Music Over My Head – A King’s X Primer, Part 1

Generally speaking, artists are the sum of their influences. Narrow the scope of the influences and you narrow the scope of the art, and the artist will have a harder time separating his or her work from those that spawned it, and often, from those that surround it. Conversely, expand the scope of the influences, and the creation of a unique aesthetic becomes markedly easier.

Take parts of hard rock, Tin Pan Alley, opera, bubblegum, and whatever else flitted by that day, and you get the genre-twisting awesomeness of Queen. Swap most of those for down-tuned bleakness and occultism, and you get Black Sabbath. Substitute Celtic folk and soul music, and you get Thin Lizzy… Each of those bands is generally tossed under a “70s hard rock” header with the lunkheaded likes of Foghat or Ted Nugent, but each remains markedly different from the others.

By 1988, the “anything goes” ethos of the 60s and 70s was long past, and the hard rock scene was now well into its second generation, with most of the new artists harking directly back to the first wave. The Sunset Strip and MTV were up to their spandexed waists in Van Halen clones, or Aerosmith clones, or Alice Cooper clones, upstarts following the paths of the innovators. Looking back now, of course, we remember the bands that weren’t content to merely follow. 1988 was the year of …And Justice For All, of Operation: Mindcrime, and of Nothing’s Shocking. We remember those albums above the rest with good reason: Each of those albums had something unique that separated it from what came before – each expanded, and each pushed forward. But, lest we forget, 1988 was also the year of Bon Jovi’s enormous-selling New Jersey, a poor imitation of their other mega-hit Slippery When Wet, or the year of Vixen’s first, or of Britny Fox’s eponymous mascara fest…

1988 was also the year of Out Of The Silent Planet, the debut from a progressive-leaning trio from Missouri by way of Houston. Though it didn’t achieve any huge commercial success, Out Of The Silent Planet introduced a band that sounded both familiar and yet not like anything else. They would forever be lumped in with the bands that surrounded them chronologically, but they were something far more than big-haired pretty boys…

Still, that was 1988, and our story starts a bit earlier…


IN THE BEGINNING…

The King’s X tale begins almost a decade earlier, in 1979, in Springfield, Missouri, where bassist Doug Pinnick and drummer Jerry Gaskill met as part of a short-lived project with a member of Christian rockers Petra. When that collapsed, the rhythm section found themselves jobs as touring musicians backing up another Christian artist, guitarist Phil Keaggy. Gaskill would meet future King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor when Tabor’s band opened for them, and after the Keaggy tour ended, the guitarist and drummer would reconnect in another Springfield, Missouri band, which led them back to Pinnick. Eventually, after a brief period as a cover band quartet called The Edge, a departing rhythm guitarist pared the group down to the core that would become King’s X… after a short, independent foray into straight-up 80s rock as Sneak Preview. (Allegedly, the band was so unhappy with this 1983 album that they personally destroyed about half the available copies.)

In 1985, hoping for a deal with Star Song Records (then home of Petra, and later, Barren Cross and Bride), Sneak Preview moved to Houston, Texas. The record deal never materialized, but the band’s fortunes turned when they crossed paths with Sam Taylor, who worked for ZZ Top’s production company. Taylor would become the band’s mentor, manager, and producer, helping them shift away from that straight-ahead rock approach, adding more complexity and more sophisticated songwriting. That last factor would prove to be the band’s musical calling card, putting them head and shoulders above all but the absolute best of their peers, which brings us back to…


THE SILENT PLANET, NEBRASKA

Out Of The Silent Planet [1988, Megaforce]

Starting with about a minute of random noise, Out Of The Silent Planet lays the groundwork for the King’s X sound pretty much immediately thereafter. At this point, their songwriting hasn’t quite come together – certainly not when compared to what they’d do on their next four albums – but the template is in place, and early fan favorites like “King” and the ballad “Goldilox” showcase all the tricks King’s X would later perfect. Here are riffs that split the difference between Van Halen and the alternative rock to come; psychedelic-indebted melodies, with dazzling layered harmonies; here’s Pinnick’s soulful wailing against Tabor’s Lennon-esque tone; mostly importantly, here’s the subtly complex interplay between all three musicians… On Planet, the spiritual themes of later lyrics are much more straightforward – the band’s history with Christian rock would prove a blessing and a curse: They were embraced by that scene, and certainly their lyrics exhibited undeniable Christian leanings, but they also struggled with their faith, and eventually they’d be abandoned by those that nurtured them. But not for a while yet…

Ear Candy : King  ; Goldilox


Gretchen Goes To Nebraska   [1989, Megaforce]

While Silent Planet was a great opening shot, its follow-up would become a classic of progressive hard rock, the first of four consecutive killers that cemented King’s X as a band with very few peers. Gretchen Goes To Nebraska is a masterwork, from the psychedelia-hazed interwoven melodies of the opening track (the actual track “Out Of The Silent Planet”) through the joyous gospel-inspired “Over My Head,” which would prove to be the band’s first hit; from the stripped-down “The Difference (In The Garden Of St. Anne’s-On-The-Hill)” to the hard-driving “Mission.” Still, as great as all those songs are – and they’re all truly great – Gretchen’s centerpiece and finest moment is the spacey “Pleiades,” which marries some deft and heavy riffwork with those ethereal harmonies in a wonderful combination that perfectly exemplifies the King’s X aesthetic. Even nearly three decades later, “Pleiades” remains one of King’s X’s creative peaks and easily among their best songs. (Also of note: Both “Pleiades” and “Mission” are the band’s earliest released forays into criticizing aspects of their faith. The former tackles the burning of Giordano Bruno for heresy in 1600, and the latter lambasts some of the decade’s favorite targets, thieving preachers-for-profit.)

Ear Candy: Pleiades  ; Out Of The Silent Planet


FAITH, HOPE, KINGS, & DOGMEN

Faith Hope Love [1990, Megaforce]

Following up a classic is never easy – or I would imagine it isn’t; I’ve never had to do it – but the easiest path would seem to be straight ahead, to just keep doing what you do, which is what King’s X did. Faith Hope Love is the logical extension of Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, a further refinement that would prove to be their biggest commercial success. “We Are Finding Who We Are” couldn’t possibly be a more straightforward message, its sentiment applicable both to the band’s solidified vision and their focus as it shifts away from the direct themes of their earlier work. Lead single “It’s Love” is another psyche-prog radio gem, while “Moanjam” is a blistering rocker, the most metallic moment of their classic run, with some great guitar work from Tabor and the usual soulful greatness from Pinnick. “Six Broken Soldiers” is the first King’s X song to feature Gaskill on lead vocals, and it’s an interesting side-trip, albeit an odd one by any standard. Still, like Gretchen before it, Faith Hope Love is centered around another mid-tempo Tabor-voiced track: “Mr. Wilson” combines a Beatles-esque melody with more subtly heavy riffs and a passively venomous lyric – inspired allegedly by some legal dealings that left a bitter taste in the band’s collective mouth. It’s yet another of the band’s finest tracks.

Ear Candy: Mr. Wilson ; Moanjam


King’s X   [1991, Atlantic]

Both Gretchen and Faith were brilliant, but the former started a path of perfectly produced positive rock, and the latter perfected it, so when it came time for the follow-up, King’s X shifted to a darker, heavier direction. Maybe it was because they’d made two stellar records, had a minor hit, and yet success still wasn’t quite theirs for the taking, but the whole of this self-titled effort feels edgier, angrier, moodier. Lead single – and another classic King’s tune – “Black Flag” is literally about shaking off negativity and moving on, but even it’s a blacker turn than anything they’d done before. There’s no denying that King’s X is the dark horse of the band’s golden age, but it’s a sleeping giant, with unsung greats like “The Chariot Song” and “The World Around Me.” After getting to know the band with “Over My Head,” this was the first “new” King’s X album to me, and I was suitably impressed, but the best was still to come…

Ear Candy: Black Flag  ; The World Around Me


Dogman   [1994, Atlantic]

It took two years to follow their eponymous effort, but the wait was worth it: Dogman would prove to be the band’s finest hour. Producer / manager Sam Taylor was gone by this point – replaced behind the board by up-and-coming super-producer Brendan O’Brien. O’Brien made some of the greatest albums of the grunge era, before and after this one – and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament once famously proclaimed that King’s X invented grunge, so make of that what you will, so it was a natural fit. The new producer’s take on the King’s X sound would finally capture the heavier, stouter sound they needed, bring them the edge that finally erased the lily-white edges of Christian rock. The title track blasts out of the gate with no hesitation, straight into Pinnick’s impassioned vocal, backed up with the most bad-ass riff Tabor had (and has) ever written, just a perfect hard rock track and easily one of the finest of the decade. Elsewhere, you’ve got Pinnick’s killer groovy “Black The Sky” and the stomping “Shoes,” plus the classic King’s X-style ballad in “Cigarettes,” and a cover of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression.” Simply put: Dogman is one of the finest rock albums of the 90s, and it remains the band’s highwater mark even now.

Ear Candy: Black The Sky ; Dogman


LAST TIME ABOARD THE TRAIN
[THE END OF THE MAJOR LABEL ERA]

Ear Candy   [1996, Atlantic]

Where Dogman upped the ante on the band’s riffier, more muscular musical side in their sophisticated hard rock balance – and yet still didn’t make them superstars – Ear Candy would see them stripping back the complexity, making a more straight-ahead rock record, and though it certainly has some great tracks, it does lose a noticeable amount of the band’s charm in the process. After throwing all their best ideas at the wall for Dogman, Ear Candy feels like King’s X didn’t know exactly what to do – partly, they kept pushing on, and partly they recycled old ideas. “Picture” dates all the way back to the Sneak Preview days, then called “The Door,” and “Mississippi Moon” originated as a pre-Silent Planet track called “If I Could Fly.” Neither is a standout, but other cuts like the melodic “A Box” and opener “The Train” show they still had some great tunes up their collective sleeves. By no means a bad record, except the worst they’d released thusfar, Ear Candy didn’t break King’s X either, and after six records, Atlantic set them free to find their fate back in the underground…

Ear Candy: A Box


King’s X’s first decade of activity was by far their most successful, both commercially and musically, but that certainly isn’t meant to shortchange their next twenty years…  Check out Part 2 to see what I mean…

Posted by Andrew Edmunds

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; born in the cemetery, under the sign of the MOOOOOOON...

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