I miss Trouble. A lot. They were and still are my favorite American doom outfit, and they had a special sound and vibe all their own. A big part of their charm was the one of a kind vocals of Eric Wagner. When he left the band, I knew it would be downhill for them, and boy was I ever right. The Skull was originally formed by Wagner and other former Trouble members as a tribute band of sorts, but they eventually decided to record original material, resulting in 2014s For Those Which Are Asleep. The album wasn’t perfect, but it felt like a long-awaited Trouble revival and it made my heart feel only good things. Now four years later we get the followup, The Endless Road Turns Dark. No longer is the band composed mostly of disgruntled Trouble expats, but instead is a kind of doom supergroup. Wagner and former Trouble bassist Ron Holzner are still present, now joined by Brian Dixon (ex-Cathedral) on drums and Rob Wrong (Witch Mountain) on guitar. The sound still echoes classic Trouble, and perhaps even more so, with a heavier emphasis on guitar harmonies and ripping, trippy solos.
In case you haven’t already cottoned on, the reference point for all The Skull do is Trouble, from the guitar sound, to the song structures and moods ranging from glum to suicidal. The opening title track is like a trip down Memory’s Garden Lane, from the crushing riffs to Wagner’s “Robert Plant on heavy opiates” vocals. I suppose this should be a major knock against the band, but they do it so well, and no one else is using the sound these days, so why not? And the song itself is great. It bears the same downcast melancholy mixed with 60s and 70s psychedelic rock that made Trouble so interesting, but feels a wee bit heavier and darker. Wagner sounds great and it’s always a joy to hear him, and the guitar tandem of Lothar Keller and Rob Wrong make for a more potent combination than we heard last time, bringing greater intensity and gravitas to the sound. “Breathing Underwater” became a candidate for Song o’ the Year on the very first spin, weaving that magical blend of darkness, despair, and faint hope only the very best doom songs can muster. It’s a grimly beautiful tune and probably the best the band has managed yet. Wagner’s sad, world-weary vocals are perfect, and the guitar-work is subtle and restrained, becoming heavier at just the right moments. The minimalist solos at the midway point are icing on the gloom cake, excellently conceived and executed for maximum emotion.
The remainder of The Endless Road is a bit inconsistent however. Songs like “Ravenswood” capture the early 90s Trouble sound perfectly, and “As the Sun Draws Near” could have been on Manic Frustration and fit right in (translation: it rocks hard). Other’s like “The Longing,” while still good, feel a little underdeveloped and in need of fine tuning. “All That Remains (is True)” is bleak and depressive in all the right ways, but starts to drone during its back-half, short-circuiting what could be a top-shelf cut. These missteps are more than compensated for with odd but engaging tracks like “From Myself Depart,” and that classic Trouble swagger returns at the album’s end on “Thy Will Be Done,” mixed with a hint of Cathedral, leaving the listener with positive impressions and an aching heart.
Eric Wagner is one of my all time favorite singers, and he sounds great here. His unusual voice is still powerful and haunting and he uses it with restraint and veteran savvy to fit the mood and moment. The guitars take a step forward this time, complimenting the material in ways not heard on the debut. While the last album had faint traces of Pentagram in the riffing, those have faded away. Now the leads and beefed up harmonies use Wagner’s former band as the exclusive touchstone, and the stepped up soloing is a real boon, providing energy and emotion without wanking for wank’s sake. At 45 minutes, the album feels just right length-wise, and anything more would have led to diminishing returns.
I know Trouble is likely gone for good, and fans have to accept this is the way of all things, as they did with Bolt Thrower, Agalloch and other legendary acts. We move on and look for the next big thing, but always keep a place in our hearts for those once great. At least with The Skull around, some part of my beloved doom band lives on, and for that I am very thankful. The endless road isn’t totally dark just yet.