Friday, June 28, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 13: Review of the Self-Titled Album

Not to be confused with the 1983 EP, Queensryche’s twelfth full-length studio album finds the band in the most challenging predicament of their career. Too far removed in time from the classics and too far removed in quality from recent efforts, it is an album that simultaneously is way overdue and feels like the debut of a completely new band. Either way, former Crimson Glory singer Todd La Torre and guitarist Parker Lundgren have secured themselves without a single outsider in sight.

As expected by a band that has spent the last year reaching for their prog metal past and generally making up for lost time, there are plenty of references to their classic works to be found on here. Just as lead single “Redemption” channels Operation: Mindcrime with its twin guitar introduction and rapid fire choruses, faster songs like “Don’t Look Back” and “Fallout” show off their long forgotten Iron Maiden influence and probably would’ve fit in on The Warning with more structural complexity. They even allow some 90s influence to slip by as “Open Road” plays out like an Empire ballad, “A World Without” and the interludes evoke Promised Land, and “In This Light” is a radio friendly number in the vein of Hear In The Now Frontier.

But the debut aspect does come into play, as there are some new elements to be found. This album just might be Queensryche’s most aggressive since the EP as the production offers a bright yet gritty tone, the drums bring in more power, the guitars offer active riffs and solos, and La Torre’s vocals are raspier than his clone status would have you believe. Influence from contemporary power metal is also abundant and can best be seen on the theatrical “Where Dreams Go To Die” and the uplifting contrasts on “Vindication.”

While the production’s loudness has been a point of contention, the album’s thirty-five minute run time is the ultimate cause for concern. On one hand, it allows the band to focus on more straightforward songwriting and results in an album largely devoid of filler. On the other, a few songs could’ve been a minute or two longer and the inclusion of an epic track would’ve been great. Ultimately, the length doesn’t affect the quality but rather makes it feel more like an amazing appetizer.

And with that, Queensryche’s first album with the new lineup isn’t the godly comeback we hoped for but it does provide excellent songs and hope for an even greater follow-up when all this legal mumbo jumbo has been resolved. It is overwhelmingly clear that this lineup has earned their claim to the Queensryche name; they understand what made it great and how to properly bring those elements into the modern age. Let’s just hope you know who has a backup plan now that this has blown up in his face…

Current Highlights:
“Where Dreams Go To Die”
“A World Without”
“Don’t Look Back”

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 12: Review of Dedicated To Chaos

Dedicated to Chaos will always be remembered as the album that almost broke Queensryche. In addition to being panned by just about everyone that heard it (Including a few band members), it allowed many fans to see just how far the band had fallen and arguably contributed to Geoff Tate’s well-publicized departure in 2012. It was also the first album to feature Tate’s former son-in-law Parker Lundgren on guitar duties though this factor doesn’t speak for itself quite as much as it would in the near future…

Scott Rockenfield was right when he described this album as being “kind of like Rage [For Order] through a time tunnel,” but not in the way that he intended. While he probably made that statement as a plea or reassurance to longtime fans, Dedicated to Chaos and Rage For Order are similar in that they both experiment with a wide variety of styles and have lyrical themes that reflect the musicians’ states of mind at a given time. However, Rage unified those sounds with brilliant songwriting and thoughtful lyrics; Dedicated To Chaos just serves as a mass of stylistic confusion thanks to a bunch of hacks not knowing how to handle their midlife crises.

This can best be seen on tracks like “Got It Bad” and “Wot We Do,” easily the two worst songs ever released under the Queensryche name. The music combines jazz, R&B, and whatever else they could think of into these faceless blobs and the lyrics do their best to bring sex appeal to a group that generally kept their class even when singing about horny teenage boy fodder. One could argue that the cabaret flashbacks are merely an attempt at being campy but the pacing is far too slow and Tate’s sneering is more obnoxious than funny.

Speaking of obnoxious, the lyrics are easily the worst that Tate has ever put together. When he is not providing us with the sexual insights of a man that is just a year older than my dad, he becomes everything that The Warning warned us about as he goes on about his YouTubes, cell phones, and how having “those sunglasses on” is pretty much the most erotic thing ever. In short, it’s the perfect antithesis to their classic outlook.

But with that said, Queensryche can still pull off a few worthwhile moments even in the absolute nadir of their career, though it can be a pretty big stretch to really notice them. “Get Started” makes for a legitimately fun opener and continues the band’s occasional Rush parallels thanks to its “Far Cry” style pacing. Following that, “Hot Spot Junkie” is a goofy successor to “Damaged,” “Around The World” makes for okay U2 worship, and “Retail Therapy” is a decent Alice In Chains-esque grinder if you are capable of ignoring the crap lyrics on each of those songs…

But what really makes this album frustrating is how the actual performances are actually pretty good. The diminishing vocals fit in with the album’s smug tone and toned down style, the focus on the rhythm section was the closest thing the album had to a smart move, and the guitars still have a decent shine to them in the absence of actual riffs. It’s certainly nothing that makes the songwriting any better but it does provide a glimpse at what the band could’ve been capable of with the right material.

The most masochistic fan may find a song or two of value, but there is no doubt that Dedicated To Chaos is the lowest point of Queensryche’s career. Say what you will about Lulu or Illus Divinum Insanus (You know, the other two pieces of shit that came out in 2011), but there has never been a band that so blatantly spit in the faces of their principles while claiming to be still adhering to them. Just listen to Rage For Order if you want experimentation, Operation: Mindcrime or Empire if you want insightful lyrics, and the new one if you want to see just what Queensryche is truly capable of.

Current Highlights:
“Get Started”
“Hot Spot Junkie”
“Around The World”
“Retail Therapy”

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 11: Review of American Soldier

Having failed to win over disgruntled fans with Tribe and Operation: Mindcrime II, Queensryche went for a different approach for their tenth full-length studio album. The writing is still dominated by outsiders but all the band members seem to be accounted for and while the military theme could be seen as a different type of pandering, it is much more honest due to the insights gained by interviewing actual soldiers and incorporating their sound bites into the songwriting.

Despite the elaborate concept, it is still hard to identify this as a true Queensryche album. The prevailing style is a mix of post grunge and alternative metal, the guitars have a rather conventional chug, the vocals are about the same as they’ve been, and a liberal amount of samples are used to set the atmosphere. There is a bit of prog influence and the saxophone makes its first appearance since Promised Land but the band’s most defining traits are still sadly absent.

With that, the songwriting is also a mixed bag. Things start off rather awkwardly as “Sliver” and “Unafraid” seem to be going for a Saliva vibe while “Hundred Mile Stare” and “At 30,000 Feet” are decent but ultimately don’t live up to their atmospheric promise. Thankfully, it does get better as it goes along with “The Killer” offering some strong percussion, “Man Down!” being a more successful upbeat track, and “If I Were King” and “Remember Me” making for good ballads.

“Home Again” is another noteworthy track though one that is sure to divide people. While its structure is that of a typical acoustic ballad, its defining factor is the duet between Geoff Tate and his daughter Emily. While Emily’s flat tone and the song’s somewhat saccharine nature may turn some listeners off, she puts more emotion into her performance than her father has in years. Hell, it just might be one of the most passionate ballads that Queensryche has ever put together and will get you misty-eyed if you relate to the theme.

Overall, American Soldier is one of the most mixed albums in the Queensryche discography. The outside contributions still grate on the nerves and several ideas don’t quite catch fire, but the second half does make it potentially worth getting if you can deal with a different sound. There are better war-themed albums out there but this is arguably as good as Geoff Tate and his cronies will ever get.

Current Highlights:
“The Killer”
“Man Down!”
“If I Were King”
“Remember Me”
“Home Again”

Friday, June 21, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 10: Review of Operation: Mindcrime II

Operation: Mindcrime II should not exist, at least not as an album released under the Queensryche name. The fact that it is a sequel to the greatest prog metal album of all time was puzzling enough when it was first released in 2006, but a few more details that have come to light since the band’s 2012 schism make it even more frustrating. Despite being another attempt to pander to disgruntled fans after the failed DeGarmo reunion, Operation: Mindcrime II is the first collaboration that Geoff Tate and producer/writer Jason Slater released under the Queensryche name and features a slew of session musicians instead of actual band members. From what I’ve gathered, longtime guitarist Michael Wilton and drummer Scott Rockenfield aren’t even on this damn thing!

What makes this revelation painfully ironic is that the second Mindcrime is the first album that actually sounds like Queensryche in a decade and might just be their most metal-oriented release since the first one. Granted the focus on slower tempos means that “I’m American” and “Signs Say Go” are the closest things that we really get to old school “The Needle Lies” style speed metal, but whoever is playing guitar got their tone to closely match the original shine and they even squeezed in a few actual metal riffs on songs like “One Foot In Hell.” They even upped the ante by reprising a few musical motifs, working in some orchestral elements, and having a few special guest vocalists on select tracks.

But in doing this, they seemed to forget that the original Mindcrime succeeded due to incredibly catchy songs and writing that put each member on equal standing in terms of showing off their skills. The songwriting on its sequel is rife with sluggish executions, meandering structures, and faceless instrumentals that merely set the stage for the vocal performances with very few chances to shine.

Queensryche’s first three releases showed us that this dynamic isn’t necessarily a bad thing but that idea is immediately thrown out the window when the listener realizes that the vocals on here sound like shit. All signs of deterioration that have popped up in the wake of Promised Land finally culminate to this single performance as Tate delivers his awkwardly constructed lines in a grating sneer, botches drawn out wails, abandons his lower range for dull spoken word, and generally makes one wonder how much sooner we would’ve noticed this if he hadn’t been coasting by on grunge for the last decade. Fortunately, all is not lost as Pamela Moore gives it her all as the ghost/hallucination/whatever of Sister Mary and metal master Ronnie James Dio upstages his former apprentice as Dr. X on the otherwise anticlimactic “The Chase.”

Speaking of which, it goes without saying that the story is as directionless as it is implausible. While a story featuring the loveable Nikki escaping prison and seeking revenge for Mary’s death would be a neat character study, the story we got falls flat as the brainwashed junkie is somehow paroled and goes off to die whimpering after an anticlimactic victory. It doesn’t help that going into his thought process is much more forced than it was in the original Mindcrime and that it immediately forgets about the social commentary that made its ancestor so inspiring. Seriously, this was released in the middle of the War on Terror; how did they pass up the chance to talk about that?

But with all this bitching to consider, the album’s first half actually manages to be pretty decent. In addition to “The Hands” being a legitimately good song and “Hostage” making for a decent bluesy number, other tracks like “One Foot In Hell” and “Signs Say Go” make for entertaining rockers once you get past Tate’s warbling. I also gotta give props to “Murderer?” for its excellent opening and wonder how things would’ve worked if it had been the closer instead of the twenty minutes that follow it. It wouldn’t have exactly been “Eyes Of A Stranger,” but it would’ve ended things on an intense, ambiguous note as opposed to a dull one.

In the end, Operation: Mindcrime II is one of those albums that I should hate on pure principle but isn’t totally devoid of value. It attempts to justify its existence by means of a decent start, passionate guest performances, and neat callbacks but ultimately falters due to the band’s disassociations as well as a declining creator’s misunderstanding of his own creation. Perhaps it could’ve worked if it had been released at a more favorable time or if the band members actually gave a damn, but this looks to be another case of what could’ve been. At least Ian Anderson had the good sense to release Thick As A Brick II under his own name…

Current Highlights:
“I’m American”
“One Foot In Hell”
“The Hands”
“Signs Say Go”

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 9: Review of Tribe

Tribe could be seen as a sort of crossroads in Queensryche’s career. It certainly doesn’t reach for their metal days, but it does have a unified lyrical theme and was their last true band effort before their next three releases were handed off to Geoff Tate’s entourage of outside writers. It even sees the brief return of Chris DeGarmo as a session member, overshadowing guitarist Mike Stone’s official addition to the group’s ranks in place of Kelly Gray.

Being the last part of what I’m now calling Queensryche’s Grunge Trilogy, Tribe seems to serve as an odd cross between Promised Land and Q2K. Just as it stays close to the latter’s rhythmic emphasis and muddy guitar tone, it also has a contemplative theme and might be their most laid back release to date. Of course, there are a few songs like “Open” and the disjointed “Art Of Life” that are slightly heavier than those on the last couple efforts, but they don’t feel out of place with the album’s reflective outlook.

But even with DeGarmo’s contributions, there still aren’t many changes to the band dynamic. “Open” does have the distinct honor of having the first honest to God Queensryche riff since “Hit The Black” but there aren’t too many intricate moments on the ballads that made past somber tracks like “Out Of Mind” and “The Lady Wore Black” so captivating. This is also where the vocals would start to get a little grating though it seems to have more to do with the patterns and inflection than trying to hit notes that just can’t be hit anymore.

And in a way similar to St. Anger, there are some moments where things feel a little unfinished. But while that album spent too much time beating stale ideas into the ground, Tribe has songs that seem like they should’ve gone in a different direction than what was released. “Desert Dance” could’ve been a highlight if it had spent more time on its darker beginning and the title track would’ve been even stronger if the flow of the vocals wasn’t so awkward during the verses. The ballads also have a tendency to run together though a few of them do show signs of promise.

Overall, Tribe is a decent album though it somehow seems to be even weaker than the last couple despite DeGarmo’s contributions. The reflective tone is nicely delivered and fitting for a band of Queensryche’s experience and “Open” is easily their strongest latter day diamond, but his involvement is more of a point of hype and what could’ve been than anything that truly salvages the album’s more monotonous moments. Stick with Hear In The Now Frontier if you want to hear the band play grunge. That album needs more love anyway…

Current Highlights:
“Great Divide”
“Rhythm Of Hope”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 8: Review of Q2K

In a world where so many bands only have one or two original members in their ranks, it is sad to see how severely Queensryche was affected by the loss of one guy. Having been the main writer and business overseer, Chris DeGarmo’s departure greatly changed the band’s dynamic as Geoff Tate assumed leadership and a series of guitarists were brought in to cover his tracks. The first of these was Seattle producer Kelly Gray, a former bandmate of Tate’s, who would quickly become a controversial figure among fans despite this being his only appearance as an official member.

Despite DeGarmo’s departure, Q2K’s sound isn’t too far removed from Hear In The Now Frontier. Some of the subtle nuances have lost their impact but the grunge influence has been kept in tact and most of the songs have kept their loose execution. However, there may be a little more variety and there is a fairly good mix of ballads and heavier tracks.

The band’s performances also don’t seem to be too affected though that has more to do with the style than anything else. While Gray isn’t much of a lead player, the focus on rhythms lets him fit in well and the vocals seem to be holding up as well as they were on previous efforts. In addition, Rockenfield seems to be a little more prominent as songs like the opening “Falling Down” and “Burning Man” are driven by his percussion skills.

Unfortunately, the lack of nuances and weaker songwriting do bring this album down to a degree. There is still nothing bad on here and having a few less songs on here does make it feel more solid than Hear In The Now Frontier, but this is the first Queensryche album where the listeners spends more time looking for diamonds in the rough than enjoying a consistent release.

Q2K’s diamond ends up being “The Right Side Of The Mind,” a brooding closer that channels the Promised Land days with its subdued vocals, spacy guitar and bass work, and unsettling chorus. In addition, “Falling Down” and “Sacred Ground” make decent grunge rockers while “How Could I” and “Beside You” respectively stand out for a passionate chorus and almost gospel motifs.

In addition to having the dumbest title for a Queensryche album this side of Operation: Mindcrime II, Q2K is the first that doesn’t feel like a true Queensryche album. Tate’s vocals may have been their most unique asset but their sophistication and strong dynamics made sure they still sounded like themselves through even the most blatant sellouts. It’s a slight step below Hear In The Now Frontier but it’s still great compared to just about everything that would come after it…

Current Highlights:
“Falling Down”
“Sacred Ground”
“How Could I?”
“Beside You”
“The Right Side Of My Mind”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 7: Review of Here In The Now Frontier

Queensryche’s sixth studio album is widely regarded as the first true misstep of their career. While having a few initial signs of success, it ultimately faded from sight due to their label folding combined with the Seattle group’s futile response to a movement that had already passed. To add insult to injury, guitarist/bandleader Chris DeGarmo left the band shortly after its release despite (or perhaps because of) his overwhelming influence on its development.

For the first time since the days of the EP, Hear In The Now Frontier sees the band emulating the styles of others as opposed to incorporating a wide variety of influences under a signature sound. Despite coming out a couple years after grunge was beginning to decline, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots are the album’s leading aspirations though one can also finds reference to U2, Pearl Jam, and what Metallica was doing around the time. In short, it’s a very basic record that puts a bunch of jams out there without any signs of a bigger picture.

And while there aren’t any prog or ambient touches left, the band hierarchy isn’t too far off from the Promised Land dynamic. The guitars are still the prime focus and while there aren’t any strong riffs or solos on display, they do their job and are backed by a decent rhythm section. And like the EP before it, Tate’s vocals are what keep the music from sounding too generic. However, he has stuck with a mid-range approach that rarely ventures into extreme pitches.

When it comes down to it, the success of Hear In The Now Frontier heavily depends on how the songs themselves are written and presented. Unfortunately, having fourteen songs on a single disc does lead to a mixed bag as several of them end up running together. Fortunately, the running times are short and the songs themselves are pleasant to listen to, but it’s definitely not as consistent as everything that came before it.

In addition, there are still some pretty brilliant songs on here. “Hit The Black” may be the easiest song to get into for established fans thanks to its Mindcrime-esque guitar lines though “Saved” stands out for its explosive Soundgarden-isms and “You” reminds me of KISS with its simple but catchy hook. In addition, “Get A Life” brings in a little heaviness, “Miles Away” and “All I Want” bring in a little pop, and “Sign Of The Times” makes for a decent opener.

Much like Bruce Dickinson’s Skunkworks, Queensryche’s sixth full-length album is an experiment that is pretty enjoyable but ultimately came too late. Its reputation is deserved when you consider its plain presentation and the band’s over the top past, but it is worth looking into for grunge fans and makes for an entertaining character study. And the fact that it’s in every used CD store ever does mean that you won’t have to pay too much for a copy…

Current Highlights:
“Sign of The Times”
“Get A Life”
“Hit The Black”

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 6: Review of Promised Land

Released four long years after Empire, Promised Land just might be the biggest black sheep of Queensryche’s classic era. While it did go gold and had a few successful singles to its name, a series of personal struggles kept the band from truly capitalizing on their last album’s success and this one remains one of their most obscure to date. These factors do give Promised Land a status not unlike that of Metallica’s Loads, but this album is much more consistent and forward thinking.

While Promised Land isn’t exactly inaccessible, it could be seen as an antithesis of Empire. Trading in big hooks for ambient textures and upbeat hard rock for spacy prog, it may be their most complex effort as well as one of their most restrained in execution. It also manages to be their most cynical as the heavier songs are more about creating a biting atmosphere than a truly metal riff and the lyrics deal with themes of disillusionment and detachment.

But with that, it isn’t as far removed from previous Queensryche albums as one would think. The upbeat “Damaged” plays out like an Empire outtake, the atmosphere on songs like “Dis Con Nec Ted” was forseen on “Della Brown,” and a good bulk of the softer songs on here had their roots in “No Sanctuary” and “I Will Remember” among others.

The band dynamics have also undergone a few changes to match the style. The guitars now seem to be the band’s strongest asset as they jump from a heavy crunch on “I Am I” to gentle acoustics and everything in between. On the flip side, the rhythm section seems to have been scaled back and Geoff Tate’s vocals show their first signs of wear but keep their composure by sticking to a lower range. A few members also get to flex some extra muscles as Scott Rockenfield breaks out the electronics, guitarist Chris DeGarmo plays the piano on “Lady Jane” and “Someone Else,” and Tate showcases his skills with a saxophone to chilling effect on the title track.

If Empire is Dark Side Of The Moon, then Promised Land is Queensryche’s answer to Wish You Were Here. It may not have the status of its predecessors but its classy execution may place it just below Mindcrime on the band’s overall hierarchy. It may be one of their trickiest releases to get into but it’s a hell of a lot easier to recommend than anything that would come out after it…

Current Highlights:
“I Am I”
“Out Of Mind”
“Lady Jane”
“Someone Else?”

Monday, June 10, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 5: Review of Empire

Queensryche’s fourth studio release is essentially their equivalent of the Black Album in their discography. It achieved a great deal of commercial success thanks to a combination of strong hit singles and an even more accessible sound. But whether you see Empire as the last good Queensryche album or the beginning of the end, it’s definitely not the sellout that some have made it out to be.

Aside from the obvious lack of story elements, Empire only differ from Operation: Mindcrime in that its production job is more polished and the speed metal influence is completely absent. Fortunately, nothing sounds dumbed down as the band’s kept their tricky rhythms and sophisticated air. If anything, the album has a lot more in common with the stuff that Rush was putting out in the early 80s than anything that was going in 1990.

The polished production job also has the added benefit of accentuating what just might be the band’s tightest and most balanced performance to date. Like Mindcrime before it, every member stands out as the bass frequently drives songs like “Jet City Woman” and “Della Brown” while the vocals opt for a lower range on “The Thin Line” and “Hand On Heart.” In addition, the guitars have a nice shine to them, the drums have a few nifty patterns, and a few dated keyboard effects shake things up on the super motivational “Best I Can.”

And despite that lack of a grand concept, the lyrics are still pretty well written. Most of the songs on here are about relationships but rise above your typical butt rock fare thanks to their focus on a mix of passion, longing, and nostalgia. A few political remnants pop up on the title track and “Resistance” while “Della Brown” predicts the next album with its discussion on fleeting stardom and “Silent Lucidity” matches “Comfortably Numb” worship with the topic of lucid dreaming.

Like Moving Pictures before it, Queensryche’s fourth studio album opts for a more accessible sound while still keeping a good head on their shoulders. The singles may not hit as hard as some of the Mindcrime staples but they carry themselves well and much smarter than their Lowest Common Denominator recognition would have you believe. I’d still recommend one of their older albums to a seasoned prog or metal fan, but I think your mom will love it.

Current Highlights:
“Best I Can”
“Jet City Woman”
“Della Brown”
“Another Rainy Night (Without You)”
“Silent Lucidity”

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 4: Review of Operation: Mindcrime

Just about everyone who remembers progressive music before Dream Theater was a thing could tell you what Operation: Mindcrime did for the genre as well as what it did for Queensryche’s reputation. While the following release was the one that truly pushed the band into the mainstream consciousness, this album paved the way for its success and for the fortunes of many groups that sought to follow in its footsteps. But with that said, there are several ingredients to Queensryche’s legendary concept album that its imitators never got quite right and a few more that seemed to have never crossed their minds…

While Queensryche has never been a band that stopped experimenting with their sound, this album is their first that is completely focused. While The Warning and Rage For Order respectively dealt with contrasting styles and throwing every idea against the wall to see what sticks, Operation: Mindcrime combines every idea that they have had and condenses it down to a style that is distinctly theirs. The speed runs on “Speak” and “The Needle Lies,” the epic “Suite Sister Mary,” and the various interludes may be exceptions to the rule, but every song on here operates on a steady formula of a mid-tempo pace, some well placed riffs, and an incredibly catchy chorus.

The band dynamic has also seems to have undergone a few changes with this release. Geoff Tate’s vocal prowess was originally the ace up Queensryche’s sleeve, but the other band members have all stepped up in their game. There are plenty of riffs that are just catchy as the chorus lines, the production really brings out Eddie Jackson’s bass performance, Scott Rockenfield throws out some nifty drum beats here and there, and they even let the guy bring out some of his electronic influences on “Electric Requiem.” Also worth noting is Pamela Moore’s performance as Sister Mary for she provides some effective theatrics despite only appearing in the second half of a single song.

But what really makes this album stand out is the fact that the band still hasn’t lost sight of the songwriting process. Despite having a pretty lofty concept to handle and the interludes to spar with, no segment goes on for too long and each song is an absolute classic that is just as enjoyable on its own as is in context with the others.

With that to consider, the highlights will certainly depend on the listener’s personal tastes. I’ve always found “Revolution Calling” and “Breaking The Silence” to be the most emotionally stirring though the crossover appeal of “I Don’t Believe In Love” is something that just can’t be ignored. Even the interludes manage to be entertaining as “Anarchy-X” serves as a brief but powerful prelude while “Electric Requiem” and “My Empty Room” make for memorable set pieces.

Speaking of sets, the album’s concept of the trigger-happy junkie who loses his way is one that cannot be ignored. While the Manchurian Candidate meets Romeo And Juliet plot may seem simplistic at times, the themes of individual songs are what truly sell it as each one has its own things to say about the needs for social revolution, political and religious corruption, drugs, and relationships. You may not be asking yourself who killed Mary at the album’s end but you may find yourself quoting the political rhetoric on “Speak” and “Spreading The Disease” from time to time…

A few bands like Kamelot and Savatage came close to replicating the song-oriented story formula of Operation: Mindcrime, but it is a release that cannot be topped and just might the greatest concept album that the heavy metal genre has to offer. The story might be its biggest talking point but the songwriting and band performances are what truly push it into an ethereal level. And whether you end up listening to the whole thing or just downloading its singles, I think you just might come out of it at the same level of satisfaction. Just don’t think about the subsequent attempts to cash in on its success…

Current Highlights:
“Revolution Calling”
“Operation: Mindcrime”
“Breaking The Silence”
“I Don’t Believe In Love”
“Eyes Of A Stranger”

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 3: Review of Rage For Order

Rage For Order has a rather odd position in Queensryche’s discography. The facts that it was their second full-length album and had the classic lineup at their peak make it an instant classic, yet it is also the first album that showcases several traits that would come to bite the band in the ass on later efforts. The resulting release is strong yet one that has also earned its black sheep reputation.

If there’s one thing that you can say about Rage For Order, it’s that it is one of those albums that only could’ve been made in the 80s. The band had been forced into a mismatched hair metal image, the production had more polish, keyboards are prominent on several songs, a few effects are thrown about to add to the drama, and they even snuck in a few ballads for good measure. These factors and more result in an intensely calculating tone that fits in quite well with its lyrical themes of technological paranoia.

Going along with that, the musical style is much harder to pin point compared to most of their efforts as it deals with a wide variety of influences. There is still a decent amount of metal influence as the band dynamic is still pretty guitar driven and the vocal delivery hasn’t changed much, but the appropriately titled “Surgical Strike” is the only track that ever feels like it could’ve been on the EP or The Warning. The prog ends up taking over in its place though there are also vague influences from post punk and glam among other things.

But when it comes down to it, the songwriting skill is what ultimately sets this album apart from the band’s future genre roulettes and even predicts the radio friendliness that would dominate its immediate successors. Just as songs like the opening “Walk In The Shadows” and “The Whisper” stand out for their upbeat injections, others like “I Dream In Infrared” and “I Will Remember” keep their heads above conventional balladry with their dreamlike atmosphere and sweeping vocals. In addition, tracks like “Neue Regal” and “London” provide some solid theatrics and “Screaming In Digital” remains the most intense song that the band has ever put out.

And while it may not be the strongest track on here, I do have to give some serious props to the cover of Dalbello’s “Gonna Get Close To You” that pops up towards the middle of the album. While the more active tempo and even more dramatic vocals may diminish the Nightmare Fuel that dominates the original version, the band’s skillful execution allows their version to fit the album’s overall vision and the retained paranoid tone keeps it from being another genre swap novelty.

While The Warning remains the strongest release of what I like to call the pre-Mindcrime trilogy, Rage For Order is the most interesting of the lot and just might be their most intriguing release to date. Despite the constant genre jumps and even further experimentation, the songwriting holds everything together and results in a number of classics that should please any fan of the band. The other releases from the band’s peak are easier to recommend to a newcomer but you won’t regret giving this one a chance.

Current Highlights:
“Walk In The Shadows”
“Gonna Get Close To You”
“Surgical Strike”
“Neue Regal”
“I Will Remember”

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 2: Review of The Warning

Queensryche’s debut EP got the band’s foot through the door and remains one of their most powerful efforts to date, but its ambitions seemed to suggest a youthful hunger rather than the grandeur that would come to define them later on. Fortunately, the band’s first full-length album was released just a year later and shows some dramatic evolution in the form of expanded sounds and an early attempt at a unifying concept.

While The Warning could still be classified as a heavy metal album overall, this is the first Queensryche album where progressive rock emerges as a truly prominent influence. The songs are longer, the structures are more complex, and tracks like “No Sanctuary” and the closing “Roads To Madness” drop the metal entirely in favor of Floyd-esque textures and building choruses. They even pair some operatic influences up with a Maiden style gallop on “En Force,” resulting the most glorious song that has ever appeared on a Queensryche album.

But even if the more metal tracks still have some odd quirks and tinges of prog in their deliveries, they still manage to quite memorable and occasionally as heavy as the EP. Aside from the previously mentioned “En Force,” “N.M. 156” and “Take Hold Of The Flame” serve as the album’s strongest highlights as the former combines tense vocals during the verses with a fast chorus while the latter serves as one of the band’s more theatrical singles. Also worth noting are “Before The Storm” for its strangely sequenced yet infectiously catchy vocal lines and “Child Of Fire,” which plays out like the successor to Judas Priest’s “Dissident Aggressor” before it goes off on another spacy tangent.

With all the various stylistic experimentations that dominate this album, its frequent risks pay off well and its biggest flaw has more to do with the flow of the overall work rather than its individual components. Much like how Sad Wings of Destiny had its sides switched around at some point, you can tell that The Warning’s track order is rather jumbled compared to its original vision as the title track gets things going in an awkward mid-tempo march where it was meant to start off in a frantic fashion courtesy of “N.M. 156.” Factor in the equally awkward sequencing on “Deliverance” and you have an album that screams to be moved around on your iTunes Playlist.

A few bumps in the road keep this from reaching the consistency of the EP, but there is no denying that Queensryche’s first full-length album offers a more thoroughly rewarding listening experience. Even the weakest songs on here are pretty far from being filler material and the sheer variety involved results in several powerful tracks that only get better with repeated listens. It’s still heavy enough to suggest as a good first purchase and fans of their most successful releases won’t be too out of their element here.

Current Highlights:
“En Force”
“No Sanctuary”
“N.M. 156”
“Take Hold Of The Flame”
“Before The Storm”

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Queensryche Month, Part 1: Review of the Self-Titled EP

Originally recorded when the group was still known as The Mob, Queensryche’s debut EP serves as one of the band’s most conventional yet definitive statements. Its four songs have more to say than most bands’ full-lengths and simultaneously expresses their influences while hinting at the shadow that they would cast over the prog music scene.

Seeing as how the band was still largely riding on their Iron Maiden and Ronnie James Dio influences, it isn’t too surprising for this EP to be their most metal-oriented release to date. The songwriting is straightforward, the guitars operate at more aggressive tempos, the vocals are as charismatic as they are high pitched, and the production job also manages to be their grittiest.

Yet even in their earliest days, the band had several nuances that placed them above most traditional metal fare. You won’t see any epics on here but tracks like the immortal “Queen Of The Reich” offer a degree of structural complexity while “The Lady Wore Black” offers some bells and literal whistles that keep it from being your typical power ballad. The band’s sophisticated air was also firmly secured by their debut, putting them two steps ahead of their contemporaries in Fates Warning and Savatage.

But as anyone will tell you, Geoff Tate’s vocals are what truly set Queensryche apart from the rest of the pack. He offers a great deal of variety and control in his delivery as he offers consistent wails throughout “Queen of The Reich,” a nut ripping scream on “Blinded,” and masterful low to high transitions on “The Lady Wore Black.” Not too shabby for a guy that doesn’t even like metal and performed on this EP as a favor…

While it has been overshadows by the best (and the worst) of future installments, Queensryche’s debut EP shows the band starting off strong. Despite there being only four songs on display, there are a few classic tracks on board and heavier metal fans may find this to be an ideal starting point if they don’t already have the obligatory Mindcrime. Either way, it’s just more proof that 1983 was a damn good year…

Current Highlights:
“Queen Of The Reich”
“The Lady Wore Black”