Blackfinger, Blackfinger: The Color of Time

It’s unavoidable when it comes to Blackfinger, so one might as well just come out and say it: Yes, Eric Wagner used to be in Trouble, and as a member of that band he had a hand in crafting some of the best American doom ever and cementing a legacy that has spent three decades rippling outward from their Chicago hometown. All of this is true. It’s also true that Wagner isn’t in Trouble anymore, and while he’s also joined forces in The Skull with fellow Trouble alums Ron Holzner (bass) and Jeff “Oly” Olson (drums), the five-piece project Blackfinger has been looming in the background for several years now — Wagner was interviewed here about it in 2011, and the name was tossed around at least a year earlier than that in connection with Dark Star Records, who now handles the digital release of Blackfinger‘s self-titled debut, while The Church Within presses the CD and vinyl. On the album, Wagner is joined by guitarists Rico Bianchi and Doug Hakes, bassist Ben Smith (since replaced by Willie Max, also of Spillage) and drummer Larry Piatz, and those who’d approach it thinking they’ll get a port of Trouble‘s doom probably haven’t been paying attention either to Blackfinger‘s development or the last for records Trouble put out before Wagner left in 2008.

Blackfinger‘s Blackfinger may touch on some of the same ideas as material from Wagner‘s past — the short “All the Leaves are Brown,” which was also an advance single, has a classically driving head-down motor-riff, and cuts like “Why God” and “Till Death Do Us Part” offer some immediately familiar swinging rhythms — but the album overall presents a personality distinct from Trouble both in where it wants to go and how it gets there, however impossible it may be to view the one without the context of the other. Notably, the piano- and string-infused “As Long as I’m with You,” the particularly Floydian strums of “For One More Day” and the intimate acoustic-led finish of highlight “Keep Fallin’ Down” present a depth of mood and breadth of songwriting that, to compare, Trouble had little interest in displaying on their 2013 post-Wagner outing, The Distortion Field (review here). Taken in combination with rockers like “Yellowood,” with its lurching starts and stops, and guitar-fueled fare like “My Many Colored Days,” “Till Death Do Us Part” and “Here Comes the Rain,” Blackfinger comes across as more varied and a richer listening experience. Opener “I am Jon” and the fourth track, “On Tuesday Morning,” work to bridge the gap from one side to the other, so where it might otherwise come across as bipolar, the album flows well through these atmospheres.

Still, the prevailing mood is melancholic, and that’s both due to and to the benefit of Wagner‘s voice, which in its semi-spoken, semi-accented affectation — a strong Beatles influence has been present in his work for a long time and is here as well — as on “I am Jon” presents the audience with a sort of bruised narrator, a speaker who’s felt the brunt not just of years but of other people. In that regard, “Till Death Do Us Part” is a standout, the title obviously a reference to marriage vows also made in the chorus of what emerges on the penultimate track as a pure divorce tale. The inherent flaw with any song about that kind of thing is it’s one-sided, but Wagner presents emotionally-weighted ideas in straightforward language — if one wanted to stretch for an interpretation, he could just as easily be talking about Trouble as an actual marriage, but to argue in favor of the marriage interpretation I’ll offer the line about a couple drinking tea — and the music behind him follows suit as his voice moves into his patented higher-register delivery; as much a trademark in metal as anything could hope to become. There’s little flash in Blackfinger‘s Blackfinger. Heavier songs like “Yellowood” and “Why God” and even “All the Leaves are Brown,” which is the only song here under three minutes long and also the fastest, present workman riffs in traditional structures. Wagner‘s presence and the context of his past give a doomed sensibility to the proceedings — if the cover art hadn’t already — but really, the bulk of the album doesn’t seem to want to be indebted to that genre more than any other.

This ultimately works in favor of the songs, allowing that arrangement elements like Smith‘s stand-up bass or the piano and strings on “As Long as I’m with You” to shine without being against this or that aesthetic dogma and bolstering an already sincere feel throughout. With 11 tracks in 43 minutes, Blackfinger do not veer far from traditional verses and choruses, but neither do they need to, since those verses and choruses are strong and memorable enough to carry through, and variety is had in terms of the moods and arrangements. For themes and impressions, one might look at titles, three of which reference “day” either in the context of naming a day or “days” as a general idea, or colors, “Yellowood,” “My Many Colored Days” and “All the Leaves are Brown” giving an earthy, autumnal introspection. The album itself works in these patterns, and while it’s very much Wagner‘s in terms of showcasing his voice, the maturity of songwriting like that evident in “For One More Day” and “Why God” is hard to come by without a full band working on the same page. Blackfinger has been a long time coming, and I’ve no doubt it will find audience among some of Trouble‘s converted, but its appeal by no means ends there, and if the years since it was announced were geared toward the band establishing its own presence as a manifestation of Wagner‘s craft, they were not misspent.

Blackfinger, Blackfinger Promo Video

Blackfinger’s website

The Church Within Records

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