Former Trouble singer Eric Wagner died of complications from COVID-19 in August 2021, at the age of 62. His band at the time, The Skull, had dropped off a scheduled US tour with The Obsessed after most of the band contracted the virus, but Wagner was the only unvaccinated member, and he was soon hospitalized with pneumonia, and died.
Wagner was a truly singular figure in American metal. He formed Trouble with guitarists Bruce Franklin and Rick Wartell (and an ever-changing array of bassists and drummers) in 1979; their downtuned sound owed a lot to Black Sabbath, with some psychedelic tinges present as well. (Their debut album ended with a cover of Cream‘s “Tales of Brave Ulysses.”) His vocals were the key, though — they were room-filling and captivating, melodic and gritty. He had a hoarse upper-register shriek, but it was tempered with a soulfulness reminiscent of Bad Company‘s Paul Rodgers. He was simply one of metal’s great singers, beloved by a few but not known by nearly enough.
Trouble signed with Metal Blade Records in 1984 and released three albums in four years: Psalm 9, The Skull, and Run to the Light. The band went on a three-year hiatus before signing with Def American and releasing their best album, a 1990 self-titled disc produced by Rick Rubin. That was followed by 1992’s Manic Frustration, their most overtly psychedelic album and effectively the end of their glory years — their next album, 1995’s Plastic Green Head, was barely released in the US.
Everything Wagner ever did — with Lid, Blackfinger, The Skull, and under his own name — was more or less in line with what he did on the first four Trouble albums. He kind of took a couplet from Saint Vitus‘s “Born Too Late” — “They say my songs are much too slow/But they don’t know the things I know” — and turned it into a lifelong artistic ethos. Trouble were sometimes called out for being an overtly Christian band, but anybody who said that had likely never noticed the Christian themes and imagery running through half the Ozzy-era Black Sabbath catalog. In any case, Wagner’s lyrics weren’t about trying to get other people to turn to Jesus as much as they were about him turning to Jesus when confronted with a cold and unfeeling universe. He portrayed himself as a despairing man seeking hope, rather than embracing the nihilism so common in doom metal.
In the Lonely Light of Mourning, released under Wagner’s own name last week, is no vault-scraping cash grab by the label; the album was a project in which he was fully invested, and it had a long gestation. He began working on it as far back as 2017 with drummer Dave Snyder, a former member of Trouble who was also in one of Wagner’s later bands, Blackfinger. The two spent four years working on the songs by phone and email, with other members of Blackfinger, Trouble and The Skull contributing, including guitarists Chuck Robinson, Lothar Keller and Doug Hakes, and bassists Ron Holzner, Sean McAllister, Tim Reeves, and Matt Cross. Guitarist Victor Griffin of Pentagram and Place of Skulls also appears on one track.
To the best of my knowledge, this is not a Blackstar situation, where an artist who knows they’re dying keeps that fact to themselves while crafting a final statement. Still, In the Lonely Light of Mourning has the feeling of a farewell. The songs are simple, taking hard-charging but relatively easy-to-play riffs and pounding drums and constructing sturdy frameworks. It’s a late-career effort in that sense; one recognizes the tendency, present in many artists’ work, to strip down to essentials after decades of effort, to have finally eliminated all tangents and identified the True Path. The biggest surprise is probably “If You Lost It All,” on which the guitars are replaced by Brian Gaona‘s mournful cello.
The titles of the album’s eight tracks (which drift by in just 37 minutes; Wagner has an old-schooler’s concision and sense of pacing) give an immediate hint of the album’s weightiness. “Rest in Place,” “Isolation,” “If You Lost It All,” “Walk With Me to the Sun,” “Wish You Well”… one gets the sense immediately that these are not going to be lightweight songs, and they’re not. Wagner sings “Where will i be this time tomorrow/If i die today/Will you remember i was even here/By the end of the day,” and the fact that he uses a lower-case “i” in the lyric sheet adds an additional element of what saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre referred to with the title of his classic 1969 album: Humility in the Light of [the] Creator.
The final verse and chorus of the album’s last track, “Wish You Well,” end things on a note of what feels like deathbed wisdom: “Here i am now/Closer to the light/i know/It’s gonna be all right/Awakening/To who i really am/If you are in heaven… or in hell/Either way i wish you well.”
The thing about doom is that, like the blues, it’s not depressing. (OK, funeral doom is sort of second-order depressing, in that you feel bad for the musicians playing it.) It’s cathartic, even celebratory, particularly in its classicist Sabbath/biker incarnations. Sure, bands like Saint Vitus, Pentagram, the Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, Earthride, et al. may have tuned low and played slow, but the point was to come out on the other side of the despair the songs seemed to incarnate. Wagner always recognized this, and it comes through in every roaring, headbanging note of cranked-up songs like “Maybe Tomorrow,” “Isolation,” and “Walk With Me to the Sun.” And the production on In the Lonely Light of Mourning has a deep, thick, organic feel, without relying on any cheesy “realness” tropes like count-ins or amplifier buzz.
In some ways, this is just one more Eric Wagner record, just the way 2015’s Bad Magic was just one more Motörhead album… until it turned out to be the last one. Wagner stayed on the path as long as he could, and while In the Lonely Light of Mourning may feel like him waving goodbye, it’s really him returning once more to the themes he grappled with for his entire artistic life.