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King's X: Gretchen Goes To Nebraska - Album Of The Week Club review

There are the nearly men. There are the underrated bands. There are the should-have-beens. And then there's King's X, and their second album Gretchen Goes To Nebraska

King's X: Gretchen Goes To Nebraska
(Image: © Megaforce)
King's X: Gretchen Goes To Nebraska

(Image credit: Megaforce)

Out of the Silent Planet
Over My Head
Summerland
Everybody Knows a Little Bit of Something
The Difference (In the Garden of St. Anne's-on-the-Hill)
I'll Never Be the Same
Mission
Fall on Me
Pleiades
Don't Believe It (It's Easier Said than Done)
Send a Message
The Burning Down

Right from the beginning nobody knew what to do with the musical conundrum that is King’s X. Formed in the college town of Springfield, Missouri, Chicago-born Doug Pinnick was already in his thirties by the time he met Mississippi native Ty Tabor (then just 18) and New Jersey boy Jerry Gaskill (22). 

For the first three years the trio called themselves The Edge, before becoming Sneak Preview in 1983. They spent their formative years shape-shifting to suit the trends of the decade, struggling to make ends meet by playing Police, U2, Hall & Oates and Big Country covers in clubs and bars, deeply uncertain of their own style.

In 1985 the group were lured from Springfield to Houston by the false hope of a management and recording contract. The following summer, however, they met Sam Taylor. A musician and production engineer, Taylor had been the right-hand man of ZZ Top manager Bill Ham. It was Taylor who suggested that Sneak Preview get a new name; King’s X had no particular meaning, but all agreed that it sounded good.

King’s X struggled at first to make headway. Just about every record company in America had turned them down when, in late 1987, a demo found its way into the hands of John Zazula, better known as Johnny Z, and then head of his own label, Megaforce Records, which had major distribution through Atlantic. 

Debut album Out Of The Silent Planet, produced by Taylor and named after a children’s book by CS Lewis, was released in the same month in 1988 as Voivod’s Dimension HatrössRising Force by Yngwie Malmsteen and the debut from Led Zeppelin clones Kingdom Come. To say the King’s X album stood out like a sore thumb would be an understatement. 

Sales of Out Of The Silent Planet, however, were less than impressive, but the follow-up Gretchen Goes To Nebraska at least maintained the group’s creative growth. Another CS Lewis-inspired title, it told the story of a small girl explorer setting out for a beautiful land known to her only in her dreams. 

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in June 1989

  • Agent Orange - Sodom
  • Flowers in the Dirt - Paul McCartney
  • Passion - Peter Gabriel
  • In Step - Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
  • World in Motion - Jackson Browne
  • Trouble in Angel City - Lion
  • Extreme Aggression - Kreator
  • Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe - Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe
  • Mr. Big - Mr. Big
  • The Real Thing - Faith No More
  • Cosmic Thing - The B-52s
  • The End of the Innocence - Don Henley
  • The Iron Man: The Musical - Pete Townshend
  • Magnum Cum Louder - Hoodoo Gurus
  • Margin Walker - Fugazi

What they said...

"Trying to pick highlights on the album is hard. King’s X sound deceptively simple, seeming at first listen to be just a groove-laden hard rock band. However, if you’re paying attention, the band can easily surprise you, from the lush Summerland, which manages to be a soft, beautiful number without falling into cheesy ballad territory, to the stop-start riffs of Send A Message to the gentle yet captivating closer The Burning Down. (Sputnik Music)

"It seemed inconceivable that Houston's King's X would ever top the brilliance and originality of their debut, but 1989's Gretchen Goes to Nebraska did just that, taking their unique sound to unprecedented heights of invention and inspiration. With its interweaving vocals, ominous bass riff, and sitar flourishes, the dark Out Of The Silent Planet truly sounds not of this earth. Even more stunning is the band's immediate about-face into the joyous gospel fervour of their signature song, Over My Head, a celebration of music fit for any Sunday congregation." (AllMusic)

"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." (Ari Koinuma

What you said...

Gino Sigismondi: This is the one I've been waiting for. This album (and this band) loom large in my life. Sometimes you encounter a band that literally encompasses everything you love about music, and King's X is that band for me. 

Heavy guitar riffs? Check. Soulful lead vocals and heartfelt, honest lyrics? Check. Groove? Check. Searing, melodic guitar solos? Check. Killer, tight vocal harmonies? Check. Toss all that in a blender and sprinkle in with some psychedelic/prog flourishes, and this is what you get. 

I remember the ads in guitar magazines for Gretchen, where you had quotes from Charlie Benante, Vernon Reid, Kerrang! and others raving about how amazing this band is, comparing them to U2 and claiming that soon there wouldn't be arenas big enough to hold them. So why didn't that happen? Probably for the same reason I put my first copy of this album on the shelf and didn't listen to it for almost a year. I bought it based on the above ads, and an interview where Vernon Reid raved about them, particularly because everyone was making such a big deal about Living Colour being a "black" rock band. 

He felt a mixed-race band was the real future. At any rate, I dropped the needle on this one, and was immediately taken aback by the uniqueness of the guitar sounds. So much so, that my 17 year old brain, more used to the thick grind of Metallica and Guns 'N Roses, didn't know what to make of it. The drumming seemed too simple, and the vocals seemed too "sweet." 

So honestly, I just wasn't ready for it. About a year later, for some reason, I thought, I should give this another try. I'm not sure exactly what matured in brain over that year, but when the vocal harmonies kicked in on the first chorus of Out Of The Silent Planet, I got chills up my spine! 

What follows, I've come to believe, may be the greatest "Side 1" of any album in the history of rock. Their best known song, Over My Head riffs on a classic gospel phrase (Google "Sister Rosetta Tharpe") but becomes personal to Doug Pinnick's childhood. That personal experience with universal resonance has always been part of the magic of King's X lyrics. 

Summerland follows, one of their best tracks, and featuring one of Ty Tabor's greatest solos and another spine-tingling final verse from Doug. Everybody Knows A Little Bit of Something has more killer harmonies and the funkiest groove yet, but then the record takes another left turn into a gorgeous, Ty-sung acoustic track, The Difference. Their Beatles influence comes through strongly here. Side 1 ends with I'll Never Be The Same, another drop-D guitar riff with a finger-twisting, syncopating, chromatic ending that keeps turning the beat around on itself. 

Much has been said about how King's X supposedly influenced all these grunge bands because of their use of drop-D tuning, but I don't really buy that. For one, Soundgarden was already experimenting with dropped and alternate tunings at the same time King's X was recording their first two records. Secondly, it's not like these albums were that popular that it could be said to influence an entire scene! But in the end, the range, uniqueness and diversity found on just side one of Gretechen is likely what caused it to turn off most listeners. 

King's X found themselves in the unenviable spot of being too "out there" for fans of the hair metal that was so popular at the time, and not heavy enough for fans of more extreme rock and metal. 

Side two, while not as chock full of classics as side one, is still an amazing journey. Notably, Pleides was the first song Ty wrote in drop-D for the band, and ended up inspiring their direction from that point on. Though many more great albums were to follow, traditional success never did. However, more than two decades after this record's release, the original band is still together, still touring, and getting ready to release another new album. A small but rabid fan base has kept them going all these years, and the fact that we're still talking about Gretchen says something about its stature.

Mike Fildes: King's X helped set the scene for the 90s alternative scene which was to follow. They were one of the first bands of that era to tune down paving the way for Soundgarden and AIC, and you can hear it here.

This album is their masterpiece, incredible harmonies mixed with sledgehammer riffs, it evokes Sabbath, the Beatles, Floyd, and Hendrix amongst others. The whole album feels like a journey to some strange, mystical place, a classic album from a unique and criminally underrated band. 10/10.

Stuart Morrison: A timeless album with an excellent production sound. Well-written songs, great musical performances and some stunning guitar work. There are so many stand out tracks depending on your mood. Over My Head, Summerland and I'll Never Be The Same are my personal favourites but the whole album is strong. How King's X were never huge is still a mystery to me.

Mark Tucker: "Underrated" is a term that is used far too often to describe your favourite band that nobody else has heard of. However, Kings X totally deserve to be described as "underrated", and criminally so. They deserved to be enormous. Beautifully crafted songs with real depth, outstanding musicianship and soulful vocals. One possible reason for them failing to be a major act was that they fell between several stools; too proggy at times for some, too many riffs for your prog aficionados and a high level of AOR melodies meant that they never truly found a big enough fan base upon which to build. If you are willing to leave your favourite genre at the door, there really isn't a bad track on the album, although the opening three tracks are stunning.

Dave Ferris: Nebraska is my home state. So, when this album was released, it piqued my interest. My musician and music loving friends had already developed a love for their debut album Out of the Silent Planet. MTV had started to play Over My Head on the Headbangers Ball on Saturday nights. The harmonies were so engaging. Doug Pinnick's bass tone was so heavy and thick sounding. Ty's guitarist skills and Jerry's muscular drumming rounded out everything. 

Summerland was the second track released as a single. I saw the band on tour in the Fall of 89 as the opened for Billy Squier along with Blue Murder (as the opening act). I remember Doug introducing the song as their next single. Eventually, I would see them three more times after this. 

For me, the whole album transitions from one song to another. There's no way I will listen to just one song and not the entire album. Watching the band play live, when they played Pleides it would turn into a lengthy jam and ultimate guitar expression from Ty Tabor that is incredible to behold. Truly one of those bands that is unique in sound and beyond categorisation. 

I had friends in college that had different musical tastes: Where my tastes were more heavy rock and metal, they would be into the Replacements and (pre 1990's) U2. But they also loved King's X, and loved this album. It's a true gem.

Chris Yerkes: Where to begin? This album defined my college freshman year, fall ‘89, with the next two albums framing the end of my academic career, sort of a soundtrack for school. I was a DJ and music director at my college radio station, and playing bass/vocals in a band heavily influenced by Rush. 

I heard this album and was instantly mesmerised by Doug's super heavy bass, Ty’s inimitable guitar sound and the superb harmonies. No one else sounded like them. No one. I saw them open for Living Colour at VA Tech soon after, and they blew me away live as well. I also saw them in NJ and Charlotte, NC, but the time they played Johnson City, TN, opening for AC/DC, was the most bittersweet:

Through my college radio station, I had backstage passes and an interview set with the band that afternoon, before the show. The venue was two hours away, I was a penniless college kid, and my car broke down on the way, ending my one chance to interview one of my favourite bands.

As many others have stated, this band should’ve been big, but didn’t fit one category. Bad timing, in my opinion, is also to blame. Everything was turning towards grunge in the early 90s, and Kings X was just a little too polished to fit in. 10/10 all day long.

Michael Dean: The best album by the greatest unknown band in rock history! I discovered King's X with this record and still listen to it on a regular basis over 30 years later!

Jacob Tannehill: This band from the beginning should have been huge, but unfortunately they were about five years too late. Hair metal was peaking, and they didn’t “fit in” even though Kip Winger, Charlie Benante , Rocky George (Suicidal Tendencies) etc. were all in love with this record. 

I have followed their career till now, and sonically this is their best album, with crisp clear digital production, tight musicianship and of course the harmonies! I don’t think it was successful because it wasn’t “fast food” hair metal for the time. It still holds up 30+ years. Over my head, still punches me in the gut when I hear it. Summerland is a so stunning and deep tracks like fall on me and send a message round out the album. Essential listening. Those of you here that are listening to it for the first time, please listen to it at least two times before reviewing.

Jonathan Novajosky: I'm barely familiar with this band, only because Spotify once recommended It's Love to me, which I liked. So I went into Gretchen Goes To Nebraska having at least decent expectations. The album definitely has its own sound – not quite grunge but a little more edge and heaviness than a typical rock album. A lot of the guitar here is very rhythmic and catchy, especially on songs like Over My Head and Don't Believe It. The drumming on Send A Message combined with the background vocals makes it the best song on the album to me.

After my first listen, it's clear that this is a very underrated band. There wasn't a bad song to be found. This is a strange compliment to give, but I always appreciate when albums have good track placement and are ordered well. Even though there is a consistent sound throughout all the songs, it never feels repetitive or stale. There are some lighter songs like The Difference nudged in between the rockers and there's even a cool organ intro in Mission. Finishing with a few minutes of instrumental in The Burning Down was a satisfying conclusion to the album. 8/10

Darren Burris: Excellent album! Great vocals, harmonies, melodies and musicianship! Saw them in a small club in the 90s and they blew the roof off! Will never understand how they didn’t break through. 8 out of 10.

Stuart Michael Wells: Such a great album, and a thrill to listen to it again after about 10 years. Never going to be commercially successful, far too much quality for that, but nevertheless it's top quality. Agree with the earlier comment about the guitar tone, it has such a warmth to it. And the vocals are incredibly soulful. What's not to like?

John Davidson: While I’d heard of them, I wasn’t particularly familiar with King’s X and had heard nothing from Gretchen... before this week. It took me a few listens to get into the right headspace to appreciate it, and while I still don’t love it, it has grown on me.

Funk Rock are two words that generally send a chill down my spine – and not the good kind so it’s no surprise that this album doesn’t entirely float my boat. It’s also fair to say that while there are elements of funk the album is pretty varied and doesn’t stick within easy genre boundaries.

The vocal performance and harmonies are the weak point for me. The solo vocals often sound like the singer is trying too hard to impress, more like a performer on a talent show rather than an artist breathing life and meaning into words they’ve clearly spent time on crafting.

The harmonies are a little off-kilter and sound very like Alice in Chains (who presumably like this album) who, for my money, made better use of the downbeat tone that those strained melodic harmonies could provide.

On the up side, some of the instrumentation is strong. The guitar sounds vary from intricate picking to full on riff’n’roll. There’s a touch of Alex Lifeson’s sound in the more delicate work which I enjoyed. The drumming is solid, and there are the occasional bass flourishes that I liked as well.

Song highlights are SummerLand, Out Of The Silent Planet , Pleiades and The Burn Down.

Summerland (and the intro in particular) could easily be on an early Symphony X album - again perhaps they were fans.

Overall though the music is somehow less than the sum of its parts, and while I’ve read a lot of praise for this (and the guys certainly have talent) they don’t make the kind of music that moves me.

That said, they are clearly a group that inspired other artists to cannibalise and re-present aspects of their sound – often with more commercial success.

Mike Knoop: One amazing, outstanding, incredible, stellar song for the angels in Over My Head; the rest is OK. I'm really surprised that I never bought this album because I loved (and love) that song so much and this was exactly the kind of music I was listening when it came out and I flipped CDs and cassettes like pancakes. But, no. I enjoy bits throughout, but most of the songs themselves just don't make a memory. Summerland and I'll Never Be the Same are really the only other songs that stand out after several listens this week. But Over My Head, that one will always be a keeper.

Carl Black: King's X Had the fortunate/unfortunate honour of supporting AC/DC around this time. There is a whole graveyard of AC/DC support bands who, although decent, never got a reaction on the tour or did anything after. It's like being blessed with a curse. That aside I always remember them as being different. And that is what I like about this album. 

It's strange and different. I hear the Beatles in there, with equal measure of Living Colour and Fishbone (please pick The Reality Of My Surroundings as album of the week) with a dash of Rush and bit of Gospel. A heady mix. The bars must have been full at the AC/DC gigs. It's very apparent that they are ahead of their time. 

The grunge movement has a lot to thank Kings X for. This album could easily be classed as grunge, but that's the thing, they fell between musical movements and like many trailblazers fall through without getting the credit they deserve. The album is very pleasant with no real highs or lows. It's just OK.

Bill Griffin: Starting off, I listened to the wrong album (their first) in the background for three days but liked it enough to give it my undivided attention at which point I discovered my error. I'll have to do the same with Out Of The Silent Planet because I think I like it a bit more than this one even if it is growing on me.

I hear a lot of influences here. Over My Head reminds me of the Genesis song Whodunnit. Initially better but overstays its welcome; by the end, it's kind of irritating.

Fall On Me wouldn't sound out of place on Uriah Heep's Abominog album and The Burning Down reminds me of Cheap Trick. Alice In Chains borrowed their whole vocal harmony thing from The Difference (In the Garden of St. Anne's On-The-Hill).

I do have two complaints: Pinnick's bass is too low in the mix and none of Tabor's solos are memorable enough to catch my attention but overall, it's a pretty good record.

Iain Macaulay: So I’ve listened to this album a few times over the last week and after each listen I’ve felt exactly the same - totally underwhelmed. Where as the music, for the most part, is pretty well executed the vocals just seem to sound flat and unemotional and turn me off to be honest. I remember this band from back in the day but never bothered with them. Now I’ve actually paid attention and had a listen I don’t feel as if i’ve missed out on anything. Sorry.

Nigel Lancashire: I’d forgotten about King’s X until Doug Pinnick did an impressive vocal guest turn on Go F*** Yourself (my censoring) on Roxanne’s terrific Radio Silence comeback album. And, to be honest, listening to Gretchen... I know why.

The King’s X sophomore effort is Out Of The Silent Planet part two, to the extent that it starts with what should have been the first album’s eponymous track, and continues to sound just like the first record. Now that’s no bad thing exactly, the band were musically tight, and had a few decent songs, but their continued inability to lodge themselves in the ears of rock fans worldwide isn’t wholly surprising.

The songs too often settle into a mid-paced, drop-D proto-grunge groove that even after repeated listening attempts just drifts into the background. Things do pick up a little when Ty Tabor gives Doug the mike, with his more gritty, soulful voice a reprieve from the so-so flat drone of Tabor.

But, just like I filed away Out Of The Silent Planet into my collection many years ago to lay forgotten, I likely won’t be coming back to Gretchen.... Nothing wrong with them, but (shrugs) on this record, King’s X simply is not the trio of unsung heroes that many (including Classic Rock) seem to think they are.

Brian Carr: For decades musicians and rock fans have revered King’s X, who nevertheless couldn’t break through with major success. I liked them enough to buy a couple of CDs over the years, but found myself rarely listening to them. Something wasn’t clicking for me, but I never put much thought into the why. Now, thanks to our Club, I might get the chance to figure it out.

There are elements on Gretchen Goes To Nebraska that would normally have them in heavy rotation for me. The riffs are great, the playing is excellent, and the vocal harmonies are exquisite. The latter reminded me of Extreme, a band I love. As I listened, I found that I really liked Ty Tabor’s guitar sound and playing. So what gives?

I think it’s the lead vocals and, to a lesser degree, some of the songwriting. Doug Pinnick has a decent singing voice but loses control of it in almost every song. His wails are not endearing to my ears. As for the songwriting, I have to pick on Mike Knoop’s jam Over My Head. Fantastic music, annoyingly repetitive lyrics. What that song could have been with better lyrics and vocal. Still, there are enough positive musical aspects here for me to want to revisit Nebraska (I think) and their other releases, and rate Gretchen a 7/10.

Marco LG: I didn’t pay much attention to King’s X in 1989, when Over My Head was played incessantly on TV and radio. It’s not I didn’t like it, I just wasn’t interested enough to check out the album. A couple of years later the whole world started going mad for grunge, which is not the genre where to put King’s X but is nevertheless using very similar tuning and guitar sounds. At that point King’s X became almost impossible for me to enjoy, despite meeting friends who were very enthusiastic about them. One friend in particular was most insisting about their genius, and I just could not get it!

I lost touch with my friend, and with King’s X, for the best part of five years, when all of a sudden he reappeared in my life under completely different circumstances. The birth of the World Wide Web had something to do with it, but that’s another story. The point is, our discussion about music started from where we left it, and King’s X came back to the fore. This time I paid attention.

Almost ten years after first hearing Over My Head in television I came full circle with Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, and this time I was captivated forever! Maybe it was me needing to mature, maybe it was the music industry catching up with King’s X or maybe it was a bit of both. But as my friend puts it: “Gretchen is one of those few records that make you feel 'We're not in Kansas anymore'. And then you realise you don't want to come back. Ever.”

Indeed I don’t want to come back. Ever. 10 out of 10.

Roland Bearne: The phrase "highly underrated" is scattered throughout music fan sites like a burst bag of marbles. I don't think that Kings X are underrated, I believe they enjoy a great deal of respect and love, but their unique sound and the zeitgeist of the era precluded any stratospheric breakthrough. 

They released four absolutely stunning albums between '88 and '92, carving out a niche of which they should be immensely proud. Gretchen was the first I heard and it immediately had me hooked, what were these guys doing? What chords and scales are those? Clean but with bite, soulful yet searing, no one else ever sounded like them (a notable exception are The Galactic Cowboys, obviously with a much heavier edge but their vocal harmony style is very reminiscent). 

I Was lucky enough to see them on the Faith Hope Love tour. A tremendous and unique band and this stands as absolutely one of their finest records. Doug Pinnick's edgy yet soulful voice is instantly recognisable as is Ty Tabor's unique array of sweetly clean sounds. Absolutely lovely album and at least an 8 for me.

Chris Downie: There are very few musical topics guaranteed to ignite more illuminated pub arguments than assignation of the proverbial tag of 'perennially underrated' to bands whom genuinely forged their own niche, while garnering seemingly endless critical acclaim and peer respect, yet found widespread commercial success eternally elusive. Step forward, Kings X.

Emerging in the late 80's, this power trio brought with them a sound which was as fresh and unique as it was technically dazzling, combining Beatles-esque harmonies with a musical proficiency beloved of Rush fans, filtered through a wholly contemporary sound which caught the ear of the likes of Pantera, Pearl Jam and a plethora of alt-rock bands who all went on to surpass them.

While the opener Out Of The Silent Planet  sets the stall out nicely and the likes of Summerland showcase their enviable knack for intricate vocal harmonies, the closer The Burning Down is a deep cut that further emphasises their diversity.

Many theories have been banded around as to why such a unique talent never went on to scale greater heights. From their openly professed Christian beliefs (while omnipresent in those early albums, they were never preachy to this secular listener's ears, exemplified by the standout track Mission) to their almost schizophrenic musical eclecticism (this never impeded Faith No More, quite the opposite). In truth, they were too difficult to pigeonhole at their most prolific period, which straddled firstly the saturated hair metal era and then the grunge scene of which they were an undoubted influence.

While mainstream success may have forever eluded them, there is absolutely no denying the stellar quality of their work and while only an incremental stylistic development from their debut, Gretchen... is no exception. Indeed, if there is one criticism of this sophomore effort, it is that is stuck to its predecessor's formula a little too closely, something which would be rectified on their next few equally fantastic albums. 9/10.

Final Score: 8.08⁄10 136 votes cast, with a total score of 1100)

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