King’s X “Gretchen Goes to Nebraska” Review

The veteran rock trio King’s X has 12 studio albums to its name in its long and distinguished career. But when you talk to long-time fans, the chances are they’ll cite Gretchen Goes to Nebraska as their favorite.  Their debut, Out of the Silent Planet, was already a stellar effort, but building upon its success Gretchen scales to such heights that it left a strong impression on the fans.

An ordinary band is fortunate if it has one distinguishing feature.  But early King’s X had three: singer/bassist Doug Pinnick’s deep, rich voice is an anomaly among the belting white boys that permeated the hard rock scene; his massive 12-string bass created a monstrous wall of sound few bassists commanded; and finally, guitarist Ty Tabor had this elaborate rig that created a unique tone that had bell-like clarity, velvety smoothness and in-your-face grind all at the same time. And that’s before you get started on other strengths that are just as valuable even if not quite as unique: soaring three-part vocal harmonies, virtuosic command of their instruments, and mature musicianship that favor serving up tight, focused tunes over sprawling indulgence.

Throw all those strengths into a batch of exceptionally written songs with a cohesive spiritual focus, and you have a recipe for one impactful album.  In fact, Gretchen‘s esteem only seems to rise with time, partially because the band themselves seem to tame, if not downright abandon, some of their trademark features — Doug mostly sticks to four-string these days, and Ty has been through more conventional rigs that don’t replicate the tone on the four earliest records.

But beyond those obvious elements, a subtler difference is the creativity they applied to every corner of the songs in this collection.  From the ethereal sitar of “Out of the Silent Planet” to  crafty riffing in the outro of “I’ll Never Be the Same” to the odd-meter pounding of “Send a Message” they seem intent on applying the highest level of craftsmanship to every second of their tight 3-to-5-minute tunes.   The result is a 12-song collection with not a weak spot in sight.

There are stand-out tracks here, but the deeper cuts are just as satisfying.  “Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something” and “Don’t Believe It (It’s Easier Said Than Done” boast memorable hooks, catchy titles and gospel-tinged sing-along-able choruses.  “Mission” is an intrepid anthem that would have been a lead single for lesser accomplished acts.  “Fall on Me” swings hard with the kind of urgency seen on a few of their songs.  King’s X favors mid-tempo pounding as the modus operandi but “Fall on Me” (along with “Moanjam” from Faith Hope Love and “World Around Me” from the self-titled fourth album) proves that they can also run up-tempo numbers with the best of them.

“Summerland” is a sentimental favorite among fans, a shimmering, gorgeous ballad full of fragility and yearning.  Same reflectiveness is applied to the expansive “Pleiades,” reportedly the first original song that pointed to the creative direction the band was to pursue (but was curiously left off of the first album).  Keeping with the style they established with “Goldilox” on the debut album, this sort of pensive opuses become one of the their signature moves.  These songs surface deep longings that are universal life experiences, but in a bold and unflinching manner.  Perhaps one can say this is how a grown man deals with his pain — sometimes with howling, other times with whispering, but with two feet on the ground, staring at the heartache squarely, beaten but refusing to give in.

Finally,  “Over My Head” is a bonafide fist-in-the-air anthem about the music we hear in our head, how it’s given to you, doesn’t leave you and overcomes you.  Any music fanatic can relate to this sentiment, but it just blows you away when it’s delivered with what must be one of the most heroic riffs in all of hard rock.

Really, if this album doesn’t sell you on the brilliance that is King’s X, you probably aren’t into rock at all.  Released in 1989, the album has aged incredibly well, in fact it sounds better than much of the squashed, edited, manipulated-to-perfection rock recordings coming out in mid 2010’s.  They use the trio format to its fullest extent, pulling way back when they need to be quiet so that when they come back to the pounding it hits you in the gut.  What is on the tape is performed with honesty and immediateness, while the arrangements still leave plenty of air and empty spaces.  This is how rock music is done, and they had it all figured out with their second album.  Gretchen Goes to Nebraska is a classic — it’s never too late to add to your collection and be blown away by its majesty.