Trouble is a band that I grew up with – one of the few constants that have never fallen into the dusty section of my collection that never gets played. I’m not old enough to have experienced first-hand the impact of their first two classic albums, and my initial experience of them actually came quite by chance… Penny Lane Records in Liverpool (long since closed, sadly) used to have a ‘deletions’ section – stacks of fairly recent records that the label had pretty much given up on, so were available for just a few pounds. One Saturday in early 1992 a particular cassette in the deletions section grabbed my attention – it was Trouble’s self-titled Def American album. I still don’t know why it grabbed my attention because in 1992 I was wearing my Pearl Jam Alive t-shirt and that cover was the least cool thing in the world!
That £3.99 cassette led to me getting hold of everything Trouble had recorded before (and at the time that was a real challenge!), and everything they’ve released since. I’ve also seen them live on a handful of occasions, including the truly multi-colour (but mostly green) shows at Melkweg in Amsterdam and the fateful gig at Dingwall’s in London which turned out to be the last ever performance with Eric Wagner. So, when Hammerheart Records announced that they would be reissuing the full Trouble catalogue I was really pleased that finally someone was going to try and do them justice.
Reviews of reissues and remasters can sometimes seem somewhat redundant, particularly as most people’s ears wouldn’t pick up on the different mastering choices even if you painted a picture about it. However, when it comes to a band as important (both to music in general and to me personally) as Trouble there is always the chance that writing a piece like this might introduce someone to the band that previously hadn’t come across them. The idea that someone might come to Trouble afresh and begin their journey with this band is something I’m envious of, as there are very few bands in metal that have a discography as important and as strong as the boys from Illinois.
There is no getting away from the fact that these two albums aren’t the most revered records in Trouble’s history. You’d probably struggle to find any long time Trouble fan who would cite either album as their favourite. But that’s perhaps what makes revisiting them so fascinating… are they the mild curiosities that we remember them as, or are we actually talking about overlooked classics? I don’t think I’d be too controversial in broadly saying that the prevailing view is that Plastic Green Head is the album where Eric Wagner had a stronger influence than ever – resulting in Trouble’s most The Beatles-esque and psychedelic record, whilst Simple Mind Condition is a back-to-basics affair and probably the most straight forward heavy rock record they’ve ever made. Does the passage of time (and some judicious remastering) change these views?…
a doomy, psychedelic and sprawlingly wonderful mess of an album…
Working chronologically, we’ll start with Plastic Green Head, which was originally released in 1995 and was reissued on CD on 20th May, with the vinyl following later on in July. Plastic Green Head came out whilst grunge was still ruling the roost, and quite frankly after the artistically triumphant but ultimately career-stunting period on Rick Rubin’s Def American records, Plastic Green Head was birthed into a disinterested world. Which is a shame, because it is a doomy, psychedelic and sprawlingly wonderful mess of an album! It is probably Trouble’s most varied record with some of their heaviest stuff in the form of Below Me and their most out-there performances such as the covers of The Monkees favourite, Porpoise Song (I just love the organ backing up the guitars on this track), and The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows (I’m geographically qualified to comment on The Beatles covers, and this is a great one). There’s also just the merest hint of the boys taking on board what was happening over in Seattle with the likes of Opium Eater – it’s very easy to imagine Alice in Chains vocal harmonies over the top of this track.
Plastic Green Head was always a decent sounding album – with the possible note that some of Wagner’s vocals suffer from sibilance and the cymbals can be a touch fizzy. Yes, the guitars are drenched in modulation and delay effects, but somehow, they do manage to retain the intended power. Happily, the Hammerheart remaster focuses on that power, but not by simply crushing the hell out of the dynamics. The lower end has been subtly boosted no doubt, but to most people’s taste, this will be an improvement. So full marks for the mastering job. Does the quality of the remaster qualify this for a double-dip re-purchase for those who have the original?… probably not. But more importantly, anyone who wants a copy can now rest easy knowing that they don’t have to seek out a second-hand copy of the original release in order to get a good-sounding disc.
If Plastic Green Head arrived in the world with a whisper, then 2007’s Simple Mind Condition was released in accordance with the philosophical question ‘if a tree falls in a forest with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?’. Escapi Music tried valiantly to big up the fact that this was a comeback after twelve years in the recording wilderness, but in reality, it was only hardened Trouble fans that paid any attention. The likes of Mindbender, Seven and If I Only Had A Reason are great tracks – they have a real swagger – but then we have Pictures Of Life which sounds like someone trying to write a song in the style of the Trouble Def American years, but coming some way short. You then have the energy of Trouble Maker (although to my ears this time around this starts to sound a little bit like a heavy Velvet Revolver track! WTF?!) which is sapped by the bizarre curiosity that is Arthur Brown’s Whiskey Bar.
Simple Mind Condition is an easy listen, which isn’t something that is generally a complimentary comment when it comes to metal albums. It isn’t as heavy as the early albums; not as exploratory as Plastic Green Head; not as exciting as the Def American years. But that isn’t to say there isn’t anything to enjoy – there are some very strong songs here. The mix and mastering of the original CD is somewhat problematic. It’s quite boxed-in when it comes to the stereo image, and the overall quality of the recording reflects what I assume was a lower budget. So, in respect of the remaster which also arrived on CD on 20th May (no word on vinyl at the time of writing), I’d say that the new Hammerheart reissue of Simple Mind Condition is more of an improvement than Plastic Green Head. It boosts the overall volume a little, but overall, we see the same pleasant boosting of the lower-mids which, in this case, reaps greater rewards. If you are a lover of this album, then the sonics may just about justify putting your hand in your pocket. However, if you were in any doubt about splashing the cash then what makes this reissue more exciting is the inclusion, on CD for the first time, of a full live set from Stockholm in 2003.
what makes this reissue more exciting is the inclusion, on CD for the first time, of a full live set from Stockholm in 2003…
This set was previously issued in 2007 on the long out of print DVD entitled simply Live In Stockholm and having seen them on this short run of shows and seen the DVD many times, I can tell you this is top notch stuff! It really is a great setlist, and the band are clearly enjoying every second of it. The sound quality is exemplary – and for those who are familiar with the DVD, I’m happy to report that the mastering here is very similar, so the power of the band shines through. Will the CD overtake the DVD in my listening affections?… no it won’t, but it’s great to be able to listen to it in different settings, and for those who haven’t seen the DVD then this is a great opportunity to hear Trouble live at their very best. Indeed, for total newcomers, this live CD may be the very best possible introduction to Trouble as it covers all of the keystone songs of their career. So, we can now list Trouble alongside Thin Lizzy, Kiss, Motörhead and Johnny Cash as artists where my first recommendation would have to be a live set!
I don’t ever need an excuse or reason to go back and listen to Trouble – they are part of my regular aural diet – however, coming to these two albums from a slightly different angle of doing a review has perhaps made me listen more critically than I normally would. Listening in this way has really cemented my love of Plastic Green Head – it’s a great and varied record which hasn’t dated. It was always a good-sounding record, and this very subtle remaster bolsters its power even further. If Plastic Green Head isn’t in your collection, then Hammerheart Records are now offering you the chance to remedy that gap!
If I try to be as objective as humanly possible then I must admit that Simple Mind Condition is a slightly more pedestrian affair. It’s not a bad record, but it just doesn’t stand tall amongst its predecessors. This might be why Hammerheart have chosen to pair this album with the bonus live set. Make no bones about it – this Live In Stockholm set is worth the price of admission on its own – it is a brilliant documentation of one of metal’s most important acts at the top of their game. For the sake of the live set alone, Simple Mind Condition should be top of your shopping list.
Long live Trouble, and of course RIP Eric Wagner.
Scribed by: David J McLaren