A Beginner’s Guide to… King’s X

How King’s X didn’t become massive remains a mystery. Back in 1988 their debut album Out Of The Silent Planet sounded completely unique, with critics rightly foaming at the mouth and music lovers with a discerning palate becoming rabid fans and turning their early gigs into semi-religious experiences. With the might of Atlantic Records behind them in the early 1990s, and an incendiary performance at Woodstock ’94 under their belts, King’s X should have been playing arenas by mid-decade. But the moment passed, and with the wind taken out of their sails (and the press tagging them as a “Christian band” with the kind of cachet that brings), the Texan trio became a cult act adored by their followers but largely ignored by everyone else.

The core elements of the King’s X sound have remained in place over their 32-year recording history: Doug Pinnick’s soulful and gospel-influenced vocals and rumbling bass, Ty Tabor’s guitar alternating between chugging riffs and soaring melodic passages (with his The Beatles-ish vocals a counterpoint to Pinnick’s roar), and Jerry Gaskill’s metronomic drumming which anchors everything with panache and style. Their three-part harmonies are integral to the King’s X appeal.

As the band prepare to release their first new album in twelve years, here’s a beginner’s guide to their studio output so far.

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ESSENTIAL

Gretchen Goes To Nebraska (1989)

Killer tracks: Over My Head, Summerland, Mission, Fall On Me, Pleiades, Send A Message, The Burning Down

If their debut Out Of The Silent Planet had outlined a whole new framework for modern rock, this sophomore effort was the album on which King’s X filled in the detail and smashed it out of the park. ‘Over My Head’ combined R&B with taut, flab-free riffing whilst ‘Summerland’s wistful harmonies and wrought emotion showed that a ballad could still be uplifting. Album closer ‘The Burning Down’ was progressive in the best possible way, sounding like Middle Earth and something from outer space at the same time. There’s not a duff track on it, and the production still stands up 30 years later. Gretchen… brought King’s X huge attention in England, with the trio returning for a now legendary show at The Astoria in London the following year (released on DVD in 2010). I was there, and it remains one of the ten best gigs I’ve ever been to.

 

Dogman (1994)

Killer tracks: Dogman, Shoes, Pretend, Black The Sky, Don’t Care, Complain, Pillow

Dogman is the one that should’ve made them megastars. Ditching their old mentor and producer Sam Taylor, King’s X brought in Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Rage Against The Machine) to add beef and some dirt-under-the-nails to their sound. Combining a new heaviness with a pissed-off outlook – Pinnick questioning his belief system, Tabor getting divorced – the resulting album was ferocious and thrilling. The title track, ‘Black The Sky’ and ‘Don’t Care’ find the band down-tuning to the point of ridiculousness, dragging huge slabs of riff behind them. ‘Shoes’, ‘Pretend’, ‘Complain’, ‘Pillow’… all King’s X live staples and amongst their best-loved songs. The tagged-on ‘Manic Depression’ cover version which closes the record bristles with the vim and energy the band had at the very peak of their powers.

 

EXCELLENT

Out Of The Silent Planet (1988)

Killer tracks: In The New Age, Goldilox, Power of Love, Wonder, Sometimes, King, What Is This, Shot Of Love, Visions

Inventive, original and groundbreaking, Out Of The Silent Planet confounded everyone who heard it back in 1988. Repeated plays revealed more and more charm, and a uniqueness which was lacking in heavy music around that time. Many of its tracks remain integral to a King’s X show in 2020 with one of them, ‘Goldilox’, causing middle-aged men to sing and cry whenever it’s performed live. Unlike Gretchen…, its sound has started to age a little, making it an excellent buy rather than an essential one.

 

Tapehead (1998)

Killer tracks: Groove Machine, Cupid, Ocean, Little Bit Of Soul, Happy

Tapehead gave King’s X a new lease of life after the lacklustre Ear Candy, firing on all cylinders again with raging rockers like ‘Groove Machine’ and ‘Cupid’, and one of Ty’s best jangly numbers in ‘Ocean’. Having left Atlantic for Metal Blade, the trio frizzle and fry with ‘Little Bit Of Soul’ rumbling and rampaging, whilst ‘Happy’ features the kind of chug they’d mastered four years earlier on Dogman. The pointless album closer ‘Walter Bela Farkas’ aside, this is a killer album. The sound of a band growing old disgracefully.

 

Ogre Tones (2005)

Killer tracks: Alone, Stay, Hurricane, Fly, Open My Eyes, Freedom, Mudd, Goldilox (Reprise)

After ten years of imperfect releases, King’s X brought their A-game to the writing and recording of Ogre Tones. A monstrous return to form, it harks back to the best bits of their past whilst taking a giant leap forward. Produced by Michael Wagener (Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Megadeth) it’s more Dogman than Gretchen…, with the dense riffing of ‘Hurricane’, ‘Fly’ and ‘Open My Eyes’ setting fire to your speakers and reminding fans why they loved the band in the first place. The trio even manage to reprise their classic ‘Goldilox’ and make it sound better than the original. Marvellous stuff.

 

VERY GOOD

Faith Hope Love (1990)

Killer tracks: We Are Finding Who We Are, It’s Love, Mr. Wilson, Moanjam, I Can’t Help It, We Were Born To Be Loved

The “difficult third album”. The trio’s desire to experiment and push the boundaries of their sound resulted in a record which confused fans and largely alienated non-converts. The main problem is it’s too long and a bit flabby at times – with some judicious pruning it could have been spectacular. However, there’s some top class King’s X on Faith Hope Love: both the “hit” single ‘It’s Love’ and opening statement of intent ‘We Are Finding Who We Are’ are magnificent. But the title-track’s nine minutes of self-indulgence are evidence of their frequent over-reaching this time round.

 

King’s X (1992)

Killer tracks: The World Around Me, Lost In Germany, Black Flag

The band’s eponymous fourth record was a reaction to the challenging Faith Hope Love which preceded it. The songs are shorter and sparkier with full-on bangers ‘The World Around Me’, ‘Lost In Germany’ and ‘Black Flag’ being amongst their best work. But the issues they were having with mentor and producer Sam Taylor at the time, which would lead to a parting of the ways shortly thereafter, are there for all to see in tracks like ‘Chariot Song’, ‘Ooh Song’ and ‘Silent Wind’ which merely tread water when they should really fly. Still a great album though.

 

Please Come Home… Mr Bulbous (2000)

Killer tracks: Fish Bowl Man, She’s Gone Away, When You’re Scared, Bitter Sweet, Move Me Parts 1 & 2

Mr Bulbous is a Marmite album for King’s X fans. Some believe it to be amongst their finest work whilst others hold firm to the view it’s a howling stinker. It’s an album hardly anyone thinks is “just alright”. To these ears it contains some of their meatiest riffs, and Doug Pinnick’s bass never sounded so vibrant and fat – particularly on album opener ‘Fish Bowl Man’ and the beautiful ‘She’s Gone Away’. The inter-track Japanese tongue-twisters add a bit of lightness to what is otherwise a heavy, dark record. Mr Bulbous is an album this writer comes back to time and time again, but others don’t do that quite so much.

 

GOOD

Black Like Sunday (2003)

Killer tracks: Black Like Sunday, Bad Luck, Two, Won’t Turn Back, Johnny

Whilst King’s X have been releasing albums since 1987 their roots go back way before that, with Jerry Gaskill and Doug Pinnick sharing stages together since the late 1970s. Black Like Sunday was a collection of songs pre-dating Out of the Silent Planet, re-recorded in 2003 and capturing the group’s original fleetness of foot and earnest, youthful optimism. The title-track remains one of the finest things they’ve committed to vinyl, whilst 11-minute epic ‘Johnny’ sees them open up and fly without boring you for even a moment. There’s a fair amount of filler though, with the lyrics being particularly cringeworthy at times, but when there’s riffs as solid as ‘Bad Luck’ on here you’re willing to forgive them the odd lapse in judgement.

 

XV (2008)

Killer tracks: Pray, Alright, Move, Go Tell Somebody, Love and Rockets (Bonus Track)

XV’s opener, ‘Pray’, is a full-bore walking-pace singalong funk rock anthem and promised so much for this most recent King’s X album. It’s never quite as good again, sadly, but does have the pile-driving ‘Alright’ on it, and ‘Move’ will have you shaking your rump, whilst ‘Go Tell Somebody’ is top drawer KX. The best thing on here is bonus track Love And Rockets’ though, which manages to both shimmer and chug and brings to mind Prince when he was good, and is a veritable classic. There’s too much average material to make XV an essential purchase, but there’s enough on it to make it worthy of your attention.

 

FOR FANS ONLY

Ear Candy (1996)

Killer tracks: Looking For Love, Run

Coming straight after the awesome Dogman, Ear Candy was a massive disappointment. Like Draw The Line is to Rocks, Technical Ecstasy is to Sabotage, or Flick Of The Switch is to For Those About To Rock, King’s X followed up a great album with a poor one. The songs are largely forgettable, the production is dry and doesn’t suit them, and it all sounds forced and unnatural. Only ‘Looking For Love’ and ‘Run’ redeem an album that even the band themselves would prefer to forget.

 

Manic Moonlight (2001)

Killer tracks: Believe, Manic Moonlight

The album on which the trio decided to use electronic loops and drum patterns, thus alienating and angering their hardcore fans. If you can get past the loops there are some serviceable songs on Manic Moonlight, and some especially grisly guitar work from Tabor, but nothing really sets your pulse racing. King’s X have never made a stinker of a record, but this one scrapes the bottom of their otherwise rather wonderful barrel.

 

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Words: Andrew Field