RE-EXAMINER: KINGDOM OF SORROW – Kingdom of Sorrow (2008)

I have a lot of music. Too much, probably. If that’s even possible. You could perhaps convince me, but it’d be a tough sell. Some time recently, I got to thinking about all this music of mine, and about what’s made an impression on me, and what hasn’t – and I thought it might be fun to take a look at some albums randomly, to see what I think of them. So that’s what I’m doing here, and I’m going to call it Re-Examiner. Because that’s what this is.

And it will be random. Seriously. I’ve got a system worked out. It involves dice, and possibly the I Ching. So let’s get started.

Kingdom of Sorrow This here is the very first Re-Examiner I’m doing, and once everything was settled, I wound up with the eponymous debut album of Kingdom of Sorrow, released in 2008. This is an album that falls under the category of “I kind of remember this? Maybe?” Definitely not something I’ve returned to since it came out, so let’s take a closer look at it to see why. First though, since it falls into the “Supergroup” category, let’s knock that out of the way. Kingdom of Sorrow (circa 2008) was:

Kirk Windstein (pictured right, of Crowbar) on guitar and vocals
Jamey Jasta (pictured left, of Hatebreed) on vocals
Derek Kerswill (of Unearth) as the session drummer
Steve Gibb (also of Crowbar) as an additional session guitarist

They were going to call the album HAAAAAAAANDS, but decided against it.

They were going to call the album HAAAAAAAANDS, but decided against it.

As “supergroups” go, Kingdom of Sorrow isn’t really all that “super” – they’re all fine musicians, but the most notable thing about that list to me is that Steve Gibb is the son of Barry Gibb, of the Bee Gees. The lineup on paper didn’t dilate my pupils like the Them Crooked Vultures or Tinted Windows lineups did (both bands came into being around the same time as Kingdom of Sorrow, too). So why haven’t I come back to this thing at all since it was released? Well listening to it now, I’ve found it hard to wrestle down my expectations for albums like this, and that seems to be source of Kingdom of Sorrow’s abandonment. Namely, I’m looking for at least one of the two following things to happen on it:

-everyone in the band pushes everyone else to their absolute best
-the band explores together new musical territory

If both things manage to happen, so much the better. A great example of this would be the second Liquid Tension Experiment album. At the time, the core of LTE was essentially Dream Theater (John Petrucci on guitar, Jordan Rudess on keyboard, and Mike Portnoy on drums – Tony Levin, formerly of King Crimson, replaces John Myung on bass; there’s no vocals). But with an emphasis on jamming over studious composition, the songs on Liquid Tension Experiment 2 see the band ascend to great heights together – heights they didn’t reach as often in Dream Theater. The absence of vocals or any sort of narrative provide the songs an immediacy that DT songs tend to lack, and Tony Levin’s heavy use of the Chapman Stick instead of a traditional bass gives the whole album a weird, spindly backbone. And of course, Dream Theater have never made a song as tender as Hourglass, or as cosmopolitan as Another Dimension.

The year: 1999. The "liquify" tool in Photoshop was new and edgy...*

The year: 1999. The “liquify” tool in Photoshop was new and edgy…*

Conversely, Kingdom of Sorrow does neither of these things; it’s basically a Crowbar album with a different vocalist. And that’s where things get tricky, because there really isn’t anything *wrong* with that. As I said above, they’re all fine musicians. Crowbar do the sludge metal thing better than most, and Jasta is one of the more formidable hardcore vocalists working today, so why shouldn’t I enjoy the hell out of this? There’s no real reason for me not to, considering what it is. And yet I’m still beholden to “MORE” and “NEW”; they’re not just a switch I can turn off. Here they first hatched in me when I saw a huge splash page on the Relapse Records site prominently advertising this album as a New Thing featuring Windstein and Jasta. The album grew into something else right then. And I can’t shrink it down with anything less than excellence and/or the unexpected. “More of the same” ≠ “MORE”

It runs deeper than expectations, though, particularly where Jasta is concerned. In Hatebreed, his coarse hollering is often buoyed by lyrical positivism, and to hear lines like “I will not be a victim/My cries won’t go unheard” frequently replaced by lines like “It’s in my blood, rushes through my veins/and there’s no defense against the plague” is disheartening. It feels hollow, and it robs Jasta’s voice of much of its potency. What’s more, it’s awkward to hear Jasta share the spotlight with someone else who’s not just barking repeated phrases in the background. When Windstein steps up to the mic as on Grieve A Lifetime, his lines don’t carry as much weight. The quality of his voice is just smaller.

Moving past the musicians and into the songs, Kingdom of Sorrow paints a fairly steady picture. Heavy downtuned riffs. Slower tempos offset by even slower breakdowns. The occasional guitar solo. Lots of yelling. Every once in a while something different surfaces, but it never stays long, like the hardcore drum stomp in Lead The Ghosts Astray, or the gurgling bassline at the beginning of Demon Eyes – Demonized. I don’t really want to get into a play by play of each of the songs, as that’s not really what this is about, but the one song I do want to talk about in detail is Screaming into the Sky. It’s the album’s most interesting song to me, because it comes the closest to fulfilling the expectations I had for the album.

But first, let’s talk about Pantera.

In 1990, Pantera released their fifth album, Cowboys From Hell – and the second single off of that album was a tune called Cemetery Gates. The song is a perfect bridge between the hair metal the band embraced in the 80’s, and the neck-flexing heaviness they’d become renowned for later on. It’s a power ballad, but a haunted one; its are teeth bared. And it’s hard *not* to think of Cemetery Gates when listening to Screaming into the Sky. Both songs are a lament to the lost. Both songs alternate between quieter and heavier sections. Both songs feature their vocalists approaching the edge of their abilities. And both songs are the bands’ longest, time-wise.

On Screaming into the Sky, the musical structure that Kingdom of Sorrow was adhering to on the album – slow vs slower – dissipates. There’s breakdowns a-plenty on the album, but here they’re so glacially paced, you can almost feel the weight dragging them down. And the guitar around these breakdowns is airier, giving even more contrast. The motion of the music (which is minimal) is almost overtaken by atrophy. And it’s refreshing to hear the change-up in the vocals, too. Granted, neither Windstein nor Jasta can match Phil Anselmo’s wailing on Gates, but then again, they don’t have to. The change is nice. Screaming into the Sky doesn’t feel like the rest of the songs on Kingdom of Sorrow, and I would’ve loved more moments like this on the album. It’s what I was looking for from it, but in six minutes, it’s gone.

I feel bad not digging this album more than I do. Jasta commented that “[the recording] was probably the best time I’ve ever had in the studio. As far as creatively…it was such a liberating thing. We felt like, ‘It’s a new band. It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks.’ We’re just doing it because we want to do it. So it was a totally genuine and pure creative process.”

That’s wonderful. Truly and without irony, it is.

But I did buy the thing…

There was a second Kingdom of Sorrow album released in 2010, Behind The Blackest Tears. But I didn’t hear it. The one was fine.

*the liquify tool was never “edgy”, and it was not introduced in Photoshop until September 2000. we do not regret this error. we regret nothing

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