At the time of this writing, it’s been just a few days since it was announced that King’s X co-founder and drummer Jerry Gaskill suffered a heart attack. The band, now in their third decade, has canceled their tour plans for the near future and it can reasonably be said that their future is in question.
While it would be a damn dirty shame if King’s X had to call it a day — to say nothing about the long-term health of Gaskill, an outstanding drummer and by all accounts a good man — fans can take solace in the band’s impressive catalog. One of the absolute high points of that catalog was their self-titled fourth LP, released on March 10, 1992.
By the early 1990s, King’s X — the trio of bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick, guitarist/vocalist Ty Tabor, and drummer/vocalist Gaskill — was seemingly ready for the big time. Their third release, Faith Hope Love, was released on the Megaforce label in 1990 and cracked the Top 100 of the Billboard album chart. Backed by producer/manager/mentor Sam Taylor, King’s X made the leap from Megaforce to Atlantic Records proper for LP number four. There was a lot riding on the album, since the days of major labels patiently nurturing commercially underperforming acts was quickly becoming a quaint memory.
Not only was there an unspoken (or maybe spoken, I wasn’t there) expectation of higher sales, but the band was beginning to chafe under Taylor’s guidance. They wanted to break away from the rich, Beatles-esque harmonies and quasi-progressive sound they had cultivated for several years and explore new sonic territory.
That new sound is evident right away on King’s X. “The World Around Me” rocks as hard as any song the group had produced, but is leaner, darker, and more aggressive. It also clocks in just short of three minutes, a relative rarity for King’s X. The only real holdover from the first three albums are the excellent background vocal harmonies. Otherwise, this is muscular hard rock of the highest order.
The rest of the album follows in a similar fashion, with a good mix of more laid back tunes like “Prisoner” and “Dream in My Life” to round things out. And while this still very much sounds like the King’s X fans were used to, the more linear and economical approach showcased on this album should have been a clear signal of the band’s intentions. Gone are the swirls of psychedelia and extended jams that threatened to overtake the group on Faith Hope Love.
The closest the trio comes to recreating their late ’80s sound are on “The Big Picture” and “Not Just for the Dead,” the former of which contains a trademark King’s X jam and the latter of which busts out the sitar for perhaps the last time ever. (Note to self: See if the sitar appears on any post-’92 King’s X albums.)
Not only are the songs generally shorter and more streamlined, but they’re darker too. “Chariot Song” and “Ooh Song” in particular prefigure the sound of the group’s next album, Dogman, just with cleaner production. Even the lone single from the record, “Black Flag,” is a bit grim.
The subject matter on King’s X, while not overly dark or dour, is also less uplifting then previous albums. The excellent “Lost in Germany,” my favorite song on the record and one of the most musically upbeat, features lines like, “Laughing to keep from crying out in anger / Praying that I can make it through this night.”
If there is a flaw on King’s X, it’s that not all of the songs click like they should. I hesitate to say there are any clunkers present, but “The Big Picture” and “What I Know About Love” feel less than essential. Still, it escapes me why this album wasn’t a bigger hit. It’s not as if King’s X suffered the curse of the hair metal bands that were dying off in the face of the Seattle music invasion. And yet, baffingly, the album peaked at #138 and was a step backwards commercially. That can’t have sat well with the suits at Atlantic.
In the wake of King’s X the band finally parted ways with Sam Taylor and took more control of their sound and direction. Brendan O’Brien came in to produce the followup, Dogman, which was more of a commercial success. The high water mark for the group’s popularity came in 1994 with an appearance at that year’s Woodstock festival. But after just one more record on Atlantic (1996’s Ear Candy), the band was dropped from the label.
Nevertheless, King’s X has maintained a pretty consistent work schedule. Their twelfth studio effort, XV, came out in 2008 and the group has toured regularly. That is, until the recent health scare for Gaskill. I know King’s X fans the world over join me in hoping he makes a full recovery. And if that leads to even more music, all the better.