Review Summary: The best kept secret in hard rock avoid the sophomore slump by releasing possibly their finest effort.
On that endless list of “bands who should have been big,” King’s X must surely be at the top. They took the challenging technicality of progressive metal and softened it up with Beatles harmonies, groovy riffs, Hendrixian solos, and some of the best and most emotional vocals on the planet. Though they might sound fairly simplistic given the groove-centric nature of their rock, their signature sound is so singular that no one has ever copied them or, if someone has, they’ve never come remotely close. When they debuted in 1988 with Out of the Silent Planet
, those lucky few who actually bought a copy stood up and took notice. While a strong album, it was like many debuts: wandering, trying a bunch of things to figure out what works best. With Gretchen Goes to Nebraska
, however, they worked out what precious few kinks they had and released one of the greatest prog metal albums of all time.
Now, fair warning: the band does have a Christian slant. In fact, the album is a loose-concept Christian tale written by Jerry Gaskill. Don’t let this fool you into thinking that you’re in for the usual bland praising that defines Christian rock, though; these guys are first and foremost secular, and they often sing about trying to reconcile their faith with the evils of the world.. Nowhere is this more evident than on “Mission”, one of the highlights of the album. It deals with the sanctimoniousness of some religious leaders, yet does not condemn the whole lot. There is even a nod to astronomy on the superb “Pleiades”, which starts as a light, beautiful number and eventually builds into a complex, riffy tune.
There isn’t a weak spot on the whole record. Most bands have enough trouble finding a lead singer who can sound decent, but King’s X is blessed with two incredible vocalists. Doug Pinnick sounds like he was plucked right out of a gospel choir with his soulful screams, while Ty Tabor has a fantastic melody to his voice. The ease with which these two can combine their wildly different voices into a harmony as well as trade leads is astonishing; just check out how Doug’s yearning blues give way to the lighter tone of Ty on “I’ll Never Be the Same”. As guitarist and bassist, they are incredibly in sync as well; they can play some crunchy unison riffs on “Fall On Me” as well as breaking off and letting Doug play some more contrapuntal lines on tracks like “Don’t Believe It (It’s Easier Said Than Done)”. And let’s not forget drummer/backup singer Jerry Gaskill. While at face value he is the least talented member of the band in terms of vocals and technical ability, he is an absolute necessity. It’s always better to play with someone you have a natural rapport with than someone who is a technical god but doesn’t play well with others, and Jerry fits in perfectly with the other two. So intuitive is their interplay that, if one ever decided to pack it in or, worse, died, it would be nearly inconceivable for the other two to soldier on.
Trying to pick highlights on the album is hard. King’s X sound deceptively simple, seeming at first listen to be just a groove-laden hard rock band. However, if you’re paying attention, the band can easily surprise you, from the lush “Summerland”, which manages to be a soft, beautiful number without falling into cheesy ballad territory, to the stop-start riffs of “Send a Message” to the gentle yet captivating closer “The Burning Down”. The aforementioned “Mission” features some of Doug’s most impassioned vocals and a lurching, equally emotional solo from Ty that shows that prog metal doesn’t have to be about fretboard wankery nor does it have to be about endless, epic, atmospheric numbers (though there’s no inherent problem with either of those things) in order to wow you. If a best track must be chosen, it would have to be “Over My Head”, a staple of the band’s live shows, where it is often extended past the 10 minute mark. The band’s most overtly Christian song on the album, it is lyrically simple (covering how Doug’s grandmother said she heard music over…well, you can guess). The real magic lies in the music: a driving riff, a killer solo, and possibly Doug’s finest vocal performance, all in the span of under 5 minutes.
Despite the undeniable pop qualities of the album as well the technical displays, no one on either side of the fence gave any attention to the group, and those who did offer up endless theories as to why the band was neglected. Is it because they were billed as a Christian rock band when they adamantly asserted that they were merely a band made up of Christians? Or might they have had success in this avenue had Christian stores not refused to carry their albums upon the revelation of Pinnick’s homosexuality? The Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal
not so subtly hints that perhaps people couldn’t handle a metal band fronted by a black (and gay, though the book didn’t mention it) man. Whatever the reason, King’s X have carved out a niche for playing accessible, simpler, yet completely original progressive hard rock, and this album is as good a place as any to introduce yourself to the greatest band ever to fall between the cracks.