The first time I heard Trouble was back around ’86, upon randomly picking up a used copy of The Skull at my local record shop based solely on its magnificent cover artwork. Yes, it’s an overly dusty story that likely doesn’t need repeating for the billionth time, but the 80s were a magical time of blind exploration in metal, with a great many purchases made without the benefit of knowing the music beforehand. Consequently, we had little choice but to judge books by their cover, and the spectral struggle between light and dark that was The Skull—done by a fellow named Gary Docken, who also did the cover for the debut…and apparently nothing else—was as dark, gloomy and tempting as anything by Mercyful Fate or Slayer, but with a surprisingly different perspective.
At the time, no one around me knew to call Trouble’s style “doom,” but suddenly finding myself in possession of and immersed in records such as The Skull, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, and the self-titled debut from Saint Vitus, I knew I’d somehow managed to stumble across a unique vibe that very much resonated with the decidedly moody, introverted kid I’d become who struggled with religion and “big picture” matters more than most knew, even my family. Suddenly, like a bolt from the heavens, this slow, decidedly weighty and contemplative style arrived and quickly established itself as a beacon to those who spent as much time in solemn solitude with their music as they did howling along with frantic buds to “Damage, Inc.” and “At Dawn They Sleep.”
All these years later, I still very much recall a strange notion of guilt for spending so much time listening to music that was predominantly dark and wicked, even if a lion-share of that wickedness was mostly for show. The music was rebellious and full of youthful fire, which is a huge part of why anyone becomes attracted to metal in the first place, but even back then I strived for balance, so I was always willing to give bands from the other side of the spectrum a shot in hopes of striking some sort of mystical deal with uncharted forces in the universe to prove I was at least giving peace the smallest of chances.
For the most part, though, Christian metal came across totally gutless and silly—certainly nothing to be cranked on a boombox from your garage amidst your friends. Trouble changed all of that. A record like The Skull felt just as sullen and pensive and outcast as I was during those formative years, but nestled within all that storm-tossed Sabbathian heaviness was this positive message concerning clemency and redemption being belted out by the tremendously unique voice of Eric Wagner, who was an absolute FORCE for righteousness amidst a veritable sea of gleeful sinners. The Skull was like an arrow to the heart, and with it came a lifelong gratitude and armor-plated devotion to double-dyed doom that still makes my heart feel as if it might burst at the seams when songs from the early Trouble records play amidst the darkest of hours. “We are not holy men,” Eric Wagner snarls on “Psalm 9” from Trouble’s seminal debut, “but at least we try / Try to serve as best we can / Sometimes I’d like to die…” And furthermore, where so many new bands labored to teleport listeners to faraway lands (also very appreciated), Eric Wagner and Trouble offered a benevolent hand to all who struggled right here and now in the real world: “Have you been discouraged? Hard times bringing you down? FIGHT ON! I know you can make it! Prove it to yourself!”
In short, this is my small way of stating that I remain very grateful for my chance encounter with Eric Wagner and Trouble all those years ago, because the band brought to light a very different perspective that, looking back on it, was exceedingly valiant within a burgeoning scene fully possessed by notably dark and broiling themes. Trouble offered balance and grace, and they did so by striking from the forge with metal that was every bit as steely as any of the other umpteen bands blazing new paths through the likes of Metal Blade, Roadrunner / Roadracer, Noise, et al. in those earliest of days.
We lost Eric Wagner on August 22nd to COVID pneumonia, which he contracted while on tour with The Obsessed here in the U.S., reportedly unvaccinated: A terribly unfortunate epilogue for a celebrated man who still had plenty of light and love to give.
We all walk our own path.
“I am trying to find my way
Through fields of hope
The only flame that burns inside
Is my mortal death.”
Rest in peace, Eric Wagner.