I’ve been a King’s X fan since junior high school.
I have my old bass-playing buddy Chris Callaway to thank for getting me into them. Callaway and I were in a couple of amazingly bad bands together, and when we weren’t talking about how our four-track recordings would land us on the cover of Rolling Stone within the year, we were talking about other people’s music. And while I stayed more on the soft end of the spectrum – Invisible Touch was rock to me then, before my teenage metalhead days – Chris gravitated towards the hard stuff.
King’s X was certainly heavy. Their 1988 debut album, the C.S. Lewis-inspired Out of the Silent Planet, was a tough, raw record – the Texas trio had obviously grown up listening to Rush, but they had thunderous, explosive grooves, and in Doug Pinnick, they had a bassist with a down-tuned, subterranean tone and a soulful metal voice like Corey Glover of Living Colour.
I liked the heavy, of course, but what really drew me to King’s X was the sense of atmosphere. Guitarist Ty Tabor painted landscapes with his delay and reverb pedals, when he wasn’t smashing things to bits, and all three members harmonized like the Beatles, adding an ethereal shimmer without sacrificing the “power” part of “power trio.” On two subsequent records, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska and Faith Hope Love, they worked more Rush into their sound, becoming almost prog-metalers, but even when they stripped that back on the self-titled fourth album, it was still indisputably King’s X.
I thought they were one of the best bands in the world. When “Over My Head” and “It’s Love” became minor hits, I was overjoyed. I would pimp out my battered King’s X tapes to anyone who would give them a chance. I would listen to the repetitive, excruciatingly long title track of Faith Hope Love and try to convince myself it was genius, not a misstep. I was disappointed by the fourth album, although I still love songs like “Prisoner” and “Lost in Germany.” But I knew they’d rebound and get back to knocking me out soon.
But a funny thing happened – they didn’t. I don’t know who Sam Taylor is, other than the producer of the first four King’s X albums, but when the band split with him, Taylor seemed to take a lot of their focus and direction with him. I love Dogman, their fifth album – it was laid down by Brendan O’Brien, and the sound is deep and heavy and dry. The atmospheres are missing, the harmonies are scaled back, but the grooves are immense. It’s a real power trio metal album.
From there, though, the band fell apart. They left Atlantic Records after the lackluster Ear Candy, signed with Metal Blade, and seemingly stopped caring about what went out with their name on it. I’m a King’s X fan, so I stuck with them, even through the dismal Manic Moonlight. I bought every half-assed, tossed-off side project and solo album. I saw the band live – they were amazing. I went home and listened to the albums, and they sucked. I couldn’t reconcile it.
The problem, in retrospect, was a complete lack of focus. The trio produced the four albums between 1998 and 2003 by themselves, with no one to tell them that their ideas were half-baked. Want proof? Pick up 2005’s Ogre Tones, their comeback record on Inside Out. For the first time in nearly a decade, King’s X picked a producer – old-school metal guy Michael Wagener – to work with, and the result was a tight, driven, groovy record of near-classic King’s X songs.
I can’t even describe how much I enjoyed Ogre Tones – after wandering in the wilderness for years, my band was back, and if they hadn’t quite ascended the same peaks they scaled in their younger days, they were at least trying to make the climb. Here was Tabor’s dark/light guitar sound, here were the glorious harmonies, and here was Doug Pinnick singing his little heart out, instead of mumbling like a bored narcoleptic. It was good. It was very good.
But the first comeback album is easy. It’s all about the second one – that’s the one that cements the turnaround. There’s a lot of pressure around an album like that, especially for a band like King’s X. They had to prove their first knockout punch in 10 years wasn’t a fluke. You can see why it took them three years to get the follow-up together.
And here it is. It’s called XV, for no good reason – it’s their 12th studio album, and the only way you can count their catalog and get to 15 is if you include their 1997 best-of. The good news right out of the gate is that they worked with Wagener again – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The good news seemed to keep on coming with the single, “Alright” – it’s a monster, a riff-laden call-and-response singalong that’s just right at 2:59.
Well, the album as a whole doesn’t quite pack the same punch. In fact, the first time through, I felt a bit let down. Ogre Tones was the sound of the band coming alive again, and XV is the sound of them settling in. The tone is still thick and powerful, and the three members still sound like they’re enjoying working together again. But XV layers in a level of mid-tempo introspection that blunts its initial attack. It’s a grower of an album, and I’m liking it more and more each time I hear it, but it sounds more like the album they should have done next year, after one more full-throttle winner.
The album opens with a couple of these not-quite-slow pieces. The bluesy “Pray” kicks things off with the clearest statement of lost faith yet from these guys – they used to be unfairly lumped in with the Christian rock scene, but in 1998, Pinnick came out, and since then, his lyrics have been about struggle, identity and a loss of trust in God. “If you think that Jesus has saved you, Mother Mary is waiting there for you, if you think that God has spoke to you, then don’t forget to pray for me,” Pinnick sings over a swaying groove. After a decade of writing songs like this, I think Pinnick’s finally hit upon the right way to say what he’s been feeling.
Second track “Blue” loses momentum, though, with its loping beat and not-quite-there chorus. “Repeating Myself” is a full-on Ty Tabor ballad, and while I love his trademark clean tone, it doesn’t exactly move the album forward like a bullet. At this point, you’ll have to reconcile yourself to the idea that King’s X has delivered a slower, deeper-sounding record, and once you do, you’ll start to enjoy XV. In fact, on later listens, I’m finding I don’t like the rave-ups like “Rocket Ship” and “Go Tell Somebody” as much as the more considered pieces, like the Gaskill-sung “Julie” and “I Just Want to Live.”
The lyrics are straightforward, almost to a fault – “Move” is an entire song about not overusing your credit cards, and “Go Tell Somebody” is literally an exhortation to spread the word about the band. But sometimes it works, as when Pinnick repeats “They force their ethical standards on the world” over the most atmospheric part of “Move.”
And if we’re picking favorites, I have to go with a Tabor ballad this time – “I Don’t Know” is a sweet apology and a statement of bewilderment, with a lovely solo. I can see this as Tabor’s response to Pinnick’s “Pray,” his way of telling his friend he understands, and isn’t judging him. The song is the album’s heart and soul.
XV ends with a pair of bonus tracks that are just as good as anything on the album proper, particularly the mini-epic “Love and Rockets (Hell’s Screaming).” The album is nothing if not consistent, especially for a band that seemed so inconsistent for years. But is it good enough to solidify their triumphant return? Can we say with confidence that King’s X is back? I’m still not sure. XV is certainly leagues better than anything between Dogman and Ogre Tones, but it doesn’t quite match those twin pillars, and I’m torn between thinking that they’ve crafted a grower on purpose, or that they’re just old and tired.
But you know what? I honestly never thought we’d get a King’s X album as good as XV again, let alone Ogre Tones. This resurgence is an unlikely blessing, and I should count it. “If you like what you hear, then go tell somebody,” Pinnick sings in the waning moments of the album, and I think that’s what I’m going to do. With minor reservations, I like what I hear. And I’m telling somebody.
Next week, two stories about two concerts in two different states. And maybe the new Joy Electric.
See you in line Tuesday morning.