Review Summary: Three wise men.
Their arrival was like a colorful, spotlit circus tent that suddenly appeared in the middle of a dreary dust bowl. Immediately, everything that seemed cool was a few shades paler and greyer by comparison. A bass player with a sweet, soulful voice that played bass
– not a four-string version of guitar - his tone low and full of rich sonic hues. They had that loose trio vibe with the rhythms and leads bleeding into one another. Guitar player seemed to resurrect the sound of Brian May with that shake, that vibrato, those wails and bends. The drummer was full of distinction, all toms and whip-smart rolls. Of course, the vocals were incredible – each sang and played well enough to front his own band. The merging of the three voices against those heavy riffs in drop-D, drop-C whatever was just startlingly original.
1989 - I had no idea it was their second album. I had seen a review on the back of a rock magazine with a bunch of praise from Kerrang!, the Rush-like cover and wacky album name. We had enjoyed Last Crack’s "Sinister Funkhouse #17" earlier that year, so I was game for records with exotic titles. But on the night I bought “Gretchen”, my stereo had been packed up – I was leaving for college the very next day. So, I left the record with a friend and asked him to tape a copy for me, then forgot all about it for a couple of weeks. Eventually he called me at school and after we finished catching up, casually mentioned ‘By the way...that record you left with me – was some of the most incredible music I’ve ever heard
He wasn't even a rock fan.
I drove over fifty miles home just to get the tape that weekend.
There were reasons earwitnesses were startled. King’s X had been together since the late 70s (if you think about it, there’s a Venom parallel – another trio formed around the same time, already in splinters at this point). The band had already gone through all the machinations of maturity writing songs for other artists, gigging endlessly, and even recording an album (under the name Sneak Preview) that was unceremoniously dumped in ‘83. Tabor added the roaring drop-D tuning style to their already-sparkling power pop melodies, and a bold new sound was born. Their first album, “Out of the Silent Planet” skipped by most people (I don’t remember seeing any promotion for it whatsoever). They were seasoned, distinctive and pioneering – and nobody’d heard them yet. Needless to say, it seemed like Kings X was dropped from a spaceship or sprung from a time capsule.
The lyrics are strikingly unpretentious. Not wordy, just a few syllables per song. Sparse phrases that meant a lot, joy, wonder, some phrases touched on spirituality, some about exploration, questioning what we know, wondering what we’re missing. I was used to "Dude Looks Like a Lady"
or thrash metal jam-packed with oodles of literal imagery. This seemed so liberating and the words just floated over the fluid jamming. Gretchen seemed like a concept record, but it wasn’t. To be cruel, drummer Jerry Gaskill wrote a weird story inside the liner notes that confounded me even more.
There’s a particularly angular nature to Tabor’s riffs on this record, we’re in uncharted territory from the first song, droney distant voices, sitar lines sharp and futuristic, that weird break near the end with no solo, just drums and strange background noises. “Out of the Silent Planet” indeed – it didn’t seem like they came from this one.
The countermelody in “Over My Head” would become a bedrock concert staple, but the groove of the bass in the studio version is so funky and low, with hints of gospel, hints of Hendrix and Queen, that space where hellyeah meets halleluhjah. The riff after the organ in “The Mission” is so nasty, then it breaks down sort of like Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses”. They were already questioning the Christianity stuff hard at this point – listen to the preacher segment during the solo…“Drive that Cadillac down here and get it dusty and dirty for God?”
They’d grown by leaps and bounds from the first record, best evidenced by the subtle layered acoustic guitar that syncopates - ***ing breathes against the vocals in “The Difference (In the Garden of St. Anne’s-on-the-Hill ”. “Everybody Knows” is like funk from Mars with big, weighty, steamrolling riffs, but the high point of the record is “Fall on Me”. The sentiment is simple and deeply personal - Pain! Don’t fall on me. Love – Fall on me!
It’s a high point of heaviness clashing with melody, basslines that thump the chest, volume knob swells, freewheeling cowbell and sharp drumrolls. I still get goosebumps listening to that one.
King’s X were always more inspirational than commercially successful. Everybody raved about them, but nobody bought their records. I heard a phrase a few years ago that best described each of them - "Players’ players" the type of band professional musicians could appreciate better than your average rock fan. Perhaps that’s still the case, as they’ve been lauded by everyone from Devin Townsend to Kim Thayil.
To this day, encountering people who don’t like Gretchen is meeting people that don’t like pizza, strippers, and booze. You know they’re out there but didn’t think you’d seriously find
any of them.
Suffice to say, I feel like all the music I heard before it was just a warmup.