Run To The Light: Rest In Peace Eric Wagner
The heavy metal world, specifically the stoner/doom corner awoke the morning of August 23rd, 2021, to the grim, gut-wrenching news that Eric Wagner, legendary vocalist of Chicago doom metal originators, Trouble, as well as his band for the better part of the last decade, The Skull, had died after a short fight with COVID pneumonia. It was announced less than a week ago that Wagner had been admitted to the hospital after contracting COVID while out on tour in the American south and southeast, with fellow doom legends The Obsessed. The Skull had also announced they would be cancelling their Psycho Las Vegas appearance due to Wagner’s hospitalization. It’s not hyperbole to call Eric Wagner a legend. In this genre, he most certainly was, a towering giant with a voice that howled over the crunching doom his bandmates played, all the while singing about subjects, that challenged his audience, especially in the 1980s.
Trouble first came into my consciousness in, or around, 84/85, with the release of Trouble/Psalm 9 on Metal Blade Records. I vividly remember seeing Metal Blade running new release advertisements for the band and album in such 80s metal rags like Hit Parader and Circus. However, my tastes in the mid 80s lay elsewhere. I wasn’t trying to hear a bunch of retro-Sabbath-inspired -hippies in headbands, and fringe, I wanted to hear some technical thrash metal like Metallica and Slayer, or some crossover thrash like D.R.I or straight hardcore like Bad Brains. As well, while being aware of the respect they had in the metal community, I wasn’t interested in anything spiritual back then. The term ‘white metal’ got thrown around a lot to describe Trouble back then, a term Wagner allegedly didn’t care for, and that turned me off as well. I was listening to Reign in Blood, Don’t Break The Oath, and Welcome to Hell in 1987, I didn’t want to hear anything about religion or spirituality that didn’t involve pentagrams and the goat lord himself.
It’s not hyperbole to call Eric Wagner a legend…
However, again, I was aware that guys I loved like James Hetfield were fans of the band. Corrosion of Conformity’s 1991 release Blind featured a group shot with drummer Reed Mullin (RIP, another legend himself who recently passed away) rocking a Trouble t-shirt on the back cover. So, when I finally came around, rediscovering the riff after almost a decade of garage and punk rock, in the late 90s Trouble were one of the first bands I dug into. Wagner‘s raspy, doomy, howl, coupled with the massive rifffage were one of my gateway drugs to stoner/doom/heavy rock & roll. His voice was so singular, you knew it was him the second you heard it, and along with Ozzy, Lee Dorian, Scott ‘Wino’ Weinrich, and Candlemass’s Johan Längqvist, Wagner came to epitomize the doom vocalist.
Trouble, most certainly, were one of the first doom metal bands. The only other comparison at the time of their debut release in 1987 were bands like the all-fathers themselves Black Sabbath, Witchfinder General, Pentagram, Saint Vitus, The Obsessed, and I’d venture to say side two of Black Flag’s My War. Other than the aforementioned bands, and album, there literally was nothing else like Trouble in 1987. The metal scene was dominated by thrash metal or shitty ‘hair metal’. Bands like Trouble were a total anomaly, which made them stand out even more. To say nothing of the crushing riffage and guitar tone presented by guitarist Bruce Franklin and Rick Wartelll. Wagner‘s anguished howl fit perfectly with the mega-riffs and thumping tempos.
The riffs and Wagner’s vocals across tracks like The Tempter, Assassin, Bastards Will Pay, and The Fall Of Lucifer are seared into most doom metal fans DNA…
Wagner’s lyrics, while spiritual, weren’t necessarily ‘religious’. He dealt with sorrow, fear, anguish, human beings at the end of their lives, remorse, loss, all super deep subjects, that again, were uncommon in 1987. Trouble/Psalm 9is considered a cornerstone of the doom genre, and sounds as massive, and crushing in 2021 as it did when it was released in 1987. Practically every track could be considered an early-classic of the then burgeoning doom metal genre. The riffs and Wagner’s vocals across tracks like The Tempter, Assassin, Bastards Will Pay, and The Fall Of Lucifer are seared into most doom metal fans DNA.
Trouble’s next two Metal Blade releases, The Skull, and Run To The Light are also considered early cornerstones, with The Skull being of particular note, so much so Wagner named his post-Trouble band after the album. The bands streak continued throughout the 90s with the Rick Rubin-produced, Def American-released self-titled Trouble. Rubin brought his production skills to the table, but none of the band’s trademark crunch was lost, if the songwriting veered to slightly less epic, doom-y fare. Songs like End Of My Daze and Psychotic Reaction while still heavy, crunchy, and obviously doom metal, offered a more straight-forward approach.
End Of My Daze and Psychotic Reaction while still heavy, crunchy, and obviously doom metal, offered a more straight-forward approach…
Manic Frustration, and Plastic Green Head are my personal favorites and the two I reach for the most these days. Both veered into more psychedelic territory, and I’m just a huge fan of songs like Manic Frustration’s Come Touch The Sky (man, that tone and riff!), The Sleeper and the ballad-y, introspective Rain and Memory’s Garden is probably in my top five-seven Trouble songs. Plastic Green Head’s face-melting Self-Titled opener is an all-time monster, quickly followed by the lurching doom of The Eye. Wagner left his long-time band after the recording and touring cycle for 2007s Simple Mind Condition, another excellent, if not a stone-cold classic Trouble release. Wagner then formed The Skull within a few years, with fellow ex-Trouble members bassist Ron Holzner and drummer Jeff ‘Oly’ Olson.
I’m compelled to also mention Wagner’s contributions to Dave Grohl’s Probot project, released on Southern Lord in 2004. Grohl imagined the project as an ode to all the underground metal vocalists he grew up with in the 80s. He wrote the music to each track with a particular vocalist in mind, with Wagner featuring on the track My Tortured Soul. The accolades Wagner received form such a high-profile, commercial musician as Grohl, and his contribution to the project only solidified his legend status.
The accolades Wagner received form such a high-profile, commercial musician as Grohl, and his contribution to the project only solidified his legend status…
The last decade plus, its semes like Wagner had really settled into, and accepted his role as one of doom metal’s godfathers. In the interviews I’ve read and watched over the years, he came across as thoughtful, intelligent, and introspective. His death has left a massive hole in the stoner/doom scene as well as heavy metal in general, and is extra tragic, as, if reports are true, Wagner was unvaccinated, and therefore, maybe could’ve avoided the worst of COVIID.
Wagner leaves behind a massive legacy, one that has defined the stoner/doom genre of heavy metal for the last 30 plus years and will continue to have a long-lasting impact on this genre for decades to come. People will be reaching for those first six Trouble records for as long as there’s an unquenchable appetite for loud, heavy guitar riffs, driving rhythms and, as an added bonus, a vocalist, who not only was original, one who also offered a unique take on rock & roll lyrics, pushing his audience to think past the standard clichés that are so often found in stoner/doom, and heavy metal in general.
Run to the light Eric, thanks for all the music and inspiration.
Label: Tee Pee Records
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Scribed by: Martin Williams