Its probably getting a bit predictable by now, that is, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Queensryche’s new self titled/post-Geoff Tate release. That there are so many interested parties taking a look at this album is perhaps indicative of how high in profile the band’s name has risen thanks to the online spillover of a courtroom/behind the scenes drama that has played out this past year for all to see. In terms of the PR war, there was a clear winner between the competing Queensryche’s long before a shred of new music was even heard from either party: Tate decided that his career would be best served by resembling a slow-crashing, flaming husk of a zeppelin. His version of the band is an internet laughing stock (run a search on blabbermouth for hilarious proof), and his consistently sub-par live performances in the name of Operation:Mindcrime’s 25th anniversary are filmed by concertgoers and uploaded to YouTube as documented proof of his deteriorating vocal ability, his sub-amateur band, and his boneheaded, thuggish antics. So all that the real version of Queensryche had to do was sit back, avoid Tate’s media baiting, and keep it level headed and classy in response. Oh and release an album that’s a little better than the atrocity that was Tate’s Frequency Unknown…yeah, seemed a fairly easy task.
But whats really accounting for all the extra media and internet excitement surrounding this record is the fact that the band decided that “a little better” wouldn’t be good enough, and instead dropped in our laps the finest Queensryche album since 1994’s Promised Land. I’m going to try to avoid over exaggerating; there’s no instant classic like “Eyes of a Stranger” or “Take Hold of the Flame” on offer here, and the lingering question of “what if” regarding the input of still departed original guitarist/primary songwriter Chris DeGarmo will always linger. But in the simplest terms, this is the album that the band should have recorded well over fifteen years ago, before the creative and business control of the band was taken over by Tate and his Spinal Tap-ian manager wife. Reuniting with their classic era engineer James “Jimbo” Barton was one key to success; this record simply sounds like Queensryche in a way that their past couple forgettable albums have not (including the woeful Operation: Mindcrime 2). Smart, focused, and confident songwriting is the other key, most notably exemplified in a clear handful of standout tracks.
Towering highest among these is the deft, artfully done quasi-ballad “In This Light”, a song that staggered me upon first listen. Here’s a build up and chorus that harkens back to Empire, a sort of distant cousin to “Another Rainy Night” and “One and Only”. Its perhaps the most accessible song on the record, yet also the most thoughtful, its lyrics a reflective paean on despair and hope. Drummer Scott Rockenfield and bassist Eddie Jackson (founding members alongside guitarist Michael Wilton) are credited as its songwriting team, and it really makes you wonder how many potentially great songs by the rhythm section were ignored or shelved during the Tate era. Rockenfield decides to go bonkers on “Spore”, a song that almost seems to be a meshing of modern prog with Rychean stylings… his tribal drumming on this track is nothing short of incredible. There’s also “Fallout”, a surprisingly energetic rocker with an almost punk-rock invoking chorus that is loaded front to back with micro hooks. The whole thing is perhaps doubly effective because its just so damned unexpected. Same goes for album opener “Where Dreams Go To Die”, which is automatically a frontrunner for the most evil sounding Queensryche song to date. Dark atmospherics, and supreme epic sweep is paired with some truly chilling lyrics: “I’ll take you there, where castles built will fall / Where dreams go to die and I promise you this / As God as my witness, that your time will finally meet its end /Your dreams will burn and die”. Damn…
You might notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the performance of new vocalist, ex-Crimson Glory singer Todd LaTorre. And that’s because any question of his abilities should have been put to rest long before this album’s release… I refer of course to the numerous recordings available of his concert performances doing high justice to the band’s back catalog. When you hear recordings of him singing “I Don’t Believe In Love” the way its hasn’t been sung in years, your worries about his performance on a new album go out the window. Before I even had the opportunity to listen to this album, I witnessed the band playing live here in Houston on June 8th on a humid Saturday night. The band was on excellent form, but Todd LaTorre was simply on fire, the damp air and warm weather making an outdoor stage the perfect setting for me to witness the single greatest live vocal performance I have ever heard. It was possible that the versions of classics from the Warning and Rage For Order albums that I heard that night were actually better than the original recordings. For periodic moments during the show, I was in utter disbelief at how fantastic he actually was — it was like watching Lebron in Game 7. At one point a guy next to me shook me by the shoulder excitedly and shouted “Can you believe this guy?!” I responded back, alarmed, “Crazy eh!”
Whats crazier is that it took the firing of an iconic lead singer to get to this point, and that said lead singer is no longer recognizable to those of us who were in awe of him for so long. Even more so, that a band we long considered nearly dead is now exciting both live and on record, and making dare I say vital music once again. There’s the possibility that this will end up on some short lists for the best of 2013… the only thing possibly standing in the way of that being the rather short, thirty-five minute length of the album. In fact, if there’s a criticism to make here its that the shortness of some of these tracks is whats holding them back, that with some added meat to their bones this could be an even better album. The logic behind the length is understandable: the band had a deadline to meet, and there’s that impending, decisive court date only a few months away. An album had to be delivered and the time crunch imposed restrictions on what the band could produce. So it begs the question… are we then rating this so high because the bar has been so low for so long? Possibly… yes. Its something we have to concede — that our excitement as fans may get the better of us. But isn’t that what being a fan is all about?