Release Date: 05.20.03
Record label: Metal Blade
Genre(s): Movies, Film Scores, Musicals, Etc.
Finished Before It Started
by: geoff ashmun
Whenever a band achieves some measure of autonomy, the inclination is to admire the courage and fortitude. But perhaps selfishly, our enthusiasm is somewhat bound up with the expectation that ultimately this is to our benefit. At long last, the path has been cleared for the definitive statement, for unadulterated brilliance. That’s the naive theory anyway, but experience tells me that this is but one more way in which “the artistic life” is shot through with stereotypes. So-called freedom is not always what it seems.
Take the mysterious downward spiral of King’s X, for example. It seems reasonable to suppose that after 15 years in the major leagues, the band would at least understand the basics of engineering, mixing, producing – and hell, even packaging – a record. However, Black Like Sunday begs all kinds of embarrassing questions about what the band has to show for the privilege of sailing its own ship for the last seven years, and apparently I have the abject duty of asking them.
The fact there was something rotten in the state of King’s X as far back as 1992 became obvious following the sudden departure of producer/ad hoc member Sam Taylor, which, by some accounts anyway, undercut a promising stateside tour and any promotional inertia that may have postponed album No. 4’s crash landing in the bargain bin. But however volatile the marriage had been all along, its fruits were a handful of undeniably strong, if not altogether consistent albums.
Out of the Silent Planet established the band’s sonic template by fusing the two most fundamental reference points in popular music: the Beatles’ buoyant vocal assault with the richly menacing riffing of Black Sabbath. Released only a year later, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska was a quantum leap in craftsmanship, producing the best set of A-side songs in the King’s X catalog. In turn, Faith Hope Love saw Ty Tabor assume more lead vocal duties, further sweetening the band’s sound and producing its first MTV-rotated single, “It’s Love.” While not as consistently strong on the songwriting front, the aforementioned King’s X was a performance tour de force all around, featuring a ferociously soulful set of Doug Pinnick vocals and to this day Ty Tabor’s most relaxed, expansive guitar work.
It’s impossible to guess what a fifth Taylor collaboration might have sounded like, but the band’s studio sound had become almost too polished, without so much as an errant note in the mix. In many ways, this explains why 1994’s Dogman, produced by Brendan “I-could-make-James Taylor-rock” O’Brien landed on some ears like a ton of bricks and on others as an angrily inspired, ass-kicking manifesto. Suddenly, Pinnick was penning jaded lines like “I just don’t care like I used to” (which almost seems prophetic now) only a few years after singing in gospel fashion “I’ll never get tired of you.” Jerry Gaskill’s cymbal-crashing stick work sounded more violent than ever, Pinnick switched to a chunky, four-string bass, and Tabor was wringing raw power from his Yamaha. In short, Dogman was a big fat line in the sand – musically and philosophically.
In spite of several fine moments on Ear Candy and Tape Head, the output following Dogman’s dramatic statement was progressively poor both in terms of songwriting and studio execution. It’s a trend difficult to explain, because the reasons lie scattered amidst pieces that may or may not even belong to the same puzzle. Did the myriad solo and side projects, most of which only proved the band’s superiority as a unit, detract from the kind of commitment necessary for making a good record? Furthermore, there are the dollars and cents realities. Judging by the band’s manic touring schedule – and Tabor and Pinnick have suggested as much in the press – gigs seem to win considerably more bread than CDs. If that’s true, are King’s X albums now simply excuses for touring? What else could it mean to solicit cover art from your fans? It’s all debatable, including the question of whether the questions really matter.
But what Black Like Sunday confirms is the importance of accountability for King’s X. The point of a professional producer is, among other things, to sort the wheat from the chaff, and without one the band has failed in this regard. The punchy gallop of “Finished,” the Jerry Cantrell crunch of “Bad Luck” and the alternately lazy and explosive ode to frustrated love, “Two,” proves that the band still has some chops, but more often the lyrics undercut any emotional resonance the instrumentation might evoke. Consider “Rock Pile,” a painfully trite defiance of career trappings: “I don’t wanna be another statistic in a pile of rock/I just wanna be a star, I just wanna be on the top/there’s only one place I’d rather be/where there’s love, joy and peace.” (cue vomiting sound) The record’s littered with similarly amateur writing. And it’s all the more difficult to stomach against the backdrop of the kind of searching, confrontational and ultimately heartening songs about a parentless childhood, abiding loneliness and lost ideals that Pinnick penned in the mid- to late ’90s. So why the regression? The obvious loophole is that these are old songs (as the band has suggested) resurrected for the fans. That’s still rubbish. Nowhere does the album announce itself as a rarities collection of any kind, and it’s certainly not the average, Sam Goody patron’s job to make that kind of distinction or find obscure footnotes buried in the press.
The King’s X fans who have managed to stick around are some of the most forgiving anywhere, particularly those who frequent the band’s official message board and regularly celebrate even the mediocrity. So it’s worth mentioning that BLS is testing the limits of even the most ardent, determined admirers. I quote:
“As I've listened to [Black Like Sunday] on worse and worse systems, it sounds better – from my high end system to the in-car, to minidisc walkman. My most recent [listen] was on a cassette and played through a mono player, which I sometimes use to record rambling discussions with myself. This mono job sounded the best so far. Next I'll try shutting it in a cupboard underneath a few towels.” He’s not kidding, either. In fact, when one or more instruments aren’t inexplicably buried in the mix, there are actually moments of audible crackling on the album.
King’s X on any given day in any given club, regardless of who’s having an off night, will somehow tear the roof off. Performance has never been a problem. But behind the boards, something died a few years ago and has started to reek profusely. Black Like Sunday was finished before it started. 03-Jul-2003 3:04 PM