Artist: Kings Kaleidoscope
In Brief: Kings Kaleidoscope is pretty unique among “worship bands” in that they appear to be doing it for the art. While the sampling and heavy layering of disparate sounds can be distracting and overbearing at times, and the vocal melodies can be a bit clunky, occasionally being more shouted than sung, there’s an authenticity to their songwriting progress that draws me back to this record despite its glaring flaws. There’s a progression from doubt and disinterest, through deconstruction, and finally back to devotion on this record that I find refreshing in comparison to other worship bands whose songs make lofty, unattainable promises of constant piety.
It was a recommendation from a reader back in February that first clued me in to the existence of a band called Kings Kaleidscope. I had just finished writing my review of a rather long-winded and disappointing album by Crowder, and I had lamented a bit in that review over an artist whom I used to consider one of the rare intelligent and artistically respectable voices in the extremely narrow niche of Christian music known as “contemporary worship”, but who now seemed to be dumbing down his lyrics and jumping on hokey trends a little more with each album. The comment recommending Kings Kaleidscope, a Seattle-area band that’s somehow managed to be around since the early 2010s without my ever noticing them, seemed to be in the spirit of “Hey, if you miss the creativity of Crowder’s heyday, you should give this a try.” Not long after that, the band dropped a brand new single in 3 parts – the 8-minute suite “The Rush”, which turned out to be part of a full-length album slated for an April release, Zeal. With only that energetic, genre-busting marathon of a song to go on at first, and a Wikipedia article on the band describing a bizarre mashup of influences, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of these guys, but I could certainly tell they were both inventive with their arrangements and sincere about wanting to communicate their faith (and their struggles with it) in intriguing ways.
Now, let me pull a few quotes from the Wikipedia article, and tell you how I’d react to these descriptions if I knew absolutely nothing else about the band.
“Their music features an eclectic range of electronic, woodwind, string and brass instruments, with a musical style described as indie rock meets hip hop production…”
OK, I’m intrigued so far.
“…with a sprinkle of Disney.”
“Kings Kaleidoscope formed out of Chad Gardner‘s eclectic group of musical friends, a random mix of musicians from genres that don’t always belong together.”
Sure, I’m all for eclectic. Crowder and Gungor have done some great stuff with genres that seemingly don’t belong together. Tell me more.
“Kings Kaleidoscope started writing music that brought together seemingly opposite ideas, from gospel chops and dirty 808s to sweeping orchestral arrangements and sampling.”
Hmmm, I don’t know. I could live without ever hearing another 808 drum awkwardly thrown into a pop or rock song as a superficial grab at some hip-hop cred. But the rest still makes me curious.
“King’s aims to write music that is as dope as it is genuine, a faithful, wholesome soundtrack born out of sincerity and hard work.”
OK, I can respect most of that, but DOPE??!?! Seriously, guys? Did you get your vocabulary from a Mountain Dew commercial circa 1998?
Now to be fair, I don’t know if the above excerpts came from any of the band’s press material, or if this entry was simply written by an excited fan. But these snippets tell you pretty much all the pros and cons you need to know before listening to a band like this. They try a lot of things and see what sticks. They’re willing to challenge the status quo in that way. Simply by virtue of being a band with a core configuration of vocals/guitar/bass/drums, rock music is a big part of their sound, but they’re not afraid to drown it in production techniques that are much more informed by pop and hip-hop. That’s something that can go really well when a band does it right, or very badly. I can definitely say that it does not come across the way an attempt to merge these genres would have in the late 1990s or early 2000s. I promise you will never once confuse this for nu-metal. The fact that it’s hard to sum up what they’re doing, genre-wise, in a single sentence, is mostly a good thing. But at certain times, it can be a headache, due to the almost overbearing amount of samples and other instrumental layers in songs that don’t always need to be that ornate. Sometimes it runs counter to the grittier mood or the more difficult seasons of faith that they’re trying to convey. Sometimes there’s just so much going on that it’s hard to focus on any one element – and I say that as a guy who typically loves his music with a lot of layers so that there’s something new to notice on every listen. My reaction to their overall aesthetic, especially on Zeal, is decidedly mixed.
Another potential barrier to entry for some folks is going to be Gardner’s vocals. He’s got a strong voice, and he’s not afraid to use it to shout from the mountaintops when he’s either full of joy or full of frustration. Subtlety, however, is not his strong suit. There are a number of songs where I feel like the lyrics are close to being shouted rather than sung, to the point where it starts to dull the impact of what could otherwise have been a strong chorus hook or an emotionally engaging ballad. He’s not on full blast every second of this record, but there are times when I’ll admit that I wish I could turn the volume down on him just a bit and enjoy hearing the rest of the band play. (Or be sampled in via various after-effects. It’s hard to tell sometimes which member is doing what and whether they’re doing it live.) What’s interesting is how the more hip-hop side of the band’s influences comes out in the production and sampling, but very rarely in the vocals. He is not a rap-rocker – which is for the best, since that genre is deader than a doornail nowadays, and I think it’s a good thing for rock bands to find more innovative ways to find ways to mix these genres without lazily rapping over fratboy-ish power chords. (The band’s 2017 album, The Beauty Between, explores their hip-hop side more deeply thanks to a smattering of guest rappers, but that’s as far as they’ve taken it to date.) How one responds to the tone and texture of his voice is going to be incredibly subjective, so don’t let me put you off if you like your vocalists to sound like they’ve just chugged a Monster energy drink or three. But be warned that this isn’t an album you’re likely to put on for peaceful reflection during your quiet times or whatever. There’s a lot of good spiritual stuff to chew on here, but do it while you’re driving or working out or something.
The topic of this record, Zeal, is one of those things that could sound pretentiously pious in the wrong hands. But Kings Kaleidoscope gets it mostly right, by making it clear early on in the record that Gardner was fascinated to write about this topic because he wasn’t feeling it, and wanted to know what it would be like to get back to a place where his faith was more genuinely zealous. Admitting when you can’t believe, or can’t seem to fit in and don’t want to go through the motions, is something that will always get my attention in Christian music. I feel like it’s more common nowadays than when I was growing up, and we had these more rigid expectations that the artists whose music we were devouring should be these uber-perfect Christians who we put on a pedestal and saw as a examples to be emulated, rather than real people with struggles and doubts and sins just like the rest of us. This is where Kings shares a bit of DNA with Gungor, not in the sense that any of its members necessarily had to completely abandon Christianity and then slowly reconstruct the pieces of what they still believed, but definitely in the sense that they’re not afraid to push the envelope and risk offending a few listeners if it means being honest about their process. They’re also not afraid to write cheesy pop choruses with children singing along, or even incorporate old-timey hymn melodies into a few of their songs, so this also isn’t one of those “Christians in a band” scenarios where the language of faith is expressed largely in metaphor. You know where they’re coming from and who the intended audience is, for the most part, but in admitting that this record came from times when they knew they weren’t getting this whole faith thing right at all, they do a great job of making sure they don’t come across as judgmental or holier-than-thou. If fingers are ever pointed here, it’s at themselves.
Zeal has been a tough record to digest despite its insistence on being attention-grabbingly loud and so noticeably out-of-the-box compared to your average CCM band. It’s not gonna be for everyone, and it’s taken me this long just to be sure it’s really for me. I’m going with a bit of a soft recommendation on this one, with the caveat that I’ve started here and worked backwards, and it might actually be easier to get into this band if one starts with their full-length debut, 2014’s Becoming Who We Are, and works forward instead. But each of their records is a beautiful mess in its own right, so I’ll go into depth on this one, and then you can decide for yourself whether it’s best to jump in here, or go back and catch them farther upstream.
1. The Coma
For all my commentary on how dense and loud Kings Kaleidoscope can be, I have to say I’m slightly amused by the Bon Iver-esque sonic experiment in its opening track, which is built around a chirping, sputtering electronic sample, the occasional flurry of horns, and not a whole lot else. The silence is almost deafening in a few places, which fits the lyrics about having just come out of a coma, and trying to take in the first few seconds of stimuli after a long period of sensing nothing whatsoever. It’s a deliberately sleepy opener that runs for less than two minutes – just the right amount of time to disorient the listener without belaboring the point.
2. Hero Over My Head
The first full-length song on the album gives you a pretty good idea of the elements that go into a typical KK song. The stuttering choral samples are pretty much the backbone of the song, as the drums, keyboards and guitar are layered over them one by one. The lyrics are technically sung to a melody, but feel like they’re mostly being shouted. Amidst all of the sounds competing for my attention here, I really like the ascending keyboard riffs that come in mid-verse – those and the big, pounding drums are definitely the strongest elements of the song. This track also acknowledges a lack of feeling and a struggle to believe as a result of it, which is interesting because the chorus very directly cries out to Jesus for help. There’s an aspect of clinging to the notion of something he remembers believing in once, and is hoping to again, which I think might be a way of putting the Biblical phrase “I believe; help my unbelief” into Gardner’s own words. A pattern that I’ve started to notice in several of this band’s songs is that the verse and chorus might have some sort of conflict or tension to them, and then the song will transition into a bridge or coda that shifts the mood toward praise and contemplation, never returning to the main hook of the song after that point. This happens with the extended outro of this song, which finds Gardner referring to Jesus as the “the only way down when I’m falling up”, in an interesting inversion on the usual assumption that up is good and down is bad. By the end of the song, he’s seen the light in some fashion and he’s crying out, “You are glorious, you shine!” There’s a lot to digest in just four minutes of music here, but I can say with confidence that nearly much everything about it is unconventional for the genre, aside from maybe that last part.
3. Naked Feet & Holy Fire
Even more disparate sounds and styles collide in this song, and to be honest, it’s a bit overwhelming. The verses are sample-heavy and have a slight hip-hop cadence to them, which is something I find myself appreciating as I take a deeper look at the lyrics – there are some clever internal rhymes and they seem to be written in a way that feels good rolling off the tongue, more so than telling a linear story. This abruptly shifts into more of a driving rock chorus – it’s one of the heaviest on the album, and it’s got a mean groove to it, but it seems to clash with the other parts of the song a bit. Once again, there’s a structural change midway through, shifting the melody toward major key and never returning to the murkier mood that it started out with. That’s where the title comes into play, as Gardner seem to be experiencing his own “Moses moment” of sorts, with God manifesting out of the blue, like when God appeared to Moses as a burning bush, and demanding that he remove his shoes because he is standing on holy ground. (So the title isn’t a reference to walking on hot coals. These guys may be over the top, but they’re not cult members!) From there it starts to borrow lyrics from the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be”, and… I don’t know. It feels a bit shoehorned in. Pretty much all of the change-ups in this song are jarring, and that may be an important aspect of the story this album is trying to tell, as a man swings wildly back and forth between inner turmoil and learning to trust God again after a period of not even knowing if God was really there. But it makes it a bit of a jarring listen, and that feeling hasn’t subsided as I’ve gotten more used to the song.
This is definitely one of the more challenging tracks to get into. I’ll give the band credit for experimentation – this sample-heavy song with its laid back groove and its fun little alto sax riff is about as far from the cliched, middle-of-the-road sound of your typical worship band as anything I’ve heard from KK thus far. I like these aspects of the song, and how it gives Gardner a syncopated backdrop over which he can sort of speak-sing about an experience of backsliding – basically breaking away from the habits and rituals that kept him tuned into his spiritual side because they seemed to have become stale and meaningless. But the way he takes a stab at more of an R&B-inflected vocal melody as the verse turns a corner into the chorus reminds me some of Gungor’s attempts at bringing these influences into their music – it’s a little stiff, and not entirely convincing. And the synth bass here is just way too much. It’s deliberately distorted, in the same way that a lot of modern EDM and trap music likes to play with pushing its bass sounds into the red, and sometimes I like that effect, but it’s really distracting here. The heavy guitar that shows up in the full-throated chorus is certainly a surprise – It’s only going to add to your headache if you already find this song exhausting to listen to, but it’s doing something more than just mindlessly slamming on power chords, so credit where it’s due, this is a rather creative and boundary-pushing arrangement. It’s hard to explain it, but in a weird way, I find myself looking forward to hearing this song whenever I put the album on, even though I know parts of it are really gonna bug me.
5. Flat on the Inside (A Word)
Hasn’t smartphone technology progressed to the point where the whole “voice mail interlude skit” should be a thing of the past? This is one trope that popular music inherited from hip-hop, that I think has long outlived its usefulness. Don’t people just text or Facetime or whatever nowadays? Anyway, this is a brief voice mail from a friend of Gardner’s, who was apparently asked for his thoughts on the meaning of the word “zeal”, and his response is basically a cynical commentary on how nobody makes an album about the topic of zeal unless they’re struggling to genuinely feel it. he doesn’t mean it mockingly – it sounds more like he’s been there and he knows how it feels to be, as he says, “flat on the inside”. The bleeped-out exclamation “Shit! I gotta do something!” might surprise a few people who don’t expect that sort of talk on a Christian rock album, but I figure it’s coming from a genuine place of frustration and urgency, once you understand what the guy’s going through and how he seems to wish something would motivate him to get off his butt and start living again. (Honestly, if that shocks you, go listen to “A Prayer” from Beyond Control. It’s not everyday that a Christian worship album has to have an explicit and a clean version released side-by-side.) Long story short, I’m on board with what’s being said here; I just find the use of a voicemail as a device to express these thoughts to be a bit lazy.
6. About to Break
This frenetic song is where we come to the actual breaking point. It seems to represent a moment where a man realizes all the stress and bitterness and negativity he’s feeling is a vicious cycle, because he’s gotten so used to responding to it in a way that is utterly petulant, privileged, and petty. I love the intense funk/rock workout as the “jungle drums” immediately kick things into high gear, and the repeating falsetto hook, which is either a sample or one of the backing vocalists chiming in – it’s not Gardner as far as I can tell, and it’s nice to have another voice in the mix as a counterpoint to his. The lyrics are more abstract here – take the first verse for example: “Played a pass, last we prayed/Trading masks, saving face/Paid it back, taxing grace/Fading fast but phases fade.” That’s some next-level alliteration and internal rhyming, and I can’t help but admire it. The song seems to hint that a person is taking all the comfort and blessings in his life for granted due to existential crisis he’s going through, and I love how it’s all such a huge rush (yes, I chose that word intentionally) right up until the abrupt end. But then… there’s more! A drum solo brings the beat back in, reminding me of something I might have heard once on a Glass Animals record, and then the song goes into a fun little coda with Gardner yelling at the top of his lungs, “Move, it’s the right time, let the light shine!” Alright, maybe that part’s a bit cheesy. But it brings the song to a graceful fade-out in a way that pieces together the existential angst and the more reverent response to it more convincingly that a few of the earlier songs did.
7. Aimless Knight
The album settles into a bit of a mid-tempo slump for a few tracks. The drum production on this one just feels limp, in the sort of way where it might have been novel to have this sort of drum sound on a rock or pop record in the early 90s, but nowadays it’s just an unwanted production gimmick. It doesn’t mesh well with the orchestral instrumentation, which is an import piece of this song, because it’s about realizing you’re living in a lush garden full of blessings that you’ve taken for granted, and that has started to wither due to your failure to tend to it. I get that they’re trying to put these clashing styles together to communicate conflicting moods – it just doesn’t work as well as I think they were hoping. But again I have to say that I’ve got nothing but respect for the tongue-twisting rhyme scheme in the verses. Gardner is singing the sorts of lyrics that I’d almost expect to be spoken over this sort of a rhythm – and maybe if this song had gone fully in one direction or the other, and tried to be more of a straight-up hip-hop song with some classical instrumentation in the hook, or else it went more “baroque pop” and dropped the hip-hop aspects altogether, it might feel like more of a coherent statement. I can see more of the latter approach during the outro, when he prays “Spirit abide in me”, and the classical element fully takes over.
8. Same Blood
This is another track where I’m reminded of one of those Gungor deep cuts where I’d have been all like “Right on!” where the message was concerned, but musically, since it felt like limp R&B, I wouldn’t feel terribly compelled to keep returning to the song. I guess the staccato strings are interesting, but the song still feels a bit too stiff for its own good. The central thesis of this song – and an important turning point for the record as a whole – is “You and I will change, but the blood is still the same.” It’s an affirmation that we still need our spiritual family, even if our beliefs are evolving and we have disagreements about the conclusions we’ve come to. Given the turmoil that the band’s spiritual home – Mars Hill Church – went through that resulted in its leadership resigning amid scandal and the church closing its doors, this seems like a hard but necessary pill to swallow, and undoubtedly a period of not knowing where to call home following that sort of exodus from a place once thought to be safe would be the sort of thing that could kick off a crisis of faith like what this album has been describing. So I think it’s very important to say, in the midst of those feelings of betrayal and separation from the community, that we still need each other in some fashion even if it’s not within the walls of a traditional church building. It’s similar to how I feel about Jars of Clay‘s The Shelter – a record that emphasized how when we are unified, we see more of God in each other than we would see on our own. That was not a record that excited me much musically, just as this song doesn’t, but it felt like it carried a message that a lot of us Christians who were cynical about the act of gathering together with fellow believers needed to hear.
9. Breathing Infinity (The Rush, Pt. 1)
The upcoming trilogy of songs was my first exposure to Kings Kaleidoscope, and the first part of that trilogy is still, by far, my favorite thing on the album. (Not to slight the rest of the trilogy, which is also pretty darn good, but I like how they broke things up so that you can either enjoy the first part as a standalone track, or the full eight-minute suite which continues to build off of the themes and motifs established here.) For once, the bevy of instruments being thrown at the listener seems like it’s all contributing to one big celebration, rather than any of these elements seeming to fight with each other for our attention. The somewhat chaotic glissando that glides up and down on the piano keys sets an interesting tone for what will follow, the classical instrumentation seems to ebb and swell at just the right moments, and the tempo is upbeat and infectious throughout the song. It’s appropriate for a song that describes the feeling of falling in love again with the faith that Gardner had felt distant from for a while, coming to the realization that he may be older and wiser and warier now, but there’s still an element of faith that requires risk, and trust that God will catch you when you take a leap out of your comfort zone. This section of the song is an exhilarating 3-minute freefall that somehow manages to work as a fun little bouncy pop song and the first segment of a longer, more intricately composed suite. While I definitely recommend taking in all 8 minutes, I also think it’s fine just to enjoy this song as its own thing – I have it by itself in a few playlists and I don’t feel bad about that.
10. Jumping From Jaded Heights (The Rush, Pt. 2)
I appreciate the brief pause in the action before this song fades back in. It allows Pt. 1 to come to a definitive conclusion, while allowing Pt. 2 to make it clear that it’s still running with the same general mood and tempo. You can hear some bits of whistling and backing vocals in the fade-in that reference parts of the song, before we get to the verse, which hangs on a single note for a bit before bringing the beat from Pt. 1 back in again. This part makes one of the album’s central metaphors a little clearer, that a man has gotten so high on his own knowledge and assurance of how things are supposed to work that it became like a tower he was afraid to come down from, and the leap he’s taking from that precipice is essentially his way of repenting from that prideful stance. I love how the song turns a corner as he cries out, “Burn in me!”, giving the classical instrumentation a chance to come to the foreground and surround us in orchestral bliss. This bleeds runs right smack into…
11. On to the Light (The Rush, Pt. 3)
KNOW WHERE WE’RE GOING WE KNOW WHERE WE’RE GOING WE KNOW WHERE WE’RE GOING WE KNOW WHERE WE GO! The vocal chant at the beginning of this song would seem rather jarring if you were to just land here by putting the album on shuffle, but it’s interesting how it follows seamlessly from the previous track (where you could hear this vocal hook in the background) while completely changing up the rhythm of the song to a slower, funkier, syncopated beat that gives the drums another chance to show off. The band’s renewed zeal is most readily apparent here, as we finally find a context in which Gardner’s near-shouting of the lyrics seems appropriately joyous, rather than clashing with other elements of the song. A number of musical threads from the first two parts are tied up here, with the chorus melody from Pt. 1 coming back in the final instrumental section, which is filled with blasting horns and trilling flutes, reminding me of some of the most delightful moments on an old Sufjan Stevens record. As the instruments all converge on a final, sustained note, the trilogy wraps up on a glorious moment of gentle grace. This would be the perfect live show closer for the band, if somehow they could manage to cram enough instruments on stage to make it work.
This is probably the song where my opinion has changed the most radically since first hearing it. It starts off as a reflective ballad, full of soft, wispy, synthetic sounds, sort of like an ambient electronic piece designed to act as a breather after all the dense energy of the preceding trilogy. Midway through, the arrangement gets noticeably more complex, with a rather speedy breakbeat coming in that pretty much triples the pace of what I had assumed was a slow song in 4/4. Then there’s a break in the action and a sample of a young choir singing… “Jesus Loves Me”. The rest of the song, crazily enough, is built around that simplistic melody that pretty much all of us who grew up in the Church learned in Sunday School. Just to have audacity it takes to do something like that and make it sound sincere rather than hokey… it’s something else, I guess. I really didn’t think this worked at first, but as I’ve listened more deeply to the album and I’ve come to understand the pivotal role this song plays in its narrative arc, I’ve actually found it to be quite an emotional experience. It won’t be for everyone, but I’m fascinated by how the simple meshes with the complex here, as the MuteMath-esque drums and the woodwinds and other classical instruments all swirl around, like a maelstrom of new thoughts and ideas that this man has to contend with, while the simple truth that “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” is being softly sung (and whispered) in the middle of it all. Returning to simple truths after all those years of loss and doubt and frustration doesn’t mean all of your other questions and complex issues are immediately resolved. It just means there’s something solid at the center for you to hold onto. There’s a palpable sense of joy in this composition as Gardener seems to come to that realization, now fully out of his coma, and breathing on his own without any distractions or medications to numb the pain of his previous experiences. Not everything will be a cakewalk from this point forward, of course, but he believes once again that his Savior is real, and that gives him the courage to rise up from what had once felt like his deathbed, and truly live again.
13. A Little Bit of Faith
I guess I can see why this song was placed at the end. To my ears it’s way too trite and candy-coated – like an entirely major-key reflection of “Hero Over My Head” with all of the intensity stripped out of it and replaced with happy-go-lucky synths and a cheesy children’s choir la-la-la-ing along to the notion that “It’s gonna be OK with a little bit of faith”. A man is returning to the building blocks of his faith, and finding a sense of childlike wonder in the things he’d taken for granted, so I think there’s plenty of room here for dancing like a fool and singing along to goofy children’s songs and such. I just think this puts a little too neat of a bow on what the album has otherwise acknowledged was a messy struggle. “Oxygen” has already quite elegantly established that he’s come full circle and is feeling much more grounded in his faith, but it rings a bit false to just act like everything is gonna be hunky-dory from this point forward. That probably isn’t what this final track means to say, but due to the deliberately simplistic chorus, that’s how it ends up coming across, and if you were to hear this one in isolation on Christian radio, I wouldn’t blame you for coming out of it thinking this band didn’t have a ton of depth (even though you’d be wrong).
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Coma $1
Hero Over My Head $1.25
Naked Feet & Holy Fire $.75
Flat on the Inside (A Word) $.25
About to Break $1.75
Aimless Knight $.50
Same Blood $.75
Breathing Infinity (The Rush, Pt. 1) $2
Jumping from Jaded Heights (The Rush, Pt. 2) $1.25
On to the Light (The Rush, Pt. 3) $1.25
A Little Bit of Faith $.50
Chad Gardner: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards, production, tambourine
Daniel Steele: Drums, synth, programming, backing vocals
Zach Boyd: Guitar, cello, sampling, mullet (Seriously, guys? Mullet?!)
Zack Walkingstick: Bass, synth, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: