Thursday, July 4, 2013

Queensryche: The death and rebirth

"Well, let’s see, it’s a matter of being interested and challenged. Our lineup has stayed pretty much the same — keep changing out the one guitarist. That’s kinda fun. You get to work with different people. Musically, it’s all about challenging ourselves and keeping things interesting." -Geoff tate

In observance of Queensryche putting out what I consider to be their "return to form" album, I decided to check out the 6 recordings I always avoided so I would have more perspective on the current stuff.

I've always been one of those people devoted to Degarmo era Queensryche. His departure from the group really was somewhat parallel to Cliff Burton "leaving" Metallica in terms of how the band was affected...It seems Degarmo held Geoff Tate's ego in check which, in turn, allowed the entire band to function in harmony and all voices to be utilized. This was the secret to the band's greatness and why the first era of the band was so effective and influential. Their efficient use of all talent involved AS A UNIT.

Numerous interviews with the band back in those days show Geoff and Chris as primary spokesmen - and to us fans, they seemed to be the leaders. More so Chris Degarmo I say now in hind sight. But once Chris left, the extremely strange and mostly awful journey they took after "Here in the Now Frontier" began. This painful journey (with Geoff Tate as tour guide) finally culminates in the ultimate molestation of Queensryche, which is on display via Google if you have a sick need to see for yourself. Just type "Queensryche" and "Caberet" in the search box and you'll see what I mean. Certain of these snapshots have got to be some of the most amazingly ironic, unintentionally hilarious pictures in rock history. Not just matching the Sex Pistol's last performance in self parody, but passing it right up.

It's hard to believe there was a time when if you saw someone with a "Warning" or a "Mindcrime" shirt, there was a certain pride and look of understanding..."We are part of the cult. THEY cannot understand the greatness. But WE do."

When "Empire" came out, it created a disturbance in an otherwise perfect history. Our pride was bruised a little because it was not only a little too obviously commercial in intent, it exposed our little cult and expanded it to lame pop audiences, most of whom probably never got much into any of the band's other material, except maybe "Mindcrime." But we did mostly accept it, because as commercial as it was, the Queensryche quality and musicianship could not be denied. There is a stage when a band is just so good, they can crap and it still has something awesome about it. And deep down, we knew they deserved to have a smash hit album at least once. That's not to say "Empire" was their best, but right after that they went right back to being "our band" and did the less commercial "Promised Land." The band was still letting us, "the cult members" know that they hadn't forgotten us, and delivered another masterpiece. That didn't happen again until 2013...

Queensryche "Hear in the Now Frontier" (1997)

It's been a very long time since I tried to listen to this album. So long in fact, that I had completely forgotten how familiar I actually was with it. As I listened, it all came back to me...I did try to get into this once, and could not.

From the opening riff of "Sign of the Times" the 90s came flooding back. Without going into too much embarrassing detail - I connect very personally with whatever the hell Queensryche was trying to convey here. I suppose "deep depression struggling desperately to remain upbeat" sums up the feeling I get from it. Obviously NOT a good thing many people are probably gonna connect with. Especially in this context. Whether that's what the band was feeling or not, I don't know. But it's no shock that few people got into it. But I am sure a good segment of their cult fans DID, probably somewhat silently, dig it.

It's certainly not a "rocker," but the concept here is a specific mood. Wait, a "mood" as a "concept?" Now that's interesting - and you gotta admit, they hadn't gone there yet. But like the title states, HEAR in the NOW frontier. "Hear where we are today, because this is where we are, like it or not." I think that is what confused people on all sides of the tracks. In this sense, I think it's a very misunderstood album. You really have to come at it from a certain angle or you simply won't get it. You don't have to pretend it isn't Queensryche, you just have to accept the path they chose.

It has that 90s vibe like I said, but I would rate it much higher than an attempt to fit in with the grunge/alt movement. Let's not forget - these guys ARE from Seattle, and they existed all through, before, and after the "grunge era" so if they wanna jam with a "Seattle sound" I wouldn't say they are copying something they don't know first hand. If it is guilty of anything, it's trying to gain a little of their "Empire" commercial success. But in a more subtle, alienating kind of way. And alienation seems to be the only constant theme found in just about any Queensryche album.

Whatever they were going for, this album is WAY better than I remembered. There are very interesting layers of sound and mood all over this. And despite what anyone might claim, I would say this does have enough musical integrity to qualify as another acceptable, final installment of the original Queensryche unit. It's probably the last collaborative/mostly democratic effort the band did till they started to go off into Geoff Tate's creative mine field.

Queensryche "Q2K" (1999)

Well, I'm rather ashamed to admit that after finally listening to this album 14 years after it came out, I'm sickly interested in some of it. It certainly sounds like the band is lost. Maybe not, I don't know. But it just begs the question, especially being the first album without Degarmo: "Where in the fuck is Queensryche going with this?" It almost feels like 80s new wave like the Cult or P.I.L. or some sort of random forgotten 80s hit band. It has a somewhat faceless quality of a half empty dance hall with some shitty tune blasting. There's a coldness.

I think if you forgot it's Queensryche, and just heard any of these songs pop up on a Sirius Radio pop channel, you'd probably think "well that's kinda interesting compared to the last 10 songs I heard." Then someone says, "oh that's Queensryche by the way" suddenly you'd be like "what? THIS SUCKS! This ain't goddamned Queensryche!"

Ok look, it DOES basically suck. But it's clearly not without thought and intelligence and effort. Like the previous album, it again seems to focus on moods rather than brilliant/tricky compositions. And when compared to abortions of other bands like Metallica, it's a MUCH BETTER shitty album than the other shitty albums made by once great bands. Not sure if that's an endorsement or not...

Queensryche "Tribe" (2003)

Ok, I think this is where Queensryche starts to wander so very far from their original sound that even the band members are starting to feel alienated. Well, except Geoff Tate. He really seems to be into it like a pig in shit. I really think this is the point where Geoff Tate started seeing the band as a literal platform for his own ego. I think he looked at the band and said "well, they aren't inspired, so I'm gonna decide how everything should sound instead of trying to get on the same page with them." If that's the case, well I can't bame him. But at the same time, "too much Tate" is not a good thing, and most people seem to know this except Tate himself. This is the problem. And Scott Rockenfield famously stated himself that the band's disintegration was a long, ten year process that was like a painful divorce.

Had Degarmo been in the band, he could have connected Tate's overbearing ego with the apathy of the band, and the result might have been a long hiatus, or perhaps an accidentally brilliant album. (Shit, I'm beginning to digress as much as the band did on this album!)Now I know Degarmo "contributed" on a few songs here - but he still wasn't "in" the band anymore, and his commitment was obviously very part time. And that shit eating smirk on Geoff's face up in that pic above is really what is running things here.

Queensryche as a band is gone at this point. This is the furthest edge of the tri ryche universe, and although some of it is again, kind of interesting, it comes off as an obscure sort of wankery on the opposite end of "flaming guitar solo." It's more, "let's see how depressingly middle aged and lost we can sound."

The faceless 80s sort of quality is still here, but it's REALLY starting to drag and feel obese. I probably spent more time asking "what the fuck?" than I did actually listening to this one - I probably heard it once before, but this is where my sick curiosity with Queensryche really starts to end. Although I have to admit, it does have an experimental edge that sounds a hell of a lot more valid if viewed as a "prog pop album" in the vein of modern Bowie, but certainly not in the "Metal" vein.

Queensryche "Operation Mindcrime II" (2006)

Around the time this album came out, I was jamming with a drummer in South San Francisco and he told me his drummer friend was recording drums for the new Queensryche album because Scott Rockenfield refused to for whatever reason. I was not sure if I believed him. But by now it's no secret that most, if not all of this album was recorded by Tate and session musicians while residing, at least partially in the bay area. I won't get into it because I'm not really up on all the details, but this is where things start getting really ugly and a bit of google detective work will turn up plenty of dirt for your sick pleasure...

Upon first listen, I am again a bit shocked at how...well...decent this is. I'm not saying it's my thing or that I even wanna check it out further. But it's not bad. It's just SO goddamned different from the original Queensryche, it's pretty much unrecognizable. It literally sounds like a different band.

I almost feel bad for them because there is a very strong effort coming from some direction here to do...well...I'm not sure what, really. What the fuck are they trying to do here? Again, a seemingly aimless meandering creatively, spearheaded by Tate I suppose, dragging a moaning group of talented people with him through some psychotic cinematic experiment.

I'm not sure where to start in describing this, which I suppose is a compliment. I mean, they made something I can't fucking describe. Heavy, cinematic, caberet prog? Fuck if I know. Kinda interesting if you are into prog which ignores genre, with moments of heavy. "Mindcrime II?" That really makes no goddamned sense at all. Extremely confusing listen. Like a lighter industrial band, but a heavier middle of the road pop band, with an edge of the experimental. To the album's credit, it is interesting. But comes off much more as an experiment than a music listening experience. Even reminded me of the godly Foetus at times, of all bands.

I hate to say it, but I bet this would be amazing on the right drugs. But I guess that's probably true of any recording. Bottom line is, it's just too goddamned different and was a really odd idea to call it "Mindcrime II" (or just a very obscure attempt of desperation.) For fuck sake, find yourselves guys! or throw in the damned towel!

I have to add as well - regardless of how bad people may say this album is, Geoff Tate is a genius and it shows here. I just think his genius is getting way off the deep end at this point and way too far into self-wank. Genius alone is not always enough and doesn't always yield a good product.

It may just be that this shit is way over people's heads. I can't deny this may be the case. It may just be too obscure an attempt for even die hards to embrace, and alienates anyone else. This is an interesting album. It's just too demanding on too many levels. Maybe one day I will come back to it. But for now, I'd rather just listen to some ACTUAL Queensryche, if that's ok with you Geoff?

Queensryche "American Soldier" (2009)

Even before the music starts, one look at the songwriting credits shows clear as day that Geoff Tate is really trying to take over this band. For there is exactly ONE writing credit to an original member other than Tate. And it's not even an entire song credit it's a co-writing credit by Scott Rockenfield on the ironically entitled "Living Hell" (which is pretty damned boring btw.)

I really tried to approach these previously unexplored Queensryche albums with an open mind, and avoid jumping to "this just sucks" conclusions. But I think the time has come to just state the obvious: this album fucking sucks.

Whatever I said about Geoff being a genius? Well, I take that back now. Sure, there are moments of mildly interesting sound collages and some good melodic passages...After all, there is still talent here. But man, it's just so wasted and funneled into a black void of crap. This is the first one I can't defend much on any level. It just fucking sucks. And I can only imagine what was going on in the minds of Scott, Eddie, and Michael at this point.

Queensryche "Dedicated to Chaos" (2011)

Uh...what band is this again? Jesus, I guess I shoulda expected this when I peaked under this rock. Geoff Tate slithering around in his own excrement. Sound collage much? The band is just a table full of random objects Geoff Tate is arranging at this point, I really think the rest of the band already checked out here.

I read someone say that Queensryche was the best example of a band falling from greatness to shit (or something.) I didn't agree at all till I checked out these past few albums. Then again, Metallica's "Lulu" makes for a strong rival in this way. It's like a sick game of "how much can we alienate our fans?" And when that has gone as far as it can go, it turns into a game of "how much can I alienate my band mates? How much will they take?" Again, some interesting parts, but at this point that's all this band is. Parts. And as stated in a earlier review, Queensryche is about "the whole as a unit."

The best thing I can say about this album is that it's probably the furthest a band can go into nowhere land without actually breaking up. It's amazing in this way. And god, Tate sounds bad on this. Did I call him a genius? Sorry about that. He's no John Lennon. "Dedicated to my own cock" woulda been a more fitting title.

Queensryche "Frequency Unknown"

I really wanna have something original to say about this album, but how do you say anything interesting about such an average, amateur, half assed album?

"Queensryche" (if ya wanna call em that lately) has been way off track and honing a sound that nobody could totally get on board with for many years now, and as recent events have proven, this includes the former band members. Maybe it's because Geoff was taking over, maybe it's the fact that fans have been increasingly alienated by their shit...but it's probably a combination.

What you have here is an extremely half assed attempt by Tate to finally wake up and go "ok, ok, I drove the band too far out to sea. I can come back guys! I really can!" But then he just can't resist and swallow his pride. He just HAS to literally put an "F.U." on the album cover. And believe me, it just as much an "F.U" to the original cult fans as it is to his former band mates. We know Geoff, we got it. But you still suck.

Musically, this is much more straight forward and follows a much more standard hard rock format with pop leanings. I'm not gonna go into too much detail. Some songs have good riffs and some are more pop oriented. Geoff is still VERY talented. But this is just thrown together and sounds very little like the good original Queensryche he seems to think he is solely responsible for. The jig is up Geoff, the emperor has no clothes...and by the way, your voice is trashed.

Queensryche "Queensryche"

If you ask yourself, "what is the Queensryche sound?" there really is no correct answer if you take into account their entire body of work. However, if you take their best work (Degarmo era) and forget all the crap they did after, the new album absolutely sounds like Queensryche. Yet even that sound is hard to describe. It's whatever the talented group of musicians can come up with as a unit.

The album opens with a rather generic "sound collage" reminiscent of the "Promised Land" opening cinematic sequence. I suppose it's the sound of the band being reborn? I spoke of Queensryche utilizing concepts for their albums in an earlier review. When the band is on board with the concept as a unit, that is when the band makes their best material. And here it seems the rebirth of the band is itself, the concept.

From the start the sound hits you pretty hard with the excellent production. The drums in particular have been meticulously recorded and have the best balance between organic and effects. The bass tone is nice and heavy and excellently placed in the sound field, reminding you how great these players are. A powerful rhythm section, one of the most powerful in Metal history, is back up front to lay it down and let you know they are ready to rock.

"Where Dreams Go to Die" begins and by the end, we know if this is the true end of Queensryche or the new beginning. What I found was, by the end of this song I knew it was great, but was unsure how great it was. There is a subtle complexity that goes by, and a familiar feeling of hearing "Warning" for the first time hit me. I really didn't think "Warning" was a great song the first time I heard it. But over time, it got better with each listen. I can say the same for this song. In fact, I can say the same for most of this album.

The sad reality of being a vocalist in a Metal band is that your days are numbered. Not just in the standard sense of life expectancy, but even more numbered by virtue of the fact that, as Geoff Tate has said "your voice is your instrument." A guitarist can get old, but he can buy a new guitar. A drummer can get weaker, but he can purchase different sounding drums and/or adjust his technique. A singer? Well, once the pipes go, all you can do is sing at a different register. But you can't buy a new throat or new lungs. This is why singers are weirdos, and the better they are, the weirder they are usually. So no disrespect to Geoff Tate - for he is without a doubt one of the best Metal singers of all time. But Todd La Torre simply has a stronger, more youthful voice. And he sounds like a young Geoff Tate. There's no way around it, Queensryche needs a singer of this strength or they are done.

Queensryche'ability to write powerful, dramatic material has made a huge come-back. The best example I can point to is "Vindication." This is just classic Queensryche with hints of Operation Mindcrime, but with a modern edge and a new aggression they really haven't had since the first ep. Musically, it feels new, powerful, and inspired. Of everything on the album, this is the one that really makes me look forward to what else they can come up with.

There is a certain effort and care that goes into making a great album. You can have great musicians, tons of money, a top producer - but as Metallica has proven time and time again, none of that helps if you have crappy songs and lack of unity musically. I hate to reference Metallica over and over, but since I doubt most of you have bothered much with "bad Queensryche" I figure Tallica is a good reference point to how the "wrong way to get a great album" works, vs THIS RIGHT HERE which is the magic that happens when almost everything comes together.

There isn't a bad song on here. In fact, there isn't a song on here that is less than great. The cult of Queensryche is satisfied. Our band is back. Degarmo hasn't returned, but his spirit is in this group for sure. And we can finally get back on board with wherever Queensryche is going.

For the most part, this is a decidedly earnest, somber, fairly uncommercial album. But there is one nod to their highly commercial "Empire" era in the form of "In This Light." Other than Degarmo's brilliant solos failing to be present, this song is still better than any of the "pop tunes" on "Empire." And easily heavier. "Best I can" and "Jet City Woman" are great pop songs. But "In this Light" for sure touches a harder, less accessible surface and doesn't quite sell out as hard. I would say Todd is generally, a slightly less cheesy singer than Geoff Tate and gives the band a slightly darker tone. But not a fake sort of cinematic darkness. A more street, real world sort. One thing that does bug the hell out of me though is the voice/pitch corrections used on key vocal lines. It doesn't come up often, but it seems a bit obvious when it does, and given Todd's range, it really seems pointless. I'd actually prefer to hear it raw. Hopefully they don't do this on the next album.

Is this a perfect album? Damned close. What is really exciting about it is the obvious chemistry the band has again, and you can really tell they have much more waiting to come out. I for one am looking forward to more music from this line-up. Hopefully the best is yet to come.

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