Legendary “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson made up his own adjective anytime he tried to describe the ultimate of something: “It was the king hell of all parties.” “This bastard was a serious, king hell crazy.” No doubt, the late great author of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas would feel the same sense of visceral energy if he’d had the chance to check out King Hell, the furious and funky, intensely tongue in cheek New York based indie powerhouse named after his turn of phrase.
Drawing soul and inspiration from Metallica, Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as Art Neville’s New Orleans blues-funk band The Meters, King Hell blazes into 2010 with their popular as ever theatrical stage carnival and a highly anticipated debut album, aptly titled Rhythm & Bruise—the follow-up to their popular self-titled 2007 EP.
King Hell are anchored by the dueling vocals of Samwell and Doc Thompson. Along with guitarist Mötherfökker (aka Möfö), they first bonded over a mutual love of Black Sabbath and Metallica, and started jamming in high school in Cambridge, MA years ago. “We were originally called Longinus“, says Samwell, “but everyone thought that was a venereal disease—which is very metal, but not in a good way.”
Eventually moving to New York and renaming themselves King Hell—“which sounded commanding instead of contagious,” says Doc—the band has come a long way from their first gig at The Continental in NYC two and a half years ago. Fans find it hard to believe that back then, Doc wore a business suit and, with an admittedly “half baked” presentation, they took themselves way too seriously. Quickly figuring out that audiences were hungry for a real alternative to mopey, navel gazing bands whining about old girlfriends, the group—rounded out by death metal bassist Zigabot and drummer Shille-Lee, a refugee from the 80s hardcore outfit The Abused—went campy and got in touch with their inner Freddie Mercury and Gene Simmons.
“People long for bands like Queen and KISS because they were larger than life,” says Samwell. “Plugging into that was liberating. At some point, rock got really self-conscious. We’re confident enough in the quality of our music to embrace carnival. We’re like Cirque du Soleil, minus the elegance and trapeze, which we’re barred from using. So, more like Berserk du Soleil.” Drawing on their love of comics, a unique concept for a rogue team of rock avengers emerged. “It started under control, but by our second show, Doc was in a zoot suit waving a Tommy gun and I found myself standing on a horned anvil in Batman’s pants.”
With their stage show taking on a life of its own, King Hell began playing across NYC, New England, and the Tri-State area, and eventually scored a full calendar of gigs that included sharing a bill with reunited schlock rockers Green Jelly, and opening for horror legends The Misfits at their 30th anniversary show in front of 2,000 people. Already this year, King Hell gave their first performance at NYC’s Gramercy Theatre, and will be hitting the road for Harrisburg, PA to play the 2010 Millennium Music Conference. In April they will appear at the Jerkus Circus in Worchester, MA, awarded “Best of 2009” by The Boston Phoenix, which calls it “a fantasyland for connoisseurs of real-deal performance art”. And to keep their local base satisfied they have upcoming performances in NYC at The Delancey and the Gotham Rocks Showcase at Crash Mansion.
Over time, five distinct characters have emerged for the band members. Samwell is the heavy metal hero, protector of Earth’s most extensive Judas Priest album vault. Doc Thompson is the gangster avenger punishing crimes against rock; he keeps that persona when he makes his racy “King Hell Reports” on YouTube, with 300,000+ views (and twice the complaints). Möfö is the vigilante from a post apocalyptic future ruled by an evil cyborg Justin Timberlake. Zigabot is the escaped clone of Dr. Funkenstein armed with a bionic afro, while Shille-Lee is the master of Irish Kung Fu, which consists primarily of Guinness and meditation.
Zigabot explains: “Our characters are just superhuman exaggerations of ourselves. They give people permission to dance and sing along with our often bugged out lyrics, because no matter how goofy they act they can always point to us and say, ‘Now those guys look ridiculous.’”
A clever, larger than life quality blasts through from the get go on Rhythm & Bruise, highlighted by an infectious cover of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf,” a track Doc calls “a piece of the familiar, and our attempt to put some humor back into metal. They’re the least metal band on the planet, and the irony is part of the fun. It usually goes over great, depending on the percentage of Slayer shirts in the audience.” Musically, however, their determination to capture the broad spirit of their new material led them to work with engineer and co-producer Sal Mormando, whose diverse resume includes hard rock bands like Clutch and a Grammy nominated project by Latin jazz percussionist Raphael Cruz.
“We didn’t want every song to sound the same,” says Samwell, “and we don’t like the synthetic production value on most hard rock records today. Sal got that and managed to capture how we sound live. Also, at no point during the recording process did he lose patience and shoot us, which was a big plus.”
Perhaps Möfö sums it up best when he explains, “Die Zukunft ist invertiert und bald auch der Disco-Beats der drecksack Justin Timberlake wird brennen. Dröhnen Schwein!” Möfö speaks only in his native tongue of Future German. Unfortunately, no translation is possible as this language has yet to exist.
To maximize the “live” vibe that is King Hell’s bread and butter, they took a recording route usually reserved for jazz artists and actually sang, jammed and played their instruments in the studio at the same time—with Samwell and Doc facing each other in their respective vocal booths—at Kaleidoscope Sound in New Jersey. Their vocal interplay on Rhythm & Bruise is tuned up several notches from the way they worked together on the King Hell EP. “We busted ass on harmonies,” says Samwell, “and when we weren’t singing together we created a better dynamic with me stretching my voice higher and Doc dipping down into Barry White territory. I got to live out my Ian Gillan fantasies, and Doc got to live out his fantasies with women.”
Musically, the 13 tracks perfectly embody King Hell’s mission to fuse metal and funk into something fresh, gleefully unrecognizable and hard to pigeonhole. The chugging, ultra percussive “Oblivion” is a cool reimagining of contemporary Swedish heavy metal, while “Mr. Fancy Pants” is pure classic rock meets edgy funk. The hard driving opener “Brooklyn” is lyrically an autobiographical romp through their fascinating musical experiences, from the time the three founders were kids playing in their Boston area basement to their stint playing as another band in Chicago and the emergence of their current incarnation in Brooklyn. “Bad Mofo” is an intense rocker with an uplifting message designed to inspire musicians to follow their own road and make the best music they can no matter what critical obstacles get in their way. “A Bastard Like Me” is an overtly rhythmic, muscular and brutal song that tells a cartoonish, noirish tale, a la “Sin City”.
The members of King Hell can’t decide just where and when they added funk to their early love of metal. It might have been through a jazz bassist they once played with who smoked a lot of weed and loved to play The Meters for everyone. Or maybe it was through Doc, who scammed his way into being a DJ at Tufts University, and through that discovered a trove of obscure blues and funk from the 70s.
Either way, as Samwell says, “Metal became an addiction. Then we discovered Funkadelic’s album Maggot Brain, Sly and The Family Stone, and that whole world of theatrical funk. Funk was a revelation. Experiencing groove for the first time blew our exceedingly white minds. We were excited to fuse both influences, and funk and metal dovetailed perfectly. If you’re banging your head while shaking your ass, it’s doubly devastating. When we added Zigabot and Shille-Lee, they were the perfect complement and the chemistry was complete. They could groove like pimps, but when we wanted to step on the gas, they were capable of going absolutely ape shit.”
Doc adds, “At the end of one of our shows, if Samwell and I haven’t sweated out half our body weight and aren’t struggling not to pass out, we haven’t done our job—and that’s to get audiences so engaged and excited that they forget their troubles, cut loose, and have an absolute blast. King Hell is here to tear the roof