One of the main things in understanding a genre of music is to eventually realize that it is both a set of basic “physical”/” concrete” elements – things like the riffing style, type of drumming, and style of vocals. But genres, as much as a certain wing of metalheads have a different time comprehending, is also by necessity an abstract & emotional thing, and how it evokes the certain feeling without necessarily conforming to the basic concrete ideas of it, tit-for-tat. The feeling matters as much as the actual physical presence of what’s being played (call it “Soul” if you really wanna go Full Boomer, I guess). This isn’t a call to be The Most Open Minded Musical Aesthetite Ever – in large part because it’s used as a graceless rhetorical cudgel, but that’s a way separate topic – but what I am saying is that understanding both is important to deepening your appreciation as music as an artform and defining your tastes/standards.
You’re probably wondering how the hell this all relates to today’s subject: Trouble’s Psalm 9, the legendary debut by one of the finest practitioners of the form. It’s pretty simple: Trouble was a very diverse band musically, in ways that weren’t necessarily stereotypical for doom metal in the early 80’s – but it 100% nails the overwhelming sense of dread, anxiety & anguish that defines most of the best doom groups various worldviews. And the band accomplishes this with a punishingly riffy, aggressive approach to the genre that’s as steeped in then-contemporary underground metal elements as much as it exacts Black Sabbath and late 60’s psychedelia.
Trouble is the kind of doom band for people who stereotypically bitch about most other doom bands being too slow. The bludgeoning opening “The Tempter” tells much of this story in a nutshell: the song is essentially based around two riffs – a tritone-laden, serpentine riff that sets up the opening verses, and then it is suddenly contrasted by the band slamming on the gas with a vicious CHUGGACHUGGA riff that sounds like a train coming to run over some poor bunch of souls. Both these are radically contrasting riff ideas – the riff that the faster parts of this song are based around could straight up pass for a thrash metal riff – but it’s the way the band sets it between the two with the structure & arrangement of the song. Both absolutely demand and need each other in context; they practically feed off each other. Trouble are absolute masters of tension and release, albeit in a way that’s basically the total opposite of what later doom bands did with the principle.
There’s a particular sort of musical diversity here that never sacrifices the band’s metallic bonafides, nor does it ever feel like the band is just throwing shit at the wall and hoping it sticks; rather, Trouble’s approach is part and parcel of a realized vision. On tracks like “Assassin” and “Bastards Will Pay”, the band’s twin-axe bludgeoning and occasional harmonies recall Judas Priest at their most aggressive, except it’s even more bludgeoning violent and heavy than all but the most fully realized moments of Priest’s career (and that isn’t a fuckin chump feat by any stretch). The way the guitars mesh with the drumming is a huge part of why it’s so goddamned heavy – the percussion here is fundamentally flashy, but also exactly groovy in ways that perfectly match the Sabbath-gone-Priest-gone-thrash pummeling of the riffage, and it does it without fail the entire record. The band’s use of harmony is really curious to me as well – they don’t whip it out a ton, but when they do, it almost always highlights a sense of alienation that lies at the core of these songs, and at other parts it straight up resembles 60’s psychedelia at its most morbidly weighty and nightmarish.
In a record as aggressively riffy and as centered on sudden tempo shifts, it’s really quite a wonder that Psalm 9 just doesn’t entirely fall apart. But it never does, because Trouble had a particular gift for structure & arrangement. It took me a long time to realize it myself, but a lot of this album basically works off a sort of “jigsaw puzzle” logic. The idea is that a lot of these riff ideas are totally disparate and quiet different from each other, but it never devolves into a riff salad, where each part is entirely interchangeable with the next one. No, each passage requires the previous one to succeed and the next one does as well; the true power of the songwriting, as always, is based on the idea of how the individual riffs & passages play off each other in context. Aside for the opener, one of the best examples of it is “Victim of the Insane”, a trudging, bludgeoningly morose tune that resembles Sabbath at their best + an organ for its opening part. The song sounds it trudges to a conclusion following a solo that leads into a particularly low-key riff – before the band suddenly fakes out and slams on the gas again behind Eric Wagner’s insistent, ragged condemnations. It’s a seemingly out of nowhere climax that’s actually set up incredibly well by earlier in the song, and probably the best fake-out ending in a metal song that doesn’t belong to Motörhead’s “Overkill”. And I’ll be damned if that ain’t a feat to pull off.
Really, the whole album is just exceptional brilliance from start to finish; the riffage is some of the absolute finest to ever grace a doom metal record, it is consistently memorable throughout, and the way the band blends those disparate ideas – and, not for nothing, their stabs at psychedelia – into these wholly coherent, powerful tunes that brim with ragged dread & genuine rage behind the bludgeoning force is what makes this album special. Eric Wagner’s voice was the perfect complement for them, really – he isn’t a traditionally great singer, but his voice brims with raw passion, urgency; the sense of constant, gnawing anxiety emerging from the depths gives their music a unique sense of power & drive to the proceedings. Any metal collection without this album is a lesser one for it.
Favorite track: The Tempter
Album Rating: 98/100