What began as former members of Trouble getting together to play Trouble songs on stage every now and again, mostly at fests like Days of the Doomed and Stoner Hands of Doom, takes on new life with the release of a debut album. The Skull, named for Trouble’s 1985 sophomore outing and invariably linked to that band’s legacy in both sound and personnel — vocalist Eric Wagner, bassist Ron Holzner and drummer Jeff “Oly” Olson are former members — set a difficult task in distinguishing themselves from three-fifths of the lineup’s former act with For Those Which are Asleep, on Tee Pee Records, but ultimately, the album seems to be less about “not being Trouble“ and more about giving an honest take on a classic sound. By that I mean The Skull, lineup completed by guitarists Lothar Keller (Sacred Dawn) and Matt Goldsborough (ex-Pentagram), are neither trying to sound like Trouble nor not sound like Trouble. They’re working in a traditional doom style that Trouble helped to establish on the 10-track/50-minute offering, but songs like “The Touch of Reality,” “Send Judas Down” and “Till the Sun Turns Black” don’t feel like they’re beating a dead stylistic horse. If anything, The Skull sounds vibrant — or as vibrant as doom will allow, anyway — across the new, original songs, and with the key element of Wagner‘s voice working in their favor, they push a lot of what worked best about the moody stretches on the last Wagner-fronted Trouble album, 2007’s Simple Mind Condition, to heavier and more foreboding places, fueled by burly riffing and metallic groove equally comfortable in faster or slower paces.
For those who’ve mourned the loss of Trouble as they were — of course, they’ve continued on and released their The Distortion Field full-length (review here) last year — The Skull are about as close as it seems likely to get. Opener “Trapped inside My Mind” sets expectations high with stellar guitar interplay from Keller and Goldsborough, a speedy chug and Wagner pushing his voice into his trademark higher register delivery. At this point, he’s clearly more comfortable with the mid-range sorrowfulness of “Sick of it All” or the downer-suited drawl of “Send Judas Down,” one of For Those Which are Asleep‘s most effective hooks, but his voice continues to have the power and resonance in the higher-pitch parts to carry them ably. “The Touch of Reality” (streamed here) follows the opener with a lurching nod and representative lead work and gives way in turn to the depressive “Sick of it All,” the airy verse of which seems like the first moment of the album that steps back for a more dynamic breath. Wagner excels at conveying this kind of downtrodden emotionality — to put “defeat” as a specialty seems cruel, but the fact is he’s good at it — and “Sick of it All” is a particularly crushing lyric, the organ-laced “The Door” picking up with layers of piano, acoustic and electric guitar to preview some of what the title-track will hold on side B, Olson‘s kick a steady foundation beneath. More morose than dramatic, there’s still a sense of richness to the arrangement that serves the song well, and the more raucous, riffier “Send Judas Down” follows suit to snap the listener back to reality and close out the album’s first half in rocking fashion, the starts and stops of the verse thrusting into a crash-filled chorus of Sabbathian doom that moves into an airy midsection jam before eventually returning to a stripped-down verse redux and solo-topped chorus finale.
“A New Generation” and “Till the Sun Turns Black,” which open the second half of For Those Which are Asleep, are the two shortest cuts on the album, each at 4:11 (“Trapped inside My Mind” and “The Touch of Reality” were pretty close), and Wagner once again touches on the higher register for the first of them as he makes his way smoothly into the chorus of the straightforward chugger. Some off-mic shouting and a count-in start “Till the Sun Turns Black,” giving an in-studio feel that’s somewhat jarring for how full the production is but that works with the track’s livelier, more upbeat vibe. Both it and “A New Generation” before are catchy, no frills cuts that emphasize the timeless approach The Skull have taken on their debut, but things open up further stylistically with “For Those Which are Asleep,” the longest song at 7:14, which like “The Door” before it blends acoustics and electrics and a grander sense of arrangement to match its emergent consuming, plus-sized riff. Verses marked out by Olson‘s fervent hi-hat transition sharply into said riff, Keller, Goldsborough and Holzner obviously pushing for maximum impact as Wagner remains relatively calm over top. A midsection solo bridges back to the verse and a final chorus that move into a stopping finish that sounds closer-worthy and could’ve easily been the end of the album. It’s not. After the long fadeout of its title-track, For Those Which are Asleep rounds out with “Sometime Yesterday Mourning” and the Trouble cover, “The Last Judgment,” which were released earlier this year as The Skull‘s debut studio recordings on a CD single through Tee Pee (streamed here). I’m pretty sure the versions included here are the same Billy Anderson-recorded ones that appeared before, so it’s kind of curious that they’d be tacked on and not even referred to as bonus tracks or something like that, but there you go. “Sometime Yesterday Mourning” is no less welcome now than it was in Spring, and the Trouble song is likewise an excellent take on the track which originally appeared in 1983 on the Metal Massacre IV compilation.
That the Trouble song and first single also found their way onto the full-length makes for a startling end, but I won’t discount their value or that of the material before them. The Skull‘s debut benefits greatly from the pedigree and experience of the band’s members, and there’s no getting around the band’s link to Trouble – nor do I think they’re asking their audience to; they do close with that cover after all — but For Those Which are Asleep also marks the beginning of a branching out from that foundation, and hopefully it’s just the start of a progression that continues to take on a life of its own as it moves forward. For now, within classic doom, I can’t think of anything I could ask from these players that it doesn’t deliver.