Does music have a healing power to it?
I wanted to start off this piece with a link to some articles or studies about the how music can help comfort or heal us, but I feel that would be a bit pointless. It’s just something I know to be true for me, and I’m hard pressed to find someone who goes emotionally unmoved by music. It can be from any era, any genre, and on any format (I’ve found some good cassettes lately!) but to find an artist that speaks to me on that deeper level, there is nothing quite like it.
I’ve always spent an extraordinary amount of time when music shopping. It seems that lately when I convince myself that I need to add to my over-flowing music collection, I tend to take far too long to make my mind up. I scroll through my Amazon recommendations in extensive browsing sessions while praying that I spot right thing at the right price, and can spend well over an hour in a record stores only to settle on something I wasn’t necessarily looking for. I actually get slightly anxious in these situations. At the end of the day, I’m just looking for some music that hits me in the right spot and makes me feel good. Deep down, to get specific, I’m hoping to get that special album that makes me feel the way King’s X have made me feel over the years.
I can think back to different times in my life and pair certain songs with a certain time, be it at one of the highest points in my life or one of the lowest. I don’t mean it in the sense of “(Insert hit song here) was my summer jam”. My associations of songs, albums, or bands of a certain time is more of when I discovered them and not to when they came into existence. The music you connected with the most in the year 2000 doesn’t have to be from the year 2000. Sure, I may have been “Down With The Sickness” around that time, but I wasn’t too far from the point where I started to make more lasting bonds with music. In that respect, King’s X still stands out as one of the most significant discoveries in music I ever made.
This trio never fall far out of my listening rotation, even as it continues to expand in spite of my best efforts to reign it in a little. Still, my knowledge on the group’s history has always been a bit lacking. Take the pile of magazines and books in the corner of my bedroom as evidence that I enjoy reading about musicians I admire almost as much as listening to them, so it was enjoyable to do that with King’s X with their recent authorized biography King’s X: An Oral History. Most of what I knew about the band could be found on Wikipedia, so this was a great learning tool. The book gives the typical glimpses into life on the road and the business side of the industry, but of most interest to me was figuring out the origins of the songs that have made them many people’s favorite ‘underrated’ band. Their story could have made an interesting documentary along the lines of The Story of Anvil, but with all due respect to my fellow Canadian metal-heads, this hypothetical film would have (to me) the superior soundtrack.
When did I discover King’s X? I first saw the band as an opener for a Dream Theater / Joe Satriani co-headlining tour in 2002, which happened to be the first concert I paid my own money to attend. I was there to see Satch, but ended up finding two great bands in the process. Dream Theater I had certainly heard of through coverage in Guitar World magazine, but King’s X were more of a mystery. I wanted to do my research in advanced of the concert, so around a month prior to the concert, I purchased a compilation CD (Hard Music) that gave me my first taste of both Dream Theater (a radio edit of “Pull Me Under”) and King’s X (“Black Flag”). While Dream Theater started their set with the only song of theirs I knew, I was not so lucky with King’s X. Their set was around 25 to 30 minutes, and they were likely still supporting the Manic Moonlight album, so that’s not too surprising. A good appetizer, but I needed more.
It was a bit of a slow journey to getting into them, but I chalk that up to being a poor teenager with a limited budget. My family got the VH1 Classic channel on satellite, so I was able to see a few of their music videos, the first of which was “Summerland”. Such a great song, but the video isn’t anything to write home about. In the aforementioned book, bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick thought he was made up to look particularly gay in this video. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (Pinnick is a homosexual), but I had the same gut reaction. I think it was more of his hairstyle than anything that threw me off, a sort of teased mohawk/mullet hybrid that I still get a kick out of to this day. When I saw the band live, Doug (and the rest of the band) had much shorter hair, so they all looked drastically different. It wasn’t long after that when their “Over My Head” video also aired on the same channel, a song with one of the single greatest riffs ever, and knew I really had to find a full album by them. Naturally, I went with Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, where both of those tracks originate. That seems to be where most people start for good reason, but I stumbled across it as a bit of a fluke at a local record store. I never usually looked at the cassettes at Star Records, but as he stacked them on the wall to the left of the cash register, the bold red text of the band’s name on the spine was hard to miss. It took me all of a nanosecond to decide to take it home.
In advanced of the purchase, I learned that they were considered (at least by some) to be a Christian band, and that was still in my phase of where I still considered myself to be religious. I was attending a Catholic high school, and helped run religious retreats that were organized by our school’s resident chaplain. That may have helped with their appeal, but I don’t think it did all that much. I’d heard plenty of bland, generic Christian music acts, so if anything that would have made me biased against them. In spite of this, I still felt like the atmosphere on Gretchen created such a positive force, almost a religious experience all on its own. The cover was interesting as well, reminding me of a story book from childhood like The Wizard of Oz.
It took a few months, but I eventually picked up a second King’s X album, Faith Hope Love. Their albums were not kept in stock at the CD stores in the local mall (there were three of them back then!), so it was back to the second-hand supply at Star Records for another cassette. I still have both of them today.
Now on to the healing part of this story. Those two tapes were of great help to me during my first year out of high school in 2003. The jump from high school to university was one of the hardest experiences of my life. I realize that may sound as if I have lead a relatively privileged life if this was one of my most difficult trials, a fact I won’t deny, but I know that my confidence level was just about at rock-bottom. I graduated high school as an honor roll student in every single semester and I had the support of my parents with whom I lived as I attended university, but I didn’t feel like I could handle the next phase of my life. I was still taking the loser cruiser (the bus) and I wasn’t much of a ladies man, but the most pressing issue was that I was struggling academically and felt like an intellectual lightweight in comparison to my classmates, many of whom were older that me.
I remember most vividly the day that I was preparing for a series of math exams. They were finals, so I had months of lectures to prepare me for them, yet I felt the material was still way above me in terms of what I was accustomed to, and I couldn’t even figure out certain basics in calculus. My high school training made me a bit reliant on calculators while over looking certain standard trigonometric principles, which I can now I laugh about. Everything grew from those concepts, I had been left in the dust with each passing lecture, and I was too afraid to ask for assistance. I had already decided to drop out and take a limited course load during the winter semester, but my anxiety and stress still would not dissipate. Fittingly enough, since I was feeling these concepts were ‘Over My Head’, I would listen to those two King’s X cassettes on study breaks. To be honestly accurate, I believe I spent more time listening to the tapes than I did studying. With Gretchen, I remember listening to “The Difference” and “The Burning Down” and being move to tears by them when under these particular circumstances. Faith Hope Love also had some very warm songs to help soothe me that day, with “I’ll Never Get Tired Of You” and “Fine Art of Friendship”, although not my favourites from that album, working as a great back-to-back combo when I needed it. By the time I wrote the exam, my nerves seemed unnaturally calmed. I answered as many questions as I was able (there was lots of white space remaining on those pages), and handed in my test, and actually felt… great.
I actually had a similar emotional connection to their music a few years later when I was just getting into their underrated self-titled album and Dogman. The King’s X album fit the same basic sound of their other Sam Taylor-produced works, but I wasn’t complaining since the songwriting didn’t feel as complacent as some would have you believe. It’s hard to say much negative about an album with “The World Around Me”, “Lost In Germany”, and “Black Flag” on it. Other faves included “Prisoner” and ”Not Just For The Dead”. Both have that bright sunny-morning vibe, and I’d joke with my brother that the intro/verse riff of “Prisoner” had a coffee commercial feel to it, if that makes any sense at all. Dogman was a significantly heavier album than the four that preceded it, known more for the crushing low-end on tracks like “Pretend”, “Black The Sky” and the title-track. It was the mellow “Cigarettes” I found particularly uplifting, which features a fantastic Ty Tabor guitar solo.
Anyway, I would listen to these albums as well as a few others I had recently purchased (Rush’s Snakes and Arrows and A Farewell to Kings, Savatage’s Dead Winter Dead, and a few others) when commuting to an unpaid internship that was a graduation requirement for the program I was enrolled in at community college. There was nothing I found particularly exciting about the workplace, but it seemed like out of left-field I was told that I was no longer needed. The employee who had agreed to let me intern had just quit the job to become a cop, leaving me with nobody to connect to in the office, and it put me in a slightly awkward position. Still, it wasn’t much, but being fired from a job I wasn’t even getting paid for? That hurt me greatly. It seemed like the confidence I had built up over the past three years had come crashing down. Once I left that office for the last time, I put on my headphones, and listened to these albums as I contemplated what my next step would be. Things worked themselves out, and I eventually found another position for credit towards graduation. Minor crisis averted, and major spins on those albums accumulated, which helped immensely.
Both King’s X: An Oral History and the memories compiled here make me want to explore albums of theirs I’ve yet to dive into like Ogre Tones or Please Come Home Mr. Bulbous. Music may seem like an easy to prescribe remedy, but it always seems to be useful part of the process. Even if those unexplored albums don’t bring similar experiences to me, I know I’ll find something else that will. I only hope I don’t need to spend hours obsessively digging though vinyl at flea markets in order to find it.