ERIC WAGNER “In The Lonely Light of Mourning”

By The Great Sun Jester

It’s impossible to review Eric Wagner’s posthumous solo album “In the Lonely Light of Mourning” removed from his untimely death. I’ve tried. These eight songs will never slip out of the long shadow his passing casts over them.

Perhaps it is just as well. They were fated to stand out anyway for other reasons. The theme of departure is rife at every turn, tinged with melancholy, and deliberate. There are breathtaking moments, as well, whenever poses or personas Eric Wagner adopted over three decades in music fall away and listeners see and hear the man behind the masks of performer, doom metal legend, songwriter.

He sounds exhausted. It isn’t exhaustion as defeat, however, a listless and disillusioned Wagner staggering over the finish line. Instead, there’s inner peace in songs such as the opener “Rest in Place” and when he sings “We’ve come full circle, my friends”, it is hard-eyed and knowing rather than gray with despair.

The bass line beginning the cut is simple and direct. Wagner discovered one of his best songwriting partners with drummer David Snyder and his contributions seamlessly blend into the landscape. “Maybe Tomorrow” builds around a strong riff with staccato phrasing but shifts gears several times without ever sacrificing its momentum. The song has definite melodic value, as well, particularly the guitar solo.

“Isolation” bristles with anger, but never sounds sanctimonious. He has empathy for even those he points the finger at, but heartache lies beyond all of that. Wagner has always been doom metal’s disappointed optimist par excellence, always hoping to find life at its best, and invariably wounded by what he sees. Don’t overlook this track, even if it isn’t one of the album’s major works.

“If You Lost It All” is a revelation. I thought of the perhaps fictional story that Bob Dylan said his song “Tangled Up in Blue” took him ten years to live and a year to write when I first finished the song, and my opinion hasn’t changed. This is a human being looking back over a lifetime of decisions and reaching the conclusion they lost the plot far too many times. It isn’t self-lacerating, there’s forgiveness, but Wagner’s unblinking vulnerability, plain-spoken poetry, and the minimalist yet spot-on arrangement carries us deeper into his “broken heart” than ever before.

He covers familiar thematic ground during the late album cut “Walk With Me to the Sun” but it isn’t self-imitation. We can hear Wagner, at the end, still finding new variations on his core “voice” and some of the song’s lines are arresting without ever overshadowing the song’s overall message. The title song welcomes the talents of legendary PLACE OF SKULLS and PENTAGRAM guitarist Victor Griffin; it’s a long-overdue marriage of these two talents.

If you, however, expect a bombastic riffer from the merger, prepare for disappointment. The spartan arrangement dominating the bulk of the recording forces listeners to focus on Wagner’s vocal and lyrical contributions more than before. It isn’t a chore when you’re hearing some of his best lyrics. Griffin’s playing exhibits the same canny instincts that allow him to move between PLACE OF SKULLS and PENTAGRAM without missing a beat. He puts a muscular exclamation point on the performance without ever shifting the spotlight away from Wagner’s voice. His lead guitar contributions color the track with impassioned blues.

“Wish You Well” brings down the curtain with a slight note of surprise. Closing the album with an uptempo rocker is an unexpected move that pays off, however, for listeners. It’s one of his best efforts in years at this sort of unbridled rocker and ends “In the Lonely Light of Mourning” on an appropriate emotional note. It is no stretch to say that this is an important final studio release from a major artist; any considerations of genre can go to hell. Rest in peace, Eric.