Walter Trout, familiar to most through his long career with John Mayall, Canned Heat and many other esteemed blues artists, has appeared on an astounding 42 albums during his career so far. It’s a fair bet, though, that Battle Scars contains his deepest, most soul searching songs yet, inspired as it is by a close brush with death that Trout endured last year.
Liver failure, plus a coma and the loss of 13 pints of blood – followed by a transplant and a slow recovery – tends to leave a mark on a man’s psyche, and it’s this switch in perspective that Trout explores on these 12 songs. As he reasons, each of the fans who donated to the $245,000 fundraising campaign that saved his life has a stake in Battle Scars, and therefore it needs to be great, not just good.
Fortunately, it’s one of the best electric blues albums likely to emerge this year. It’s dark stuff, of course, particularly on songs such as* Omaha*, a haunting account of death’s approach as Trout awaited a maddeningly elusive donor liver in intensive care. Almost Gone has that droned, threatening tone that all the best apocalyptic blues tunes have in spades, with relentless, fiery guitar solos and Trout’s gale-force harmonica work.
Cold, Cold Ground continues the gloomy introspection, rising and falling in dynamic to let Trout’s pessimistic lyrics about the end times through. Thankfully, there’s another, lighter side to Battle Scars, in which Trout expresses his relief and gratitude that he ultimately survived. Try Gonna Live Again, an acoustic ballad in which he ponders the fate that gave him more years on this side of the grass – and wonders why God let him off the hook.
Move On is a statement of renewed intent, boosted by a solid set of rock riffing. Fly Away is the obvious single. Standing out thanks to its full-fat chorus and a powerful vocal performance from Trout that makes him sound 20 years old, there’s not a 12-bar in sight.
Trout remained a robust interviewee through the bad times, so perhaps it follows that there’s a touch of blackened humour in My Ship Came In, a rueful reflection of the timing of his illness. Just before his brush with eternity, the Provogue label – his long-time home – had planned a ‘Year Of The Trout’, accompanying a reissue campaign celebrating his quarter century as a solo artist with major publicity. Trout’s liver failure meant all that had to be cancelled, with an entire year of tours falling by the wayside – just as his ship came in, hence the title.
If you’re interested in Trout’s life until his near-fatal episode, read his autobiography Rescued From Reality, written with Henry Yates of this magazine. In the meantime, Battle Scars’ cover says it all: it’s a portrait of a man who has been to the brink and back. These songs expertly soundtrack that terrible journey, and the redemption that followed.