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King Dude’s “SEX” Explores Faustian Ideals and Innocence Lost on the Sun-Soaked Hills of Los Angeles

In an interview preceding the release of his 2014 album, Fear, TJ Cowgill‘s work drew comparisons to HBO’s serial True Detective, and the emergence of southern gothic stylization in recent art. While the merits of that record could be debated, his follow-up, Songs of Flesh & Blood – In the Key of Light, certainly nailed the southern gothic unease and odd charm of the bayou, and functioned well as a strange companion to the television show. And in many ways, 2016’s Sex picks up where Songs of Flesh & Blood left off and perfectly functions as the analog to that television show’s second season, capturing all the sunny debauchery and decay beneath the glitz of southern California (and no, that does not mean the record was as poor as the second season of the show was perceived to be).

Outside of King Dude’s collaborations with Chelsea Wolfe, I have found his music somewhat difficult to enjoy. Cowgill cut his teeth with Seattle death metal project Book of Black Earth, and while that project still exists, since 2010 much of his output has been focused on the dark folk / alt-country solo project. Cowgill has offered his own brand of grim Americana filtered through a gothic lens and dusty Southwest charm across six full releases and more collaborations, EPs, and singles than I could count. I have always found Cowgill’s take on southern gothic folk and rock fascinating, but I have also found that the execution tends to falter. For better or worse, Sex deviates little from his chosen style. You know what to expect, but that also means I had the same qualms with this record that I have had with his previous efforts.

King Dude

Holy Christos” starts things out strongly, with an excellent bass thrum and female vocals that lead to Cowgill’s signature crooning. It also starts an interesting pattern that continues through the next two tracks, “Who Taught You How to Love” and “I wanna Die at 69.” Cowgill does a damn fine job of channeling Peter Steele and some October Rust-era Type O Negative. It’s a welcome surprise, and while certainly a far cry from the genuine article (don’t crucify me), it demonstrated an interesting expansion to the scope of Cowgill’s songwriting, and was extremely effective for the themes he was trying to convey. These first three tracks are great stand-outs, but it doesn’t last. “Our Love Will Carry On” starts with a grating opener—monotone singing and rolling drums that lead to a great, atmospheric guitar interlude—but it isn’t enough to salvage the song. “Sex Dungeon USA” detours, a raucous and fun punk anthem alone in a sea of sinister folk. It was a strange choice and seemed to clash with the rest of the album, and the song is weaker for it.

The rest of the album threatens to blend together and fold in on itself. There are standout segments in each: more atmospheric guitar work over a funky beat in “The Leather Ones”, fast singing and near rapping on “Prisoners” that stands in stark contrast to more melodic female vocals, and more. Really, the flaw here is a consistent one throughout the album and throughout most of King Dude’s work: his songs are short, and they don’t benefit from brevity. I liked what I listened to but no single idea ever seemed to have time to take hold and gestate. Five of the eleven tracks on the record are under three minutes, and even looking back at my own notes, the standout tracks (with the exception of “Holy Christos”) were all over three minutes. “Sex Dungeon USA” embodies this as a seemingly misplaced punk rock song clocking in at just under two minutes that really could have gone somewhere if it were fully explored.

Sonically, this album picks up where Songs of Flesh & Blood left off, and it shows some maturity to his songwriting, but it feels like whiplash cruising from one piece of music to the next. The album never takes hold and never fully develops from the perspective of listenability. It seemed over before it begins. Nothing took up residence in my psyche—and I was disappointed by that, because thematically, the album never misses a beat. The undercurrent of toxic Hollywood glamour runs throughout; the lyrics and music carry the listener through the Faustian ideals and the loss of innocence populating the sun-soaked hills of Los Angeles.  I wanted it to stick around for awhile longer, and for this reason alone, it’s a fascinating ride, albeit it a short one.

Track List:

01) Holy Christos
02) Who Taught You How to Love
03) I Wanna Die at 69
04) Our Love Will Carry On
05) Sex Dungeon (USA)
06) Conflict & Climax
07) The Leather One
08) Swedish Boys
09) Prisoners
10) The Girls
11) Shine Your Light

Written by: Chris Viator
Not Just Religious Music (United States) / NJRM​-​017 / 12″ LP, Digital
Ván Records (Germany) / VAN189 / 12″ LP, CD
Gothic Rock / Folk / Americana

  • Surrinda Ward

    Very interesting and constructive review but I can’t help but think the author, by their own volition, was the “wrong” person for this job. I personally (and this is just my opinion of course) think Sex was the best album of 2016. I particularly love the dark journey King Dude is taking us on so I have to disagree where songs like Sex Dungeon (USA) are “out of place” particularly as being deemed too short. (didn’t realise a stopwatch was requisite equipment to enjoy music either!) On Sex we find an exploration of many more sides to what is becoming the King Dude style rather than just the simple stripped down acoustic guitar and vocals of earlier work. As King Dude is so prolific (six albums in last six years) I for one am glad he’s spreading his wings into “punk rock” and “channeling Peter Steele” as his music is now expanded so far from its origins yet, as seen on many of Sex’s songs, he can still do the stripped back gothic sparseness with ease. My main criticism of the author here is the refrain of “The album never takes hold and never fully develops from the perspective of listenability. It seemed over before it begins. Nothing took up residence in my psyche—and I was disappointed by that” If that was author’s genuine reaction (which they are of course entitled to have) then why choose/agree to review something like Sex on a site like Heathen Harvest??? You MUST have known what you were likely to be getting! Especially as you allude to his earlier work and (fairly obscure) collaborations with Chelsea Wolfe. It’d be like giving me , say , a Coldplay album to review. I just don’t like them! But I accept they are a vaild act (er just lol) and have many fans so it would not be fair of me to review them (for either band or public) as I would simply decide that I would not like the album before I heard it. Because I know I simply wouldn’t like it. Now of course all reviews should never be simple fan praises – as I say you do raise some valid and constructive points. My feeling and point here is to that anyone reading this who is not familiar with King Dude could be put off checking him out. The fact that this is Heathen Harvest and one of the few precious places you can read about the likes of King Dude surely it is better to assign someone who is genuinely looking forward to hearing the piece? The author not being a King Dude “fan” seems to have decided they would not like it before they’d even hit play. As a result of this kind of “constructive critique” style of review many potential new “fans” may miss out on an act they could come to love. Hey Chris Viator that means it could (shock! horror!) even happen to you!!!

  • Chris Viator

    Hey Surrinda, thank you for your feedback regarding my review.

    To answer your question, I agreed to review “Sex” because I’m driven to experience music and new ideas as often as I can manage. Music is the most important thing to me in my life, and in many ways the varieties, permutations of music, and therefore the experiences that go along with them, seem infinite. I consider myself pretty open minded and enjoy trying out new artists and challenging myself as a listener by exposing myself to as many different things as possible.

    In the end, King Dude’s record didn’t resonate with me. Of course, as is evident in the review, that doesn’t mean it was a bad record. Far from it. It just, quite literally, never managed to hook me — sink its teeth in and take hold. I attributed that to the fact that, while listening, songs seemed to zoom by (time certainly isn’t a pre-requisite, grindcore can attest to that) and ideas never seemed to develop. Honestly, it’s that simple. Many songs were over just as I was starting to get into them, and the next idea came along and the same thing would happen.

    For the record, I found the first half of the record very enjoyable. Those songs tended to be longer. I think Cowgill’s approach to song-writing is better suited to longer songs that allow his approach to unravel and take hold. But of course, that is just my opinion.

    • Surrinda Ward

      Hi Chris! Thanks for the reply! No, I totally understand the record didn’t manage to hook you and that of course is your own opinion and being a fan of music as much as your good-self I would always fight to the end to defend that. I guess after I’d sent my response it occurred to me, as I’m not a music journalist, that the question I was really asking of you and Heathen Harvest is that – if you find you don’t like a particular album why not pass on it and refer to a colleague who does? Of course if that’s not how it works or isn’t practical than fair enough. As I was trying to allude to earlier the artists on Heathen Harvest get precious little exposure as it is so surely you guys “owe” it to them to give them the fairest crack? Of course if an artist releases a stinker then expose it for what it is!
      Hey! Thanks once again for the reply! Again please be assured I think you raised some very good and valid points in your review too – in fact I’ve just seen Cowgill’s Facebook and he says the exact same thing!

      • Chris Viator

        I think that in the fairest sense, the real challenge is getting reviews completed and published within a timely manner while maintaining our integrity and objectivity. I can really only speak for myself in this instant, but if we passed reviews around between each other and only ended up reviewing the things we enjoyed, I think we would lose our objectivity and our integrity; while at the same time never actually getting any reviews done.

        I hope that this answers your question. Again I want to say thank you for reaching out and providing feedback, as well as being gracious about it!

      • S. L. Weatherford

        Surrinda, it’s about honest journalism. I encourage my writers to be clear and honest in their reviews. A huge portion of music journalism today won’t comment negatively on artists for their own reasons, but often I see it’s because they’re scared of losing support. I’d rather my writers hold strong on their integrity. I think that’s important, and it means that positive reviews are meaningful instead of just one in a sea of guarantees.

        Meanwhile, I don’t believe that artists have a fair chance at growth when they’re stuck inside an echo chamber of positivity. Imagine having everyone around you constantly tell you everything is perfect. It’s the few people around you who have the courage to speak up and elaborate on what they see as problematic that can shine light on issues that an artist might be blinded by for any number of reasons.

        Chris was clear in his wording and never became insulting, which is when this becomes an issue—when journalists become pretentious and make their writing about themselves instead of the art at hand.

        In terms of “owing” anyone anything, well… We’ve spent a decade covering underground music largely thanklessly, for the love of it and nothing else. We don’t advertise, and thus we don’t generate income on this website. Every one of us—ownership included—are volunteers. So no, I don’t really feel we’re obligated to anyone to do things a certain way. In fact, I think we’re one of the last few places doing this the “right” way, for what it’s worth.

        In the end, TJ did get a fair crack here. He’s gotten a great deal of exposure from us in a positive light in the past. Plenty of positive write-ups, podcast feature, news announcements, live reports, premieres… Even mentioned a great deal on the recent “Artist’s Edition” of the Best of 2016 list. I even have a “lost” interview with him that I’m hoping to eventually publish. TJ knows we love him, but I’m glad Chris had the gall to put into words his honest thoughts instead of just going with the grain. It’s not easy to do, especially when it comes to an artist of King Dude’s stature.

        We appreciate your thoughts!

        • Surrinda Ward

          Ooops! Hope I haven’t opened a can of worms here! Hehe!

          No, I completely understand yours and Chris’s positions. And no Chris (nor any of you) have EVER been insulting on here to any artists. One of the reasons I read all your reviews of every single artist you feature.

          I really appreciate the time to reply to me too… very , very much too!

          Hey! Keep up the good work with Heathen Harvest as, being a genuine fan of what is termed “underground” music, I find the site invaluable….as well as very entertaining – cos lets face that’s what this is all about!

          Thanks once again! x

          • heathenharvest

            Didn’t open a can of worms at all. No worries. 🙂 We just very rarely get the opportunity to elaborate on this subject specifically, so when it comes up, I do like to step in and put in the editorial staff’s perspective. As you know, our job (and our role) is virtually “invisible” in comparison to the writers.

            Thanks again for taking the time to comment, and for being such a dedicated reader!

          • S. L. Weatherford

            Hey Surrinda. You didn’t open a can of worms at all. No worries. Myself and the rest of the editorial staff rarely get to comment on these issues, so I tend to jump at the opportunity when it arises.

            Thanks for your thoughts and for being such a dedicated reader! Needless to say, it’s rare. 🙂

          • Surrinda Ward

            Hey! Glad I gave you an opportunity! Come on fellow readers – give your hard working n’ downtrodden yet humble reviewers something juicy to get their teeth into! lol

            One thing that has puzzled me in 2016 though if I may ask? Why no review or feature of Lustmord’s Dark Matter album? Just curious!

          • S. L. Weatherford

            Writer support is at a low point at the moment. We’ve lost some good people in the last 6 months and we’re struggling to find new writers. That said, there are only so many people to cover a huge swath of releases, and Lustmord doesn’t need the press as bad as 99% of the rest of the scene.

            Also, we don’t typically get promos from the label in question, Touch. Not sure why.

          • Surrinda Ward

            Oh ok – that’s really sad to hear you lost some good reviewers and, as with the King Dude review, completely understand. Hope you get some new guys n gals soon!

            It’s curious you should note that Touch do not send promos. Im not sure how well Dark Matter sold of course but it didn’t seem to get hardly any coverage, other than reviews, at all – unless I missed them! But I did actively seek them so sure I didn;t miss much. Appreciate the rest of the scene need exposure more and can see why you’d concentrate efforts there.

            Thanks once again for such an honest answer!

          • S. L. Weatherford

            No worries. Feel free to drop a line if you’re ever interested in giving contributing a shot instead of just reading! Sage@heathenharvest.org

          • Surrinda Ward

            Oh my! Ive never reviewed anything before – let me have a think (and muster some courage) and I’ll let you know!

            Thank you so much though for the offer! Its like WOW!

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