Not counting the abominable Geoff Tate fronted “Queensrÿche” album Frequency Unknown (because surely, who counts it?), Condition Hüman is the band’s thirteenth album of original material, and most importantly, their second album without the thankfully departed Tate. I was encouraged by their first outing without him at the helm, where they demonstrated that they still had a rather good songwriting core to build upon and a talented vocalist to pick up where they left off as a band unit (take your pick what album or year that was, mine is 1994’s Promised Land). By all rights, album number two was where the newly renewed Queensrÿche should take shape and deliver something truly remarkable. The verdict? I’m having a hard time coming to terms with what that might be… there are instances when I listen to this album all the way through and am impressed and mentally locked into these songs, and other times when I’ll find myself disengaging. I first thought that it was just me, that the ADD inducing amount of music I’ve had to listen to has effectively destroyed my ability to concentrate (might be some truth to that), but I won’t really know for sure until I dissect this thing.
Let’s make it easy on ourselves and get the good stuff out of the way first: I actually think “Arrow of Time” and “Guardian” might be the best one-two opening punch combo that the band has delivered on an album since “Best I Can”/”The Thin Line” off Empire (hey I love “Best I Can”, the “backstreet hoops star he’s got it good” lyric is perfectly accented). When I first heard “Arrow of Time” all those months ago when it was issued as an early single, I felt it sounded good but it just didn’t resonate with me… I suspect I wanted to hear something a little more “epic” for lack of a better term. Fast forward to playing it context with the rest of the album, and it makes perfect sense, that alarm blaring opening guitar figure, the accelerating verse sections propelled by some unabashedly furious percussion from Scott Rockenfield —- its briefly slowed down mid-section bridge displaying a hint of Porcupine Tree-esque shifting dynamics with an undulating rhythm section and airily adrift notes from guitarist Michael Wilton. The better single however might be “Guardian”, with a staggered call and response vocal in its chorus that is ear-wormy and serves the “revolution calling” lyrical throwback to that one album we’ve all collectively fawned over I’m sure. The third song “Hellfire” is a winner too, with its moody acoustic intro, stormy surges of angry guitar playing point-counterpoint to a simply amazing vocal by Todd La Torre (who is on fine form throughout the album).
He displays that talent on what might be the album’s best song in “Bulletproof”, the spiritual cousin to “In This Light” from their 2013 self-titled album, a song I loved but criticized for its short length. Both are shimmering power ballads not built upon delicate acoustic pluckings ala “Silent Lucidity” or “Bridge” (to cite two Chris DeGarmo penned ballady classics), but on full on, plugged in wailing guitar screams. I actually get an Amaranthe-vibe from “Bulletproof”, likely due to something in the way the guitars seem to pulse in and out behind La Torre’s soaring vocals during the chorus (the vocal layering might also have something to do with it). Its a song that largely succeeds in being compelling listening simply because it does sound so insistent. That’s the keyword, insistent, a trait I hear in those relatively reigned in verse sections where Rockenfield slices the spacey vocal and guitar dreamscape with assured single hits and tension escalating patterns on the hi-hat (of which he’s a master of). I realize this concept of something sounding “insistent” is ambiguous in definition, but I hear it in all the songs I enjoy on this album, its the sound of the band’s fundamental DNA, the audible traits that made their first six albums so compelling regardless of their particular stylistic differences. Its present on the Eddie Jackson solo penned (kinda surprising that) “Eye9”, with its rather complex rhythmic structures shifting and sliding all over the place, giving the song an unsettling feeling that brilliantly contrasted with a gorgeously vocal layered chorus.
So now there’s the problem children: First up is “Just Us”, a song that I actually like with its pastoral open chord sequences reminding me of something that could’ve fit in on Hear In the Now Frontier (an album maligned by many, quietly enjoyed by myself simply on the sheer strength of DeGarmo’s songwriting ability alone… that being said it lacked the “insistent” urgency that we talked about earlier). It has a gorgeous chorus, there’s simply no other word to describe it, with Jackson’s layered backing vocals bringing me back to the days when he and DeGarmo were one of the best harmony backing vocal teams in all of rock and metal. The song even sounds DeGarmo-ian, and perhaps that will only make sense to Queensryche fans, and maybe that was Wilton’s way of paying tribute to his former bandmate (he cowrote the song with La Torre, whose lyrics even read a little close to the theme of “Silent Lucidity”… these are just casual observations though, I’m not suggesting they actually wrote a DeGarmo tribute). The problem is that its impact is diminished in a full album play through by being sandwiched between two uneventful, at times even boring tracks in “Hourglass” and “All There Was”, songs that not only come across as directionless, but seem unfinished, half-baked in their actual songwriting. Didn’t they whittle down this tracklisting from a larger pool of twenty something songs? I don’t understand their inclusion, and while the epic closing title track and its fifty-six second lead in “The Aftermath” aim to hit upon a touchstone of the band’s past (that is, long form pieces with thoughtful tones ala “Anybody Listening” or “Promised Land”), they both lack actual memorable melodic motifs that you’re supposed to utilize to keep a listener’s attention. You need melodies here guys, not hodgepodges of metallic riffs —- I couldn’t find a vocal melody worth remembering.
Then there’s something else entirely —- what is up with the awful artwork? I’m asking seriously. This isn’t a band that’s been known for consistently choosing quality artwork throughout their career but this is an eyesore. I couldn’t find many other examples of the listed artist Joe Helm’s work, and I don’t mean to be spiteful or disparaging of his talent in general, but this specific piece… wow, why is the font so bland (and for that matter, so prominently sized?). It doesn’t get much better inside the booklet, where the decision to print the lyrics in an illegible font with dark color against a black background somehow passed inspection. I’m not a graphic artist, but even I know dark text against a dark background is a serious no-no. And why the “edgy” looking font? This is a metal band made up of mostly older guys, making music for an equally older audience who likely will need to don their reading glasses and Ibuprofen to make it through any attempt at reading the booklet. Are we trying to impress the Hot Topic set? Even more questionable is the choice of font for the credits which looks like the kind of thing you’d expect a local metal band with zero budget to pull off on their home printer for their 3$ demo they end up passing out for free at local shows. Why does all this tick me off so much? Because it actually can distract from the music itself. Because I went out and paid for a physical copy of this thing! I could’ve easily just bought the download and spared my eyes and fuel tank. Because in an era of rapidly declining physical music sales, you need to pay attention to every detail of the physical product to make it worth anyone’s money… there are so many bands in prog and metal trying harder at this (see everything Steven Wilson puts his name to), so why aren’t Queensrÿche?
So I decided to leave this until last, because I’ve stumbled upon the reason why I’m sometimes disengaged from this album. Its the production. The producer was the eyebrow raising choice of Chris “Zeuss” Harris, most known for his work with Shadows Fall and a ton of metalcore bands. There was criticism of the previous self-titled album having production issues as well, being pumped up too loud and resulting in DRM issues, but it was mixed by Jimbo Barton, a guy who had experience in understanding how the band was supposed to sound —- and he succeeded in that regard, it managed to recapture that classic aural essence. I’ve never been a fan of Zeuss’ productions, he made a band like Shadows Fall sound paper thin on album, choosing to favor a clinical approach for a band that should’ve sounded gritty and a little dirty. His style was apparently great for metalcore bands, who wanted their accessible melodies and clean choruses to pop (not a criticism, just observation). But when he brings that reliance on flattening rhythm guitars, muted bass (damn near heresy considering Jackson’s abilities), and worst of all the application of samples on Rockenfield’s drum sound, he squanders everything that is most sacred about the fundamental sound of the band. These songs are betrayed by this hollow production, and the band is robbed of what could arguably be deemed a near great album. Its tempered to merely good, and that’s not good enough at this point.