The music of King's X has long eluded categorization. It's a sound that encompasses prog-rock, art-pop, metal, alternative, grunge and on and on and on. The Beatles meet Metallica with lyrics reading like some evangelical version of The Wizard of Oz. It's no wonder that King's X has had trouble selling albums -- their music teeters more toward left-brain than right, is more mathematical than musical. But from day one, the critics (this one included) have loved them, and they've always seemed to fall under the banner of "the band everyone likes but nobody buys." The members of King's X, not surprisingly, hope that's all about to change.
Dogman, the band's fifth release, showcases a new King's X. Simplified, focused and less prone to long, meandering musical tangents, Dogman harbors none of the ten-minute epics that have weighed down past disks. And a word of warning to the band's myriad Christian following: Gretchen Goes to Nebraska this ain't. More like Gretchen Kicks Your Teeth In. This overhauled King's X reeks of angst -- both manufactured and real -- and that can mean only one thing: the band has drawn a bead on MTV's heavy rotation of Snoop Doggy Dogg, Mariah and the ubiquitous Meat Loaf, with an aim to steal their slots. Changing their tune? Maybe. A bottom-of-the-ninth bid for commercial acceptance? More likely.
King's X began constructing its trademark web of intricate sound and sensibility in 1980 in Springfield, Missouri. Fusing celestial harmonies, bottomless guitars in dropped D tunings and lyrics brimming with spiritual hope, King's X out-indulged fellow prog-rockers like Rush and Yes at their own complex game.
King's X eventually moved to Houston in the mid-1980s, hooked up with manager/producer/video director/ guru Sam Taylor, and released four albums: Out of the Silent Planet; Gretchen Goes to Nebraska; Faith, Hope, Love and 1992's King's X. Transcending the band's oft-discussed Christian underpinnings, the music was more an exploration of human spirituality -- a hard-rocking examination of the soul. Dogman is the summation of four albums' worth of inner scrutiny.
Just a year and a half ago the band was headlining a national tour, playing two and a half hours a night and sending out a much different, far more positive vibe. On a balmy summer evening, atop a stage in Chicago, frontman/bassist Doug Pinnick, sporting his trademark mohawk and wielding a bass guitar hanging so low it practically scraped the floor, proclaimed to the frenzied audience: "These days it's cool to be angry, but it's love that holds it all together."
Cut to: today.
"Love is going to hold it all together, but the world is also going to be fucked up forever," says Pinnick, seated at a table with drummer Jerry Gaskill at Houston's Last Concert Cafe. It's been a tough go for this band, and Dogman reflects that turmoil with a batch of songs bearing titles like "Don't Care," "Complain," "Black the Sky" and "Go to Hell" (this last was actually penned by the band over a decade ago, but was never recorded until now).
What has King's X so pissed?
For starters, the departure of manager Sam Taylor -- long referred to as the band's "fourth member." What exactly caused the split with Taylor is unclear, and the band isn't willing to discuss the issue. "He quit, and that's about all we really need to talk about," says Pinnick.
Taylor's departure, a score of personal problems and the lackluster sales of their last disk -- "I think it sold two copies," Pinnick says with a sarcastic laugh -- fanned the fires and led to the writing process of Dogman. As the songs began to materialize, the band consciously made itself more easily digested, more listener-friendly.
The earmarks of the King's X sound remain -- the songs are just rougher and generally shorter in length. While Seattle grungesters have unwittingly gone corporate, King's X may have missed the banana boat simply because the masses just don't get their music. Pinnick and company can bury the groove beneath so many layers of twitching gray matter that tapping a Doc Marten to the beat becomes an arduous task. Thus it was decided that Dogman would be a stripped-down, raw rock-and-roll album with an emphasis on the proverbial "live sound."
"This is a more simplified, more ragged album," said guitarist Ty Tabor on the phone from his home. "When I'd put the old King's X stuff on, I found it just wasn't rockin' hard enough. Dogman is more from the street." Tabor's role in the band is more narrowly defined as well. He has given up sharing lead-vocal duties and opted to stick with guitar and those ever-so-thick background vocals -- a move he says was his idea. Even his guitar playing is different: more lucid, more primal.
With Sam Taylor out of the fold, recording a new album meant finding a new producer, and the band was fortunate to have one fall into its lap. Brendan O'Brien (the wonder man behind mega-million-dollar angst-monsters Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots) actually came to King's X.
"He went to our label and told them that his wish list was Aerosmith and King's X," remarks Pinnick. "He got both."
The band spent six weeks over the past summer holed up in Atlanta recording the album -- its first done outside Houston. "It was a lot of fun," says Gaskill. "It was very pressureless. We were really in tune with each other."
Recording Dogman may have been free of tension, but there is pressure for the album to sell.
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"I think that there's pressure amongst everyone but the three of us," says Pinnick. "You know -- Atlantic and management. All of 'em. They're psycho almost, trying to make this work. It's scary watching this machine work. I didn't know people had this much drive. You know, for us, if it doesn't work -- we're used to that. If it does, great. And if we lose the record deal because this record is a flop or something, we'll take it from there."
But what about all those Christian followers who have floated the band through mostly lean times? Has King's X, with an uncharacteristically angry album, abandoned its spiritual ideals and its spiritual audience?
Tabor maintains that the new album still has spiritual undertones, and that "knowing us, that will always be there." The title of Dogman has its own spiritual association -- raising questions of servant and master -- but in a far more subtle presentation than in the past.
So, with a shifting of spiritual gears and a hint of commerciality in the air, King's X unleashes Dogman. So far, so good. The first single (the title track) entered the charts as the second-highest add at album-oriented radio -- just a facial hair behind new product from that other Houston band, ZZ Top. With an upcoming national tour slated to bring the band through Houston sometime in late February (as opening act for the Scorpions), the band is ripe and ready to move from Next Big Thing status to, simply, Big Thing. And if King's X manages, finally, to make the leap, it's a safe bet that someone -- either in the band or at Atlantic's corporate headquarters -- will be thanking God.