It’s an oversimplification to say this distinctive trio’s music took five steps to go from trumpeting the “Power of Love” in near anthemic terms to ranting “Go to Hell” in unprintable ones — but not by that much. Along the way, King’s X established a voice, virtually lost it and then partially regained it, evidently by getting pissed off that they’d lost it in the first place.
Formed in 1980 in Springfield, Missouri as the Edge, the trio moved in ’85 to Houston, where former ZZ Top associate Sam Taylor became their manager, inked then to the alternametal Megaforce label and began co-producing their records. One factor that set them apart from run-of-the-mill hard-rock/metalers — and apparently made it tough to procure a major label deal — is that bassist/lead vocalist Doug Pinnick is black. What’s more, many of his lyrics are written from a clearly Christian perspective. (A stance endorsed by guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill.) Actually, most of the words aren’t specifically religious, seldom preach and are frequently thoughtful, evocative — even sensitive. (Out of the Silent Planet, and the song of the same name on Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, were titled in honor of the Christian sci-fi novel of that title by C.S. Lewis.) Add the unusual blend of influences — Hendrix, Metallica and Free, but also the Beatles, British prog-rock, black gospel — and you have a potent plan for eluding a mainstream pigeonhole.
The trio’s first two LPs did just that, although it was the mainstream’s loss: strong bass counterpoints powerful drums, guitars slash, crunch, chime and wail, high-harmony vocals surround the confined yet sincere soulfulness of Pinnick’s voice — all of which (and more) might happen in a single song: “In the New Age” and “Wonder” on Out of the Silent Planet and “I’ll Never Be the Same” and “Send a Message” on Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. On both albums, melodies are often derived from, or embellished by, great slithering riffs, creating a tantalizing contrast, tension even, between their precision and the guitar and vocal passion. The debut is simpler and a tad more ponderous, the second (with better sound) is ambitious enough to blend in elements like pipe organ (played by Taylor) and Tabor’s sitar, dulcimer and wooden flute. Both albums grow in stature with repeated listening.
Problems crop up on Faith Hope Love — unnecessary codas and sonic extras (recorder, cellos, french horn, additional backing vox) that come across as overkill rather than clever adornments. The lyrics are more ham-handed, even pushy. Generally, the killer riffs and bluesy chords are harder to find. The harmonies sound less like the Fab Four and more like blanded-out Crosby Stills and Nash. Some may have been dismayed by the anti-abortion sentiments of “Legal Kill”; “Mr Wilson” appears to be an oblique statement against capital punishment. “Its Love” finally garnered the group airplay (and not undeservedly), but it’s clearly a trivialization of the group’s virtues.
King’s X finds the band off Megaforce, with Taylor getting co-writing credit on all songs and acting as sole producer. Though less bloated than Faith Hope Love, it’s even more trivial; the only standouts, “Lost in Germany” and “Black Flag” (not about the band), would have been minor treats on either of the first two albums.
The trio signaled its new beginning — Sam Taylor had been sent packing — by kicking Dogman off with the title track, an aggressively ugly, crunching blues. The disc isn’t quite the step up that should have followed Gretchen: the songs take too long to kick in, and producer Brendan O’Brien’s live-in-the-studio approach yields sub-par sound, not particularly crisp and lacking a solid bottom. But the lyrics are back to early quality levels, if almost unremittingly negative: “The just and the unjust all walk side by side…is it a blessed thing to live?…sometimes I think the pain blows my mind.” That doesn’t even include “Go to Hell,” a minute of catchily cathartic punk rant with electronically muddied vocals and no printed lyrics. The standout, tucked between the grindcore-meets-the-blues of “Black the Sky” and “Don’t Care” (which sounds like a surly outtake from Silent Planet), is the stunning “Fool You.” The band’s bitter disappointment is given vivid, dimensional life by the anthemic, brilliantly arranged music. Varying the tone somewhat are the knowing escapism of “Pretend” and the self-mocking humor of “Complain.” “If I could find my magazine this bug would die.”
Dogman must gave purged the band’s bile, because Ear Candy is, hands down, the most consistently “pretty” album King’s X has made. It’s wreathed in gorgeously plangent guitars and full vocal harmonies. The band’s reorientation doesn’t sacrifice energy or presence, though. Even on such a laid-back album, the trio still kicks ass, as on the adrenalized opener, “The Train.” The lyrics are hardly fluff, either. Beyond the wistful reminiscences (Tabor’s “Mississippi Moon”) and hard-earned lessons (“A Box”), the songs crystallize new, mature stances. Received religious “wisdom” gets the treatment in “Lies in the Sand (the ballad of )” and “Run.” The punchy yet touching “Picture,” about Pinnick’s rapprochement with his father, and “Life Going By,” which subtly shifts from simple memories to implications of empowerment and responsibility, affirmatively close out an album that may be as close to Gretchen as they can now get.