King’s X are the ‘pastors in the church of rock ’n’ roll’
By: Jon Epstein
The path walked by the iconic hard rock band King’s X has been a series of “almosts” and “how can that be?’ Scenarios fraught with close calls and “if only” all wrapped up in a pack of assumptions that at the end of the day had nothing to do with the band’s music whatsoever. Who would think that simply being true to yourself could be so difficult, especially when all you really want to do is play rock ‘n’ roll?
Throughout its 30 year-career, King’s X has not shied away from their deeply spiritual and self-reflective orientation which was on full display with the release of their debut album “Out of the Silent Planet,” whose title was lifted from the first book of C.S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy. Lewis, best known for his most enduring work “The Chronicles of Narnia,” has been labeled a “Christian apologist” due to his commitment to exploring an objective and reasoned approach to Christian theology and belief, a point of view that has informed King’s X since being formed in the mid-1980s.
The three members of King’s X, bassist and vocalist Doug Pinnick (dUg), guitarist Ty Tabor and drummer Jerry Gaskill, first met while working as sidemen in the Christian rock genre that first emerged in the early 1980s. They produced many well-known artists including guitarist Phil Keagy and the hard rock band Petra. That fact alone goes a long way to explaining why the band was initially labeled a Christian rock band, and although the band has always rejected that label, their unflappable commitment to exploring their spirituality, and the fact that they never once wavered from that commitment all but cemented that label and resulted in the band having to explain themselves repeatedly in pretty much every early article written about the band in the music press.
Despite their best efforts to reject the Christian rock label, by the early 1990s, it seemed to have stuck. This resulted in a situation in which King’s X music became available in Christian bookstores nationwide, and a rejection of the band by a large number of hard rock fans which was only reinforced by the release of their third album, the deeply spiritual “Faith Hope Love” in 1990. (The album title drawn from 1 Corinthians made that connection clear.) Despite the conflict between what the band claimed to be, and what their audience claimed they were “Faith Hope Love” remains the band’s best-selling album.
To further complicate an already complicated public perception problem Pinnick came out as a proud gay man in 1998, which immediately destroyed their reputation among the Christian rock community and the band scrambled to defend themselves once again.
Regardless of the ridiculous public relations nightmares that King’s X seems to find themselves perpetually at the center of, the band has remained true to their vision, and have attracted a “who’s who” of fans among the hard rock community. Most notably Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament who has asserted that “King’s X invented grunge,” and Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who has been an outspoken champion of the band for decades. This attention resulted in the band being named among the 100 best hard rock bands of all time by VH1, which a simple listen to the band’s work makes absolutely clear.
King’s X’s music is very difficult to categorize, and at the risk of being cliché, is singular and unique. Musically the band draws on shades of Metallica, Hendrix, Trower and Jethro Tull, with a groove that is highly reminiscent of classic funk and R&B, and a lead vocal style that draws from a gospel “call and response” format, and a deeply introspective lyrical content. Perhaps the best description I have heard is that King’s X is “beautifully weird and extremely compelling.”
The past decade has been both a difficult one for King’s X and a testament to both the band, and it’s extremely committed fan base. A number of health-related scares, specifically some near-fatal heart attacks suffered by Gaskill slowed the band down significantly for many years and resulted in a greatly reduced recording and touring schedule. Although, the most recent album “XV” (2008) was widely heralded as their best work in years, which for a band of this caliber is saying a lot.
King’s X will play at the Ramkat in Winston-Salem on June 9. Tickets are available via the Ramkat website (www.theramkat.com/)and www.kingsxonline.com
Dr. Jon Epstein is a writer, artist, and musician living in Winston-Salem.