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King's X - Gretchen Goes To Nebraska CD (album) cover


King's X


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4.06 | 110 ratings

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3 stars My son-in-law is a big fan of these guys and a host of proggers seem to enjoy their music so, out of curiosity and the lure of a relatively inexpensive investment, I bought "Gretchen Goes to Nebraska." I picked this album because it has the highest rating in their catalogue and pretty cool cover art, to boot. I figured if I wasn't impressed by their best then at least I'd be knowledgeable about who they are and what kind of sounds they manufacture.

After weeks of listening I was prepared to dismiss them as just another hard rock power plant with some slightly progressive tendencies but then I noticed the year this album was released and reassessed in a jiffy. The fact is that by 1989 the murderous MTV virus had thoroughly devastated Progland and had nearly wiped out the legacy of the innovative groups of the 60s and 70s, reducing our hallowed and once-noble genre to the status of a crippled vet strapped into a wheelchair on the street corner hawking cheap pens from a tin cup. Prog was on life support. Any band that even glanced in that direction had to covertly smuggle any smidgen of progressive character into their work as if they were shady secret agents, praying that the label fat cats wouldn't notice and thereby feel justified in tossing them out on their dumpsters. Especially a group based out of Texas! So, taking the whole ugly prog holocaust into consideration, I feel compelled to give these boys about 300 yards of leeway.

There's obviously a concept behind this recording but dang if I can comprehend what it is. There's an esoteric story for your reading pleasure in the liner about a girl named Gretchen on a spiritual quest to Nirvana, Nebraska (or thereabouts) but the convoluted tale comes off like it was written by committee because it continually veers off in several abstract directions and is as hard to follow as a movie by Fellini. I thought maybe the simpler lyrics would clarify things but they really don't. I'll give them this, though; the tracks are extremely tight and cohesive throughout, proving that they are a force to be reckoned with and a group to be taken seriously.

They open in a large way with "Out of the Silent Planet," one of the proggier songs on the album. A silky sitar chord strums, then their straightforward metallic power chord approach takes hold and boldly announces their arrival with gusto. Their fat, layered harmonies give the tune breadth and when the middle section drops into the wide open spaces for a spell with guitar and sitar whisperings streaming by one gets the feeling that great things are in store. Next up is "Over My Head" and, while it's little more than good old-fashioned drivin' rock & roll, it steams along like a locomotive on steroids and guitarist Ty Tabor's climactic chord that rings out on the end of the repeating riff is highly addictive. Lead singer/bassist Doug Pinnick has an Ian Gillian-type voice that's very appropriate here and the hot guitar solo is as fiery as a steel mill furnace. This is one catchy number, for sure, and its clap-along section must send their concert audiences into a frenzy. Lotsa fun.

"Summerland" is a half-time rocker built on a slick guitar pattern but it isn't terribly original by any stretch. The guitar break is pretty decent but Pinnick's overwrought vocal gets old fast. Styx-styled harmonies jump out of the gate for "Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something" and Doug's eerie, compressed voice lends some mystery to the proceedings. Ty successfully fuses the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and Richie Blackmore on the lead and drummer Jerry Gaskill gets to showcase his admirable skills on the way to the end. Their attempt at producing an acoustic guitar-based ballad on "The Difference (in the garden of St. Anne's-on-the-hill)" falls miles short of the mark, however. Their three- part harmonies are pleasant enough but the song is just lame. Zzzzz. Things take an upswing immediately with the riff-heavy sledgehammer of a rockathon, "I'll Never be the Same." The thick background vocals fill the void splendidly and Tabor's passionate ride is exhilarating. But it's the powerful descending guitar/bass progression sizzling through the second half that makes the prog monster in me stand up and salute. It's mesmerizing, magnificent and you don't want it to stop.

The faint organ heard at the beginning of "Mission" promises more than it can deliver as it merely lulls the listener with false expectations. The group then barrels into a Cream-inspired arena that ventures perilously close to plagiarizing "White Room" in its basic essence. Doug strains his tortured soul-in- agony voice much too often for comfort and the fire-and-brimstone spoken interlude in the middle is woefully ineffective. Yet, in the midst of this churner they deliver one of their better phrases. "Who are these people behind the stained glass windows?/have they forgotten just what they came here for?/was it salvation or 'scared of Hell?'/or an assembly of a social get-together." they intone. "Fall On Me" is next and it's a speedy flier, by golly, but by now Pinnick's anguished vocals as he screams "pain, don't fall on me" are becoming downright. well, painful. Ty comes through with yet another soaring solo (this dude has some amazing chops) before they drift into a semi-psychedelic segment that might've gone somewhere intriguing had they not cut it so short. "Pleiades" is a slower-paced dirge of a tune that at least gives you a break from Doug's hysterics. Either Tabor or Gaskill are responsible for the smoother and more-under-control singing and Ty's guitar has a nice blend of crispness joined with grit running underneath as it slowly rises above writhing, demonic cries wafting up from below.

"Don't Believe It (it's easier said than done)" is a treat. Its Trapeze-like hardcore riff is infectious, they throw in plenty of smart accents on the memorable chorus to keep the energy flowing and Tabor's brief harmony guitar lead is right out of the Blackmore school of fills. But just a few seconds into "Send a Message" you realize that this trio is getting to be disturbingly predictable at this juncture. The tune suffers from acute sounds-the-same syndrome and is virtually indistinguishable from the majority of the cuts that came before. Ty shreds out another barnburner of a guitar break but even that can't save this sub-par ditty. Thank heaven the progressive cavalry arrives just in the nick of time for the closer, "The Burning Down." Jerry's military snare gives the track a different flair and the calmer voice of reason sliding atop the excellent background harmonies is like a lungful of pure oxygen. They wisely find the patience to elongate the spacey finale, adorning it with echoing, volume-pedal-enhanced guitar whiffs of smoke to create a wonderful floating sensation. If only more of the album was like this. But, then again, in anti-prog '89 it may never have seen the light of day if that was the case.

I like these fellas in a kind of Deep Purple-meets-Rush kind of way but I can only recommend it if you're one solidly into the power trio motif. An occasional keyboard would have been beneficial and might have offered some needed variety but that's just me. The plain truth is that in those dark days only a handful of bands like King's X were courageous enough to raise the crumpled and charred colors of progressive rock when doing so risked ridicule and scorn from the zombie-like, pop-pacified, video- obsessed public in the late 80s and they should be honored for their bravery. 2.9 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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