The process of becoming: Trouble and Pentagram

As the underground was forged throughout the 1980s, an explosion wrought in the crucible of punk, it took a special discipline to go against that grain. It may have gathered a larger following of tourists in the 2000s, but back then it was doom metal was decidedly not cool. The impact this had on traditional versions of the form played out in a number of ways. Whether it was the murky boisterousness of Saint Vitus, the unapologetic bombast of Candlemass, or the drabness of Pentagram. Away from the distractions of the extremity arms race of this time, it offers an interesting perspective on metal’s quest to overcome its routes. To shed the rock and blues origins that defined the proto metal of the 1970s.   

For their first few releases, Chicago’s Trouble straddled a few styles that they weaved together into their own brand of epic heavy metal. Along with Cirith Ungol, they could be called a kind of proto-power metal depending on which aspects of their sound you focus on. Their third LP, ‘Run to the Light’ released in 1987, sees them tie together classic NWOBHM  bombast with earlier, droning Sabbath inflections, resulting in a brand of metal that is both triumphant and foreboding. It tempers some of the more obnoxious traits found in the Iron Maiden school with a more contemplative side, resulting in what could only be described as pathos.

Production is nothing remarkable for the time. Eric Wagner’s soaring vocals (again not unlike Tim Baker of Cirith Ungol) come across as more defiant than overbearing when set to this battle between gloom and hope. This is also apparent in the way Trouble take traditional blues riffs and twist them into keys and shapes now associated with occultism. Of course by this point much has been made about the tritone, it’s relationship to fear of the devil, and the churches lasting aversion to it making it a fitting backbone for heavy metal. But rather than converting to satanism or succumbing to overwhelming sexual lust, let’s instead note how these are colliding against an undeniable knack for neoclassical leadwork present in the twin guitar attack on this album. Although Trouble frequently pick up the tempo, the overarching impression one is left with is of downbeat doom and grey skies, which lends a wonderfully drab colour to this album, not found in many of their contemporaries.

It’s telling as well that we see this play out in the rhythm section as well. We note the battle between the groove of traditional rock, and dare I say almost funky rhythms at times, and how these are placed next to the flatter, more straightforward rhythms associated with heavy metal, which by their directness offer a stronger backbone for rhythmic framing, odd fills, and more freedom to interplay with the riffs. Compare a track like ‘Tuesday’s Child’ with opener ‘The Misery Shows’ for an example of this. Nowhere is metal’s battle to overcome itself more apparent than in the lyrical themes. Wagner’s insistence on converting listeners to the state sanctioned death cult that is Christianity is made all the more sinister when set to this bombastic music. The manic street preacher promising of another world, all the while the metal that accompanies the voice is aspiring to more serious transcendental aims.

Pentagram are a band that should need no introduction here. Their second full length offering, 1987’s ‘Day of Reckoning’, reaches even further back, combining the suffocating doom of Sabbath with a sheen of Americana and roadhouse rock that would later become a staple of modern stoner doom. If Trouble took their cues from British heavy metal, Pentagram place their influences very firmly within classic rock and blues. When they do pick up the tempo, the outrageous simplicity to the riffs is borrowed more from punk than anything else. They shun the twin lead attack that had become a requirement in heavy metal by the mid 1980s. This more minimalist approach not only emphasises the drabness and sparsity of the riffs, but allows them to explore the spaces within this music.

For this reason, tone and layering would become much more important to stoner doom than it would for heavy metal, whose priority was always first and foremost to the riffs and their relationship to one another. Take any of the solos on ‘Day of Reckoning’ as an illustration of this. The melodic core has been hollowed out for the sake of creating a break with the music that preceded it, a contrast and not a progression, usually achieved by dropping out the rhythm guitar and applying liberal delay, in order to squeeze as much as humanly possible from each note. Whether this works or not is entirely dependant on how it links up with the music that surrounds it. It can offer an escalation of the drama, and provide a build into the next theme to be unpacked. Alternatively it can simply stop the music dead while we listen to what sounds like effects peddle fiddling. On ‘Day of Reckoning’ Pentagram achieve mixed results with this approach. ‘Burning Saviour’ is a great example of a gradual and patient progression of an idea from start to finish, that sees them once again attempt to transcend the proto-metal that birthed it, and empty space is used to comment and frame the riffs. ‘Broken Vows’ by contrast, although sounding ridiculously on trend despite being released in 1987, meanders without really taking the listener anywhere from start to finish.

Drums are again battling between the cheer of a bouncy groove, and a more straightforward rhythmic framework in which to augment complex fills and interplay with the guitars characteristic of metal. Liebling’s ghoulish vocals are as consistent as ever. Flexed with the bittersweet religious anxiety that characterised a lot of early metal. Despite its shortcomings as a work that taps into the epic and eternal spirit of metal, one has to admire the focus and streamlining that went into this release. The fact it is mastering two competing musical traditions into a unified work of apocalyptic doom metal is to be celebrated. The only major shortcoming being its tendency to dwell on layering guitar tones at the cost of advancing the narrative core of the music. The hordes of imitators that would later follow in Pentagram’s wake would be far more guilty of this however, and they remain a considerable cut above their many imitators.

Pretty close to call in terms of the pick for this week. Despite the class and charm to ‘Day of Reckoning’ however, one cannot help but conclude that it was an album that was holding metal back. There are many ways to buck the trend and swim against the tide of history, but looking even further to the past for answers without adding much in the way of originality or substance is not the favoured method to go about it. ‘Run to the Light’ is a far better example of metal finding its ambition and the full potential of its scope. And in the context of metal that wasn’t calling on the more extreme traits that were gaining traction by 1987, it is to be celebrated among the lexicon of albums that achieved a similar trait at this time.

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