Knights of the Fire Kingdom, Knights of the Fire Kingdom
Oh, hell yes. From the very first blast of boogie-rawk guitar and distorted, half-snarled vocals on their eponymous debut LP, the Knights of the Fire Kingdom make it absolutely goddamn clear both what they are and what they are not, in equal measure. What they are is a straight-up, nitro-burning rock band, with toes in the realms of punk, stoner-metal, and grungy, gritty blues; what they’re not are members of some easy-to-pin-down subgenre, because who gives a fuck about that, anyway?
Guitarists Jeoaf Johnson, Aaron Echegaray, and Chris Wertz play guitars loud (but not too loud) and distorted through amplifiers that sound like they’ve been set on fire; frontman Johnson roars and rants with a throat scratched and scuffed-up by booze and cigarettes — in the most perfect way possible, by the way; and the rhythm section (bassist Dave Noske and drummer Matt Garcia) explodes into life like a big, dirty engine that’s been pushed beyond its limits, running fast and tight but always right there on the edge of coming apart.
There’re hints of old-school rockabilly in the band’s sound, and similarly old-school proto-punk (think The Stooges), plus a heavy, heavy debt owed to San Diego icons Rocket From The Crypt, who also took elements of punk and good old-fashioned rock & roll and melded ’em together. And hey, I’m very cool with the latter — it’s awesome to see a band like this take that RFTC mantle and drag it forward into the MP3 Age.
The band kicks things off murky and bitter with “No No No No,” which sees Johnson mutter-singing into the mic during the verses before breaking into an epic, shredded-throat howl. Then there’s “Chinese Dragon,” a ball of raw, thundering, fast-moving swagger that’s incidentally my absolute favorite song — this version feels a little different than the one the band released on a 7″ back in 2012, though, expanding and stretching out a bit after the midpoint into a more thoughtul, quieter breakdown before stomping back in at full volume.
Then there’s the snapping, snarling, accusatory “Church of the Retarded,” which is a far cry from polite but is a great, great, tightly-wound chunk of rock fury nonetheless. The Knights come off like a pack of angry, leashed-down dogs, ready to go for the throat if given the opportunity.
“Whiteout vs. Math” goes a different direction, starting out deceptively quiet and somber but evolving into fist-pumping guitar-rock glory. And it may be my own personal feelings on the subject, but I can’t help but tie the song’s lyrics to the current climate of scientific know-nothingism going on in American politics today — as Johnson warns, “You can white out the numbers / You can’t white out the truth.”
“Funboys” is a little rough for me, at least at first, I have to admit; the verses seems to drag a bit, unfortunately. Once the chorus hits, though, my mouth drops open, because while it’s slower and less sharp-edged than some of the rest of the album, it’s seriously massive-sounding, complete with…holy shit, is that a bell? Nice. By the song’s end, I’m pretty much in awe, wanting to wave my arms in the air and yell “WOOOOOOO!” at the top of my lungs in the middle of a gigantic crowd of sweaty-ass people. (Hear me, FPSF 2016 organizers? Seriously, make this happen…)
I’m intrigued as hell by “The Body’s Gone,” not only because of the dark, math-y, No Knife-esque structure of the song but because of the story behind the lyrics. It’s hard to tell exactly what Johnson’s singing about, but it involves explosives, at least one dead body, recriminations, and, um, decapitation (I think), so it’s grim as hell and a nice switch-up from most of the rest of the album, which has less of a “story” focus and more of a rock-out-’cause-it’s-what-we-do kind of vibe. And oh damn, those guitars at the end.
“Empty Days,” on the other hand, is kinda-sorta bright and cheery (relatively speaking, anyway), with a quasi-hopeful feel to it and a good-old-boy country tinge. Next up from there is “Waiting for the Phone,” which goes back to that murky, bleak sound, albeit this time with a very cool resemblance to Up In It-era Afghan Whigs; it’s funny, because I hadn’t honestly noticed it until just now, after dozens of listens to the entirety of Knights of the Fire Kingdom, but there’s a definite tie back to the grunge days in the band’s sound, as well.
To add even more variety, “Turn the Lights Out” makes me think of an honest-to-God Replacements outtake; I know, I know, but I swear the vocals in the break sound a hell of a lot like Paul Westerberg, and I keep thinking of “The Ledge” as the song rolls along. And why not? The ‘Mats were/are one of the most iconic straight-up rock bands of the last several decades, so it makes perfect sense that this new generation brings ’em to mind.
But then, it’s over, way, way too soon. Suddenly, my music player jumps to some random track full of retro-sounding synths and New Wave-influenced vocals, and I’m missing the Knights so damn bad. I hit the button, go back to the beginning, right back to the start of it all, and let it run right through me all over again. Don’t get me wrong — I like some of those nu-New Wave bands just fine. It’s just that sometimes the only thing that’ll work for me is loud, raw, balls-out, no-frills, no-excuses rock, period. Pretty soon, I’ll be right as rain.
(Feature photo by Aaron Echegaray.)