Art School Style
Ahhh, the unforgiving foibles of the art-rock fan: Playing Magic, watching hockey, "reading" Danger Girl or Fathom (or any other comic book titles that feature vavoomy babes as heroes), pausing between rounds of Tomb Raider to dig into neatly wrapped packages of culinary calamity (e.g., fast food) and listening to the likes of Rush, Queensryche and King's X. Ahhh, sublimity in pomp and high-caloric content.
While collecting comics and playing video games are naturally childlike pursuits, liking music is at least an indication of normal or socially acceptable white adult male behavior -- so long as the WAM's favorite artist doesn't sport a mullet hair-do or answer to the name "Geddy." Getting caught with a Rush CD nowadays is akin to getting caught with a Snicker's bar at The Broadmoor spa. It takes a certain kind to fess up to the trespass.
When you try to find out why bands like Rush and King's X keep on keepin' on -- if not necessarily improving over time -- you'll likely discover a truth about the music industry that either falls under the radar of mainstream media or is intentionally ignored by promoters and retail folk alike: There are a lot of unabashed, relentlessly faithful art rockers out there.
And concerning King's X specifically: There are a lot of unabashed, relentlessly faithful art rockers out there.
"It really is an honor, after all these years," says Ty Tabor, King's X vocalist and guitarist with a following of devotees himself. "We have friends, we see them go up and down the charts, and they're now waiting tables. Regardless of whether or not the press knows about it, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger, like some Deadhead following or something."
Though the band's appeal reaches as far as Europe, its home base still lies in Texas, the Houston area in particular. All three members, Tabor, bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick and drummer Jerry Gaskill, live here permanently, and Tabor and Pinnick own recording studios with Houston addresses. Pinnick's Hound Pound Recording Studio and Tabor's Alien Beans Studio were where the band's eighth album was recorded between December 1999 and January of this year. Please Come HomeMr. Bulbous hit record store shelves this week.
Ten tracks long, the CD is another indication that the trio is in a post-major label mood. There's no apparent "hit" or bona fide single on Mr. Bulbous -- so unlike earlier work from the band's years with Atlantic. Not that hooks or catchy pop-rock songs are such a bad thing. Not at all. But when a taut, technically proficient band like King's X pursues commercialism, it usually pulls it off with some contrivance. Mr. Bulbous makes you work harder: You have to listen to it a few times before the worthwhile moments reveal themselves. You have to be -- like the most devoted Rush fan toward the third movement of the seventh song on the first side of the double-album Hemispheres -- receptive.
King's X's cultish fans are receptive, and they seem to be just the people for whom King's X intended Mr. Bulbous. All of the trademarked King's X accents are here: the elaborate vocal harmonies (refreshing in an era of moaning dogs); the syncopated rhythms; and the surrealistic lyrical content. The only deviation with Mr. Bulbous is that King's X has chosen not to deviate. All the adventuresome touches that made previous records like Faith Hope Love and Tape Head successful have been forsaken for sounding merely like King's X.
It's as if the band was once lost and is now found. And in some ways it is. After the fall out with Atlantic, Tabor had given up playing guitar for about three months, and Pinnick began pursuing a career as solo artist and as a member of the group Poundhound. Without the roof of a major label overhead, each member began working outside the band, coming around only occasionally to record or play under the King's X moniker. So while the band may be, on paper, a little more than 12 years old, it is in reality only about five or six -- if you add up all the time the three have actually spent as only King's X. Stunted might be the appropriate word.
"We enjoy playing music together," says Tabor. "As long as it's not oppressive. We all got disinterested because of the label [Atlantic]. With our new label, life got so much better. We began enjoying what we were doing again. It was a brand new start."
One can't forget, however, that a stunted King's X is still thoroughly enjoyable. "Fish Bowl Man," the first track off Mr. Bulbous, is a melange of Pennick's dream-like lyrics, spoken word and two strong, inventive changes, from which tiny accents are spun off. Over a steady rock beat and Tabor's heavily sustained barre chords, the chorus is sung -- and really sung -- with all the best Beatles-influenced accoutrements: "I-eeeeeah-ahhhhhm / In a fish bowl, I'm a fish bowl man / I-eeeeeah-ahhhhhm / In a fish bowl, I'm a fish bowl man / YEAH-eeee-ahhh / Yeah-ahhh." The band is at its best when it makes unpredictable chord progressions seem believable, as on "Marsh Mellow Field," or alternates between high and low vocal registers, as on the jangly and happy-sounding (though lyrically vitriolic), "Charlie Sheen." As Tabor sings short staccato lines in the foreground, vocalists sing long, drawn-out melodic lines in the background. The interplay is magical.
Houston has its history of spawning outsider bands. The city, after all, was ground zero for Red Krayola and Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators when they appropriated psychedelia, a basis of art rock, for U.S. ears. In the mid-'80s when the band members of King's X were interested in relocating here, Houston hadn't been home to much of anything, least of all the kind of subversive music that Erickson and Red Krayola front man Mayo Thompson created (though the city did have a stranglehold on mainstream boogie courtesy of ZZ Top). That's when progressive rock with a Christian twist, King's X stock-in-trade, began taking shape in the form of these three transplanted Midwesterners.
ZZ Top's manager at the time, Sam Taylor, had lured King's X to Houston from Missouri with the promise of a major-label deal, which the trio eventually landed, recording for Atlantic up until 1996. During the band's tenure with the label, followers in King's X's footsteps used whatever leverage they could muster to land recording contracts themselves. The Galactic Cowboys scored, securing a deal with Geffen in 1991, and Atomic Opera, the brainchild of Houstonian Frank Hart, broke through with Warner Bros. in 1994. These days, the Cowboys, Atomic Opera and King's X -- which all record for nationally distributed Metal Blade Records -- are seen as the core of a progressive Christian rock movement, with King's X as the heart.
Aside from the few ambiguous references to God and the final track, "Move Me," which is essentially a prayer, the lyrical content of Mr. Bulbous comprises strings of non sequiturs that are more fantastic than pedantic (something of which King's X, it should be noted, has never been accused, but that many other bands of similar mind-set have). The band doesn't conjure up spirituality as often as other, more mainstream bands, like U2 or Collective Soul or Creed, but its reputation as cross-bearin', J-word-slingin' God rockers prevents an unprejudiced listen. Yet if "God is in the details," then King's X and its wildly stream-of-conscious work are as sacred as Pope John Paul's skull cap.
Artful God rock carries tons of baggage. But King's X makes it easy for listeners to be both devout Christians and unwitting headbangers at the same time. Unlike other art rockers, King's X -- for some inexplicable reason -- is perceived as "cool." Carrying around one of its CDs is nothing to be shameful of.
Getting caught with Moving Pictures or the Gen 13 Swimsuit Edition, however, still is.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@ houstonpress.com.
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