TJ Cowgill has become one of Seattle’s most respected occult rockers under the moniker of King Dude. Yes, you read that right. His devotion to Luciferian satanism gives his work an authentically obscure aura. He uses it to explore the primeval precepts of existence. Continuing where 2011’s Love and 2014’s Fear left off, 2016’s Sex launched Cowgill out of his neo-folk roots with voraciously sleazy ‘70s rock. This heavier approach brought him into his most confrontational territory yet. A follow-up called Music To Make War To seems set to push this feel further, but King Dude instead paints a breathtaking portrait of war using a peculiar color wheel on on his seventh album.
Having compared his ideal “war music” to Wagner, it only makes sense for Cowgill’s war album to detour his journey down the left-hand path. Opener “Time To Go To War” allows a deep breath before the plunge with a melancholy soundscape of organ and piano. Cowgill’s rich baritone seeps into distant sub-tones and lonesome melodies like a foreboding fog. It calls listeners away from blissful complacency: “Don your helmet/ Let’s see what we can do.” It doesn’t take long for this vexing epiphany to gain momentum and volume.
“Velvet Rope” introduces Cowgill’s muted guitar riffs and reverbed flourishes in a no-frills post-punk banger. Piano ornamentation echoes in the verses, contrasting with the chorus’s explosion of distorted guitars. The song’s mid-tempo Joy Division beat also manifests in “I Don’t Write Love Songs Anymore,” with shimmering tremolo picking and dazzling solo work floating over a growling low end. Cowgill’s singing remains depressive and deadpan, emphasizing melodic intuition and potent songwriting instead of an impressive vocal range. He details self-destructing affection in the former cut, while the framed narrative of unrequited love and wartime separation in the latter expands the album’s theme into the metaphysics of conflict.
King Dude’s overt sexuality makes a memorable return on blues ballad “Good & Bad,” a bewitching duet with dark-folk siren Josephine Olivia. Scorched-earth baritone saxophone erupts from a murky atmosphere of brushes on drums and a sauntering bass line, calling to mind Howlin’ Wolf or a chilling take on Small Change-era Tom Waits. Sex becomes an embrace of wicked ecstasy from irresistible darkness, as Cowgill expresses to his fictitious lover: “I want to run through your fields of sin/ And set fire to your flesh again.”
The rock songs on Music To Make War To sport electrifying aggression, as shown by the ominous death rock of “Dead Before the Chorus.” Gritty power chords propel King Dude’s grave witness to the struggle to endure the inherent suffering of existence: “See the face of the people you hate, they fucking love it when you make a mistake, but how suffering can one person take?” Macabre rock and roll also drives “The Castle,” recalling Blue Cheer with its overblown guitar solos. That track sees Cowgill use a harmonica mic effect to highlight the gnarlier vocals he employed in Sex. These energetic cuts only scratch the surface of what this album has to offer.
Dirge-like industrial neo-folk lays the foundation of “Twin Brother of Jesus,” with every bass-laden piano thud striking to the core alongside Cowgill’s petrifying voice. The song’s ritualistic diatribe steadily builds to heavy gothic doom one might expect from Chelsea Wolfe. Cowgill keeps the curveballs coming with “In The Garden,” an inexplicable diversion into psyched-out synth-wave. Church bells to steam engine honks work their way into the song’s half-time beat, and adding Lou Reed-like singing makes for an atmosphere of dark ‘80s movies like Blade Runner.
Psychedelic occult rock somehow finds its bearings in a dub rhythm section on “Let It Burn.” This strange cross section of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and rocksteady weaves a cautionary tale toward the ignorant arrogance of high society: “We all die the same/ Fire’s gonna cleanse this earth/ Fires burn us all away.”
The exploration of war by King Dude extends far beyond tired political virtue. As “God Like Me” ends the album with a heartfelt piano-driven ballad, Cowgill longs to pursue transcendence instead of wallowing in hatred. Songs To Make War To elaborates on the concept of existential turmoil, but King Dude remains hopeful for a future worth fighting for.