Back around 1998 or so, when I first started getting into doom and stoner metal, I came across a list in Guitar magazine detailing the 10 most influential stoner albums, or something like that. Atop the list sat a band called Saint Vitus, with their seminal 1986 release Born Too Late. I desperately sought out the album at the time, but back then it was kind of difficult to get one’s hands on a rare release, particularly doom metal in Kent, OH. My search came up empty, though I was able to eventually find some material from Vitus’ frontman, Scott Weinrich.
My first introduction to Scott “Wino” Weinrich came via The Church Within, the 1994 release from his other band, The Obsessed. Now I’ve heard through the years that Wino is basically the godfather of American doom, but The Church Within did absolutely nothing for me. I don’t know if I have a more boring album my collection. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s just not memorable in any way, shape, or form. It’s just kind of there, a collection of doomy riffs and gloomy lyrics. I’ve probably listened to the CD 5 times in the 10 or so years that it’s been in my collection, and I can’t think of anything to say about it. This ambivalence kind of led to the end of my pursuit of Saint Vitus albums over the years. Fifteen years later, I decided it was time to check out Born Too Late as part of this exercise, and through the 21st century magic of Amazon, I had a copy in hand within a matter of days.
My first impression of Born Too Late was, “Hmm, did I accidentally put in The Obsessed album?” This is supposed to be THE doom metal album of the 80’s, right? According to several trusted review sites, this album should absolutely rule. I’m just not feeling it. The album leads off with the title track, in which Wino complains about people scoffing at his out-of-date clothing and music. It comes off as Wino saying, “Look how fucking old school I am.” I’ve never really been into superficial, personal lyrics like that, so it was a huge turnoff from the get-go. Also, the riffs just aren’t there. Sure, they’re playing super slow at a time when everyone else, particularly in LA, was trying to be the fastest band on the planet, but it almost feels like a gimmick to me. “Dude, we’re so stoned that we’re playing super slow, man.” The lyrics get a little less ridiculous as the album rolls on, but overall they’re just goofy and the music never really jumps out. It’s just doom for doom’s sake, slow and boring. This might have been pretty wild back in ’86, but with 27+ years of hindsight and countless doom releases, this one just falls flat. It looks like The Church Within is going to have some company on the bottom shelf.
Much like my introduction to Wino Weinrich’s musical catalogue, my first taste of Pentagram left a bad taste in my mouth. I stumbled upon a copy of 2001’s Sub-Basement in a record store somewhere around 2002 and I was severely disappointed. Other than the ridiculous pictures of a ghost-like Bobby Liebling, the album provided zero enjoyment. A few years ago I happened to catch a documentary on Netflix called Last Days Here, detailing the astounding story of Pentagram and Liebling, the band’s vocalist and songwriter. Pentagram dates all the way back to the early 70’s but never released any proper material until the 1980’s. Now in his 50’s, Liebling is a lost-cause crack addict living in his parents’ basement, or sub-basement, I guess. The whole thing was just ludicrous and that should’ve been the end of my Pentagram interest because, really, who wants to support a dude like that? However…the riffs in the background of Last Days Here…Man, those riffs; maybe just one more chance, right?
Now, due to the band’s inability to get their shit together in the 70’s, Pentagram’s first proper release was 1985’s Relentless, which seemed like as good a place as any to start. As soon I popped in the CD, I was blown away. These guys just kick ass, riff after riff, song after song. I’ve never subscribed to the theory that all doom needs to be 60 bpm like the guys from Saint Vitus, so this was a pleasant change of pace. Relentless is full of mid-paced doom that keeps the head banging from start to finish. This stuff is on par with classic Sabbath, which shouldn’t surprise anyone because these guys were actually Sabbath’s contemporaries in the 70’s, even though they were operating under the radar.
I do have a couple of complaints with Relentless. The levels vary quite a bit across the album, almost as if this is more of a collection of songs recorded across multiple trips to the studio. I have no idea if that’s true, but it wouldn’t surprise me from a band with a crack-addict lead singer. It was probably a chore to get that dude in the studio for one song, let alone a whole album. Along the same lines, sometimes it sounds like Liebling is reading his lyrics off of a sheet of paper, like he just wrote them 5 minutes ago and never actually rehearsed them to see if they fit with the song. The lyrics are good; much better than anything Wino sang on Born Too Late, but maybe a little rushed in places. Those are minor quibbles, though. Overall, Relentless is a fantastic album. It’s a shame these guys couldn’t get their shit together sooner. I’ll be checking out more of their 80’s stuff soon and I’ve already reserved a space for a Pentagram patch on the old denim vest.
Also listed in the aforementioned Guitar magazine article was a Chicago band called Trouble, who sounded intriguing. However, the article also mentioned that Trouble incorporated Christian-themed lyrics into their brand of doom. That was pretty much the end of that for 18 year old me. Christian doom? Get the fuck outta here. I’m not sure what changed over the next several years, but a year or so ago I found myself drawn to these guys again. As I became slightly more open-minded in my old age, I thought I’d take a chance and see if I was missing out on something. Yes, yes I was.
Psalm 9 starts off with a crushing doom riff and then shifts into a proto-thrash riff that just slays. Eric Wagner’s voice is certainly unique, but I think it fits fine with the music. The way these guys shift back and forth with their time signatures is just killer. When they just go all-in on the thrash side, like they do on “Assassin” and “Bastards Will Pay”, they’re at their peak. Honestly, the Christian stuff doesn’t bother me at all here. It’s not preachy; it’s more like background info or something. It’s kind of bizarre at first, but it’s really just kind of there. It works. It really gives the album a totally different feel than anything else out there. It’s almost creepy, in a way. There’s also the added bonus of some dude in the band who is dressed like a total 60’s hippy in the album’s promo photos. He had some balls to pull that off in 1984, but he didn’t feel the need to talk about like Wino did. He’s just a dude in a band and he doesn't give a fuck what you think.
I’ve since checked out Trouble’s subsequent releases, The Skull and Run To The Light. Both have their strong moments, but I think Eric Wagner was going through some personal issues and he just didn’t bring his A-game like he did on Psalm 9. I would recommend both albums, for sure, but if you’re new to Trouble, I suggest you start with Psalm 9. This is 80’s doom at its near apex. Trouble kind of shifted gears to a psychedelic/stoner rock band in the 90’s, which is cool, but other bands were doing it better at that point.
Now we get to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) portion of the program. I’ve been avoiding Witchfinder General all of these years because I just never really got into the NWOBHM scene. To me, it just sounded like a bunch of second-rate Iron Maiden cover bands with terrible, pansy singers. I mean, Def Leppard came out of that mess, right? Even Bruce Dickinson’s pre-Maiden band, Samson, was a disaster. Why should I bother with a doom-like band coming out of that scene? Well I’m willing to take a bullet for my readers, so I finally gave in and picked up a copy of Witchfinder General’s 1982 debut, Death Penalty. The album cover features a topless woman, some pilgrims and a cemetery. That’s a pretty good start. Can the album's contents live up to the cover? Sadly, no dice.
There are some solid Sabbath-worship riffs on Death Penalty. Unfortunately, they are worshipping late 70’s Sabbath like Sabotage and Never Say Die, when Sabbath just weren’t getting it done anymore. It all just sounds a little too upbeat and cheerful to be considered doom. Mixing Maiden and Sabbath should be awesome in theory, but so would pot roast flavored ice cream. It’s just not working for these guys. On top of the musical failures, the singer sounds like a shitty Don Dokken, and I don’t really like Don Dokken. There are some really awful lyrics here, too. “Mushroom tea, a toke of weed/Amphetamine is real good speed”…come on, guys. Did you write that when you were 15 years old? Let’s grow up and sing about some doom.
I guess there’s probably a good reason why these guys only released one more album before they, in the words of Mike Tyson, “faded into Bolivia.” They just didn’t have it. I’m guessing they probably just got signed in the wake of NWOBHM mania, kind of like all of the shit that came flooding out of Seattle and elsewhere in the post-grunge hysteria. These guys are like the Candlebox of the NWOBHM movement. It’s always interesting to go back and look at some of these NWOBHM bands, but I always come away unimpressed. If anyone has any recommendations, I’m all ears. Unless you recommend Saxon. Then we can’t be friends.
Saint Vitus – Born Too Late: Nope
Pentagram – Relentless: Yep
Trouble – Psalm 9: Yep
Witchfinder General – Death Penalty: Nope
Candlemass – Epicus Doomicus Metallicus: Still the Champ