Friday, July 5, 2013

Queensryche (2013)

Much has been said about this band's public split with long-time vocalist Geoff Tate, and subsequent hiring of Todd LaTorre. Much has also been said about the court proceedings that followed and the preliminary injunction that temporarily allows two versions of the band to exist. There are many sources on the Internet where you'll find more than you'll ever want to know about those topics. What I want to talk about is the new, self-titled album just released by the band with their new front man Todd LaTorre- is it another disappointment like the Dedicated to Chaos album, or is it the triumphant return of the Queensruche that brought us classic albums such as Operation: Mindcrime or Empire? Maybe it's actually something else entirely...

Queensryche, in their heyday, was considered one of the pioneers of Progressive Metal, and were often referred to as "the Thinking Man's Metal" for their unique combination of highly technical playing, thickly layered production, complex song ideas, and their tendency to lean toward the idea of a concept album. Queensryche was a big influence on many of the (at the time) up and coming Power Metal bands as well.

Power Metal is a predominantly European movement. These bands feature things like like dual harmonized guitars, high register vocals, and, most recognizably, the "heroic chorus." By that I mean that the chorus section of most songs is usually something very catchy and uplifting that has a "soaring" quality to it- the kind of thing that brings to mind that scene from The Lord of the Rings films where Gandalf the White leads an army of knights on horseback in a heroic charge down a steep hill, and they sweep aside the army of evil creatures just in time to save the day.... At least that's what I think of when I hear a good Power Metal chorus... I know, I sound like a total nerd, but you get the point of what I'm saying so don't judge!

So I digressed to a chat about Power Metal for a reason, I think you'll understand why later. Now, onto the track-by-track comments...

The album opens with an atmospheric instrumental called "X2" by drummer Scott Rockenfield. Scott shows off his skills as a film composer (his second job!) by creating an ominous soundscape that sets a tone of anticipation that leads right into the lead song- "Where Dreams Go To Die" - a mid-tempo number based on a demo submitted by guitarist Parker Lundgren. This song features. Variety of moods, a softer verse section featuring clean, chorus laden guitar sounds over a more jazzy drumbeat. The song switches gears into a more "metal" mode for the chorus, with a more grinding palm muted guitar sound, and open, melodic vocals. The lyrics speak about a fall from grace, and a defiant reaction to rise again from adversity, an idea that hits very close to the band's real-life struggles to break out of the rut they've been in for some time. My favorite lyric sums up the idea- "When we watch our idols fall, a revolution call" and pays tribute to the band's past by referring to the song "Revolution Calling." The track has a lot of the elements that made the band great 30 years ago, but somehow also feels fresh and new.

The next track "Spore" continues to take us through a variety of moods, but is darker in tone. The piece feels like a heavy, metallic waltz. Lyrically, the song explores that darker half of he theme set in the opening track with lines such as "crawling in your mind, damaging your sight, take me out of darkness and into the light" and evokes images of a prisoner of war longing to escape.

Next up is the "power ballad" of the album, "In This Light" written by Scott Rockenfield and bassist Eddie Jackson. This song is best heard at high volume on quality headphones. The production is a tremendous wall of sound featuring a sweeping orchestral backing part penned by Rockenfield. The song continues the running theme of bouncing back from adversity with lines such as "I've been searching for answers all my life, to rise above the jaded world that seemed to haunt me". This is a good song for people who seem to believe that singer Todd LaTorre is simply imitating Geoff Tate. Here, he sounds completely different than Tate, and clearly makes his own mark. This is a very radio friendly track as well, I would not be surprised to hear it get significant airplay.

Next up is "Redemption," the most uptempo track so far, and the first track the band released on the Internet as an album teaser. With an epic chorus that says "search and you'll find the answers, to be the change that you want to see" it clearly has taps into the Power Metal play book. Much has already been said about his track already so I won't beat the topic to death, it's a very solid song, that's clearly connected to Queensryche's classic catalog, but also feels like something new at the same time.

"Vindication" is next, another fast paced number featuring a driving rhythm section. Eddie's bass sound cuts through the mix with an edgy rattle that brings to mind the weighty, massive sound he had on the "Empire" record. The verses, stylistically have an almost classical Spanish flair to them, and the chorus section is about as "heroic" as it gets... Yes, horsemen, check, white wizard, check, army of evil swept aside, check. Just listen, you'll see what I mean. If this track doesn't get your blood pumping, you need help (or you need to listen to the second to last track...) The lyrics are the most obvious commentary on the band's struggles with their former lead singer- "sometimes a man's word is all that he's got and sometimes just only a name"- ouch, tough words, mostly written by drummer Scott Rockenfield.

Here the album switches gears and goes into another atmospheric, cinematic style instrumental, called "Midnight Lullaby" that is punctuated by snippets of Todd's vocals from other parts of the album, and the sound of a baby crying. The soundscape serves as relief from the fury of the previous track, and sets the cene for the next song...

..."A World Without" which is a brooding dirge. It is similar in composition to "In This Light" with sweeping orchestra, and a wall of sound, but much darker, slower and plodding. The song Los features a few backing vocal snippets from long time friend of the band, Pamela Moore, best known for playing the part of Sister Mary on the "Operation: Mindcrime" album. The meaning of the baby's cries in the previous track become apparent, the song is about a man grieving over a wife who died during childbirth. "My baby's staring back at me, and now a broken family, your name now etched in stone, no place to call my home"

"Don't Look Back" is another uptempo number written mostly by Guitarist Mike Wilton. It has a vibe, and drive similar another Wilton song, "The Needle Lies" from the Operation: Mindcrime album. Again this is a very personal song, containing what appears to be more commentary about the recent falling out with Geoff Tate- "don't look back, I won't be standing here... I'm lost but not afraid"- and also Helps carry forward the theme of overcoming adversity. It's a great track, and would be the standout, if it wasn't for the track that follows it...

"Fallout" is the real gem on this album. It is a very intense uptempo song written by Eddie Jackson, and Scott Rockenfield. The rhythm section completely dominates here- Eddie and Scott thunder relentlessly through the song, taking no prisoners, and generally performing like men possessed. Wilton and Lundgren support the charge with their dual guitar attacks and inspired solos. Everyone is playing at their peak on this track. The theme of rebirth, and revival runs through this song as well- "rising, rising from the ashes, a better life tomorrow finds, from a world beneath your blackest eyes".

"Fallout," is in my opinion, the strongest track on the album. It's certainly the most exciting and pulse pounding track of the bunch. If you know the animated film "Heavy Metal" from the 80s- this track would fit right in in place of either Sabbath's "Mob Rules" or Sammy Hagar's "Heavy Metal"- I know, suggesting to ever replace a Dio-era Sabbath song with anything is blasphemy, but the song has that kind of drive and focus. The only thing I can complain about is that the song is short, and I really want it to keep going for another 15-20 second to let the outro idea develop and raise the intensity one more notch. On the other hand, the short form certainly leaves you wanting more. This is an excellent choice for a first single.

The closing song is "Open Road" - an effort to end the album with a broad sweeping, epic track in the tradition of "Anybody Listening?" or "Eyes of a Stranger". "Open Road" takes the "wall of sound" appraoch again, with another Scott Rockenfield orchestral backing. It is certainly a good song, but I think it suffers from the inescapable comparison to "Anybody Listening?" which is probably the best example of an "epic" ending song anyone can think of. Despite this comparison, it still does a pretty good job of rounding out the album, and closing out the running theme- "moving on to another day, searching for a better way, seek and you will find the cure, a blessing in disguise, right before your eyes". It basically end the album on a question mark, with the "Open Road" ahead - reflecting the idea that the album as a whole is representative of the corner the band is turning in their career- a fresh start in a new direction.

I also have to remark on the Power Metal angle- while I am not suggesting that this is really a Power Metal album, it certainly features more elements from that sub-genre than any other Queensryche album. I think this is actually a smart move, even if it wasn't a conscious choice. It brings in a recognizably "new" element to the music that is still very compatible with the first four or five classic Queensryche albums. It should also be noted that the band is also planning on making a strong European tour- where Power Metal is msot popular, so I think that while the almbum is doing well so far in the US, they are positioning themselves to have a big success in Europe as well. All around, a smart move from both a creative, and a business perspective. I think that this album could very well be the resurgence that most Queensryche fans have hungered for for the past ten or fifteen years.

I could complain about how short the album is- at 35 minutes, it is very short by today's standards. However, I find myself agreeing with Mike WIlton's interview comments on the subject- the album really has no filler songs- every song is strong and makes a statement. While it leaves me wanting more at the end, I can easily hit the back button on my iPod and give it another spin. My relatively long ride to and from work means that I can listen to the whole thing twice on the way home if I hit a little traffic, which makes me not mind the traffic so much, as long as I can hit the gas when "Fallout" comes on at least!


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