.
Sure, there were Christians in the band like Jeff Olson, but the main meaning Trouble wanted to convey was that they didn't want to sing about Satan. This was a vibe Eric just didn't get into. In fact, "The Fall of Lucifer" was probably the closest Trouble ever came to singing about the dark lord - and it was a condemnation of him. I remember seeing Trouble tour with King Diamond around this time and the crowd wasn't as polarized as people might think. Heavy is heavy. Still, they didn't want the Christian tag, which sent out mixed messages along with Rick Wartell smoking a cigarette on the liner booklet of the "Psalm 9" CD.
1985 saw the release of that landmark second album "The Skull," perhaps one of the best displays of sheer force and epic pessimistic introspection ever put out on a record. Long tracks such as "The Wish" (originally titled "Death Wish," I do believe) chronicle Eric's inner demons and struggles with substances, a subject matter the band has explored over and over throughout its subsequent albums. Ron Holzner entered the band after the album was put out, and Jeff Olson departed to go to Berklee School of Music. Press releases at the time had stated that he wanted to pursue being a preacher, which was something he only briefly considered. Jeff actually went and studied film scoring and further explored philosophy, ideology and religion. He's always been a bit of a pundit. Dennis Lesh took over the drumming in his wake.
"Run to the Light" was released in 1987, but for unknown reasons got a bad rap. I personally think it is a great album, perhaps on some levels more simplistic in the songwriting than the first two opuses. Trouble put out an official video for the title track, a great song that shows why these legends are so respected. It's a song about why people choose darkness over the positive side and a cool video. They dressed in seventies sartorial splendor, especially Eric in his duster, shades, tie-died shirt, cross chain and cowboy boots, and conveyed that loud and heavy style better than the average thrasher with leather, spikes and a baphomet belt buckle. During the tour for this album, Ted Kirkpatrick took over on drums before leaving to form his own band, Tourniquet.
After a few quiet years on the Trouble front, they re-emerged in the early nineties with a new label. 1990 marked the first of two releases on Rick Rubin's Def American label, Trouble's second self-titled release. Eric says in retrospect that Rick wanted to capitalize more on the rock/grunge movement that was going on, striving for more of a rock than a doom vibe in the band's sound. That may have been somewhat true with the beatlesque groove on the sequel to "The Misery Shows (pt. 2)," but much of the album was a very heavy outing like the killer song "Psychotic Reaction," which spawned another official video.
On this album and the next, "Manic Frustration," veteran Chicago drummer Barry Stern entered the franchise. Not only known for his two albums with street-cred thrash band Zoetrope, Stern was renowned for his expert drumming and singing for that band. Doing dual duties like that is not the easiest job by a longshot. Now the king of the cowbell lent his unusual style to Trouble and fit right in. He had the same hippie style and even crazier hair than Eric, and was very much a fan of rock'n'roll and doom - as long as it was true. "Manic Frustration," logo and music wise, headed more in the direction of slower rock/psychedelia. Songs such as "Memory's Garden" and "The Sleeper" were great rock songs, but might have distanced them from their doom origins and what listeners came to expect of the band.
Barry Stern left after these two albums in 1993 to go on 1994's Cathedral tour, replacing Pentagram's Joe Hasselvander on drums. He eventually joined forces briefly with Pantera on tour before putting out one album with Debris Inc. This signalled the return of Jeff Olson on Trouble's percussion. Years later, Jeff would say that learning to play Barry's parts was quite a challenge, since Barry was a southpaw. He was a lefty that played his cymbals while the groove was going, not stopping to hit a crash. Jeff's influence also transcended beyond drumming, though. He'd have keyboards behind the percussion for sound effects between live songs. There's a music student for you...
Trouble took a few years off and came back in 1995 on its third label, Music For Nations, and a sixth album - "Plastic Green Head." Anyone who actually believed that 'white metal' tag was in for a complete surprise with this one. Several of the songs on the album like the title track and "Opium Eater" were bona fide substance tunes. It came as no surprise years later when Eric said that this period was a lot of partying for the band, which spiralled into depression. No need to sing about satan when you have your own devils inside. I saw Trouble for the third time on tour, when they supported Pantera just prior to this time. They had more pillar candles and smoke lighting up their stage than even Vital Remains had, nearly blowing Pantera off stage with those thundering guitars. Who would want to go on after these guys, since they always set the bar so high.
As with their second label experiencing financial problems and dropping them, this new label did little to kickstart Trouble's popularity - causing the band to drop out of sight again since they made absolutely nothing from "Plastic Green Head." In 1997 and through the next few years Exhorder singer Kyle Thomas took over the live capacity for a few gigs when Eric departed due to many reasons including burnout, a break from touring and a desire to concentrate on his new solo projects. A year earlier when he left, he formed LID with Danny Cavanagh of Anathema and the Reeves brothers - releasing a disc of sixties oriented pop "In the Mushroom" on Peaceville records. Eric had said at the time that if he ever did a second one with LID he wanted to play, too. (LID ended up re-releasing that album with a different cover, without consulting with Eric). Bruce also did a solo project with Jeff Olson, Supershine, on Metal Blade during these times, too.
In January of 2002, classic Trouble reunited once again to play a few shows in Chicago and at several metal festivals in the U.S. and Europe sporadically. Several Trouble tributes came out one after another. In one tribute track from 2004, Dave Grohl (an artist who has always cited his many metal roots in the underground pre-Nirvana) paid homage on Probot with Eric singing on the track "My Tortured Soul." Dave said that buying "Psalm 9" was like purchasing "Sgt. Pepper's" for him. Freedom Records also released the Bastards Will Pay tribute, which features a remake of "The Tempter." Psychedoomelic Records also did a tribute titled "End of Daze."
Digressing to 2002, right after Eric returned to Trouble Ron exited the band. In one interview years later, Ron attributed this to 'certain individuals being influenced by outside stuff' in a cryptic message he left at that. Also that year, his house burned down - so he had that pressing matter to deal with. Kyle graciously stepped aside to make room for Eric's return, even though he had demoed a few songs for the seventh album. In 2003, Trouble did a live DVD containing all its classic promo videos for its fans, available on the band's website. Leif from Candlemass convinced them to shoot a live DVD during a Swedish show with that band and Force of Evil. The latter band featured Michael Denner and Hank Shermann, whom the band knew from touring with King Diamond.
During this time started the super lengthy process of recording and releasing "Simple Mind Condition," the seventh album. Keep in mind that the track "Goin' Home" premiered in 2002 and it wasn't until a half a decade later that the album eventually came out. Then 2005 arrived with some sombering news. The metal community lost a great drummer when Barry Stern passed away on April 1st due to complications from hip surgery. Trouble ended up dedicating the album to his memory. They had secured a European release date for it on Escapi Music in 2007, but kept pushing it (and the "Unplugged" album) until it came out two years later than that stateside. Even the reissues of the first three albums came out earlier than "Simple Mind Condition." Before the U.S. release, Eric once again left the band after the Roadburn festival.
Back then he said "at this moment in time, all I want to do is write songs and work on my new project Blackfinger." He was burnt out and needed a fresh venue to engage in. If you haven't heard Blackfinger, Eric's music is truly alive with this project and it's just as pulverizing as vintage Trouble. Their first single, "All the Leaves are Brown" merely borrows a total of four verses from "California Dreamin" before cranking out the riffs and Wagner's killer vocals. It's amazing - Eric just turned 53 last month and he sounds just as good and rocks the mic like the proverbial hippie that he is, and has even more hair falling over his shades when he sings.
"Simple Mind Condition," while a highly capable rock album, seemed to run out of steam with some. It had a nice retro sixties sound and contained covers of the Beatles and Carole King songs. No sooner had the album been released, when a mass exodus of members ensued in the ranks of the band - except for the dual guitarists. Jeff started his band Retro Grave, Ron was already in Earthen Grave and Eric was busy with Blackfinger. The remaining bandmembers, Rick Wartell and Bruce Franklin announced that the new drummer would be Mark Lira of Wet Animal. Also from Wet Animal came Kory Clarke, who was better known as the vocalist for 90's band Warrior Soul. Rick Wartell had known him since 2006 when he did a gig with the band and was on the same bill with Kory's other side project Dirty Rig.
Trying to replace a legend like Eric was a hard enough job even for Kyle. It rarely works when you have someone else, even if they're good - just ask Tim 'Ripper' Owens. You can't just replace those classic songs and that legendary voice with someone else. The thing was, Kory is a different kind of metal vocalist and wasn't a good fit for the band. It would be like Jon Bon Jovi trying to replace Wino in St. Vitus. Four years later, after Kory left Trouble and slagged the band publicly, Eric - on the outside looking in - took the high road and said "he's good working with other projects."
They had recruited Kory after Kyle Thomas was unable to return due to recording obligations with his current band Alabama Thunderpussy. Trouble had never ended up putting bonus tracks with Kory singing on "Simple Mind Condition," although they had considered it. That amounted to being a very good thing indeed. Ron, Jeff and Eric ended up reconnecting in a very metal sort of way, which we'll get to. Jeff had left to go to Maine and because of the economics of funding flights and touring. Back in New England, he's a manager at Allagash Brewing Company, shipping beer all over the place. He and his wife Leigh have a blog called 'Heady Metal' and he hosts a great weekly radio show on Metal Messiah Radio.
It just so happens that all three of these ex-members' new bands were performing at the Days of the Doomed festival. This led to Jeff and Ron joining Eric onstage in Blackfinger and vice versa. They all joined in on "End of My Daze" and the crowd went wild and sang along. This made all three of them connect again in a way which was fun. One thing led to another and the trio decided to form their own band, The Skull. Just like that epically heavy second album title, they wanted to play the old doom direction with this band. You may ask, why not just reform Trouble with the whole classic line-up?
Well, it seems as if there are some big differences with the direction these three want to take as opposed to what the two guitarists want to embark upon. Eric thinks Kyle is good and knows he's a huge Trouble fan, but he himself wants to do old school doom. The dilemma, they say, lies in the fact that Rick and Bruce want a type of Trouble that is guitar-centric, sort of like the Kiss solo albums. Ron mentioned that Rick pulled the plug on two prospective Trouble reunions, which is unfortunate. Meanwhile, Trouble is working on its eighth album, half of the tracks which Kyle has already laid down with the band. Contrary to the rumors, it won't be titled "The Dark Riff."
So the three other members went about recruiting two guitar players that could jam in good unison. Jeff wanted Glenn Drover of Megadeth and Keri Kelli of Alice Cooper, which didn't come to pass. They ended up bringing Lothar Keller and Michael Carpenter from Sacred Dawn aboard. The two had known each other for twenty-five years and Lothar had known Ron from the days when he ran sound for Earthen Grave. The actual Trouble band has no problem with this 'tribute' band by the name of The Skull. Hey, all of them fit the roles. In fact, each of the members speaks fairly nicely about each other, which shows how deeply the ties still run.
In June, they plan to play the Days of the Doomed fest and have put the Hammer Of Doom Fest and the Hell's Pleasure Fest on their agenda. Jeff Olson mentioned that the two Trouble guitarists shied away from wanting to play material from the first two albums, but this trio embraces it wholeheartedly. In fact, those two albums and "Plastic Green Head" (ironically the only album all three of them actually appear on together) will be in The Skull's setlist. On their band page, they have asked twenty hard core Trouble fans which songs they would like to see performed live - and they plan to go with that. They mention that they haven't played some of these songs in years, so it should be a challenge.
The Skull is also writing new material and not too interested in fielding offers from labels, of which at least six have offered deals. Eric's not too keen on it since he's been royally screwed in the past. It doesn't look like vintage Trouble is reuniting anytime soon, but we do have two halves of the whole now - especially The Skull. These three guys have left the door open for a reunion and I would be surprised if it didn't eventually happen. Sometimes you have to step away to see what you really have to put things in perspective.
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