The first part of this two-piece primer covered King’s X’s golden era, the ten years between their debut and the loss of their major label deal. Of the six records they released during that decade, at least three are undeniable classics of idiosyncratic hard rock, equal parts melodic and heavy, progressive and straightforward, positive and dark. Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, Dogman, and Faith Hope Love are all the work of a band that wasn’t content to fit snugly within the world around them, choosing instead to forge a sound all their own. The other three of those albums – the self-titled, the debut Out Of The Silent Planet, and Ear Candy – are all different degrees of good to great, the worst of them better than most bands’ finest output.
But worldwide stardom eluded our heroes, no matter how many great records they released, and after the disappointing commercial performance of Ear Candy, Atlantic Records dropped King’s X. Thereafter, bassist Doug Pinnick and guitarist Ty Tabor would take some time off to record solo projects – Tabor released Naomi’s Solar Pumpkin in 1997, and then reworked many tracks from it for Moonflower Lane a year later, while Pinnick’s Poundhound project released Massive Grooves From The Electric Church Of Psychofunkadelic Grungelism Rock Music, the title of which does as good a job of summarizing Pinnick’s musical style as anyone ever could.
Still, King’s X wasn’t finished, and all that brings us to….
TAPE HEAD & MR. BULBOUS IN THE MOONLIGHT
Tape Head [1998, Metal Blade]
Ear Candy saw King’s X stripping back the psychedelic tendencies in favor of a more straight-ahead hard rock sound, and Tape Head follows suit, but in better fashion. Whereas Ear Candy felt like the band wasn’t quite certain on this new direction, Tape Head is a much more accomplished attempt, largely because the songs are simply better. Tape Head isn’t the most immediate of King’s X records –it’s a little bit of a grower, although it has absolutely no bad tracks. The band has always had strong album openers, and here’s another one in the rocking “Groove Machine,” plus the stellar “Fade,” and then later tunes like Pinnick’s deceptively peppy “Hate You” – as in “You don’t know how much I…” – and the chugging chunk of “Higher Than God.” Most of us could’ve done without the goofy “Walter Bela Farkas” – a Zappa-like live gag freak-out named in honor of the guitarist of the Galactic Cowboys, longtime King’s X friends and collaborators – but it’s easily avoided at the end of the disc… Though it was no Dogman or Gretchen, Tape Head would prove itself to be a strong re-emergence of King’s X as an independent label outfit, although like those records before it, it would only further establish the band as the kings of the cult act.
Please Come Home… Mr. Bulbous [2000, Metal Blade]
King’s X always had a penchant for silliness – both the title of their breakthrough, Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, and the title of their finest album (Dogman) came from jokes – and surely the title of this one is no exception. Mr. Bulbous is a transitional album – it takes the more stripped down approach of Tape Head, and harks back a little further, but doesn’t want to embrace the band’s earlier sound. “Fish Bowl Man” offers promise, but doesn’t deliver once it gets hamstrung by a spoken-word midsection. “Julia” drifts along, hinting at the psyche-ballad greatness of prior King’s X, but also never catching fire – and those are emblematic of the album as a whole: Nothing is bad, per se, but it’s all not quite there, the sound of a band that can be far better than this but here as bland as the typeface they chose for the art. “Marsh Mellow Field” flirts with that earlier psychedelia, but feels like an outtake from Faith Hope Love, nothing really special in the end. Over multiple listens, Mr. Bulbous does coalesce better than upon initial exposure, but if you’re exploring the King’s X canon, it’s among the last places to start. Also, there’s a song called “Charlie Sheen,” for some reason… Because… I mean, why not, I guess…
Ear Candy: Julia
Manic Moonlight [2001, Metal Blade]
After the relatively weak Mr. Bulbous, Manic Moonlight starts strong, and then peters out into more mediocrity. “Believe” and the title track hint at better days, opening Moonlight with some great songwriting, but thereafter, the album just meanders, even less interesting than Bulbous. Some newfound electronic elements poke through, the first time King’s X had played with that element of modern rock, and all in, the whole album feels forced and unfocused. “False Alarm” is decent, but the robotic funkiness of “Skeptical Winds” is like an 80s Prince outtake played by a 90s hard rock band, and “Vegetable” mines a similar vein, to equally lukewarm results. All in all, Manic Moonlight is the least interesting album the band has ever released, and the creative tailspin that spawned it would push them all the way back to the beginning.
Ear Candy: Manic Moonlight
BLACK LIKE OGRE TONES XV
Black Like Sunday [2003, Metal Blade]
Dating back to some parts of Faith Hope Love, at least, King’s X had plundered their pre-Silent Planet catalog plenty of times, and sometimes to good results, but there was still enough material left over to comprise this entire album. After years of bootlegs and live versions and such, with Black Like Sunday, the fans get definitive recordings of early and unreleased material, and much of it shows its roots, that of a band still developing. The expansive experimentation of the golden years isn’t here, but that just helps Black Like Sunday fit more snugly in the less experimental second half of King’s X’s career. The title track mines one simple riff through the verses, although the chorus is more than strong enough to redeem that; and tragically, the “I just want to be a star” refrain of “Rock Pile” would prove to be depressingly un-prescient. Still, there are strong tracks here, most notably the title track and the grungy “Screamer.“ The refrain of “666” in the chorus of “Bad Luck” is dispelled with a laugh and a “just kidding” at the end, and the reggae-ish “Johnny” doesn’t quite work, replete with an awkward name-check of the B-52s, but more of Black Like Sunday is good than isn’t, and it’s an interesting snapshot of the band revisiting their earliest days.
Ogre Tones [2005, InsideOut]
After floundering for a minute with their back-to-back worst albums in Mr. Bulbous and Manic Moonlight, and then finding some inspiration by revisiting their roots with Black Like Sunday, King’s X came back with a new label, and with some of their heaviest riffs and most diverse songs in a dog(man)’s age. From the whisper-to-a-scream intro of “Alone,” Ogre Tones aims to back up its name with some of the band’s most metallic riffing. Still, they’re great at balancing the dark and the light, and they hadn’t seemed this inspired in ages. “Alone” is a rager, with a direct and effective chorus, buoyed by those signature harmonies and offset with Pinnick’s gospel-influenced wailing. “Fly” and “Hurricane” are more in line with the Dogman – Tape Head ideal, all killer melody against strong riff, and these Tones are the finest that King’s X had penned since the early 1990s. It’s easily the band’s best since Tape Head, and showed them finally back on an upward trajectory, playing to their strengths and being the band that fans knew they always were.
XV [2008, InsideOut]
When it doubt, repeat success, so coming off their strongest album in a decade, maybe longer, King’s X returned to producer Michael Wagener for their twelfth album and their quarter-century anniversary. Pinnick’s god-like 12-string bass tone starts XV in style, with that subtle funk influence coming through, the lyrics taking a little stab at the Christian scene that abandoned him when he announced his homosexuality in 1998. “If you think God has spoken to you / then don’t forget to pray for me,” he intones over a killer straight-ahead rock groove — it’s not King’s X’s at their most progressive, but it’s them at their finest and most rocking, simple and direct. “Rocket Ship” is another chugging rocker, with one of those melodic choruses that King’s X does better than almost anyone, and the Tabor-led “Julie” is almost Tom Petty-ish in its retro-jangle classicism. XV’s ending (excepting its two bonus tracks) comes in the killer “Go Tell Somebody,” a gospel-tinged guitar-driven sing-along that perfectly closes the album, and maybe the band’s career. Like Ogre Tones before it, XV sees King’s X re-incorporating some of the psychedelic elements that always set them apart before, blending those melodies and harmonies with a stouter modern rock edge, splitting the difference between their post-millennium rock and the prog-adjacent brilliance that predated it. Both albums show a band rejuvenated, finally, and both pointed to great things to come, although those haven’t come quite yet…
It’s been almost a decade since the last proper King’s X album, but there’s been good reason: Drummer Jerry Gaskill suffered a heart attack in 2012, and then lost his home in Hurricane Sandy in the same year, and then, as if that wasn’t enough, he suffered another heart attack in 2014. Pinnick and Tabor have kept themselves busy with other projects, and as Gaskill has recovered, the band has done some scattered tours throughout. Still, we’re all long overdue for a new King’s X record. So let’s all have faith… some hope… and hell, why not a little love for one of the most underrated hard rock bands of all time. So until then, listen, and if you like what you hear, then go tell somebody…