I love watching artists evolve.
As a music fan, there is nothing more thrilling for me than encountering an artist with a vast catalog, and listening through. I enjoy tracing artistic growth, listening for quantum leaps forward, contrasting the journey with the destination. A life lived in song, and captured on disc for all eternity, is a simply marvelous thing. If you’re not reading my Frank Zappa Buyer’s Guide over on my blog, well, that’s my attempt to trace the life of a genius through the music he released over nearly 30 years (and more if you count the posthumous records). Shameless plug, but check it out.
I also love growing up with a long-running artist, and experiencing that vast catalog piece by piece, as it comes out. Tracking the growth of Ben Folds, for example, has been a treat, each album arriving at seemingly pivotal points in my life. I can actually follow the tracks of my own years through his, and that’s sort of amazing. A band like Dream Theater means less to me, but I know where I was when each of their 11 (soon to be 12) albums came out. It’s remarkable to think that Images and Words hit when I was a freshman in college. So long ago…
The thing is, you never know which of the bands you’re listening to now will go on to have that kind of decades-long career. It’s always a crapshoot. For instance, I never would have guessed back in 1988 that I would still be following the unfolding saga of Queensryche, deep into my 30s. I was 14 years old when Operation: Mindcrime blew me back against the wall – it was the first rock opera I’d ever heard, and it stood miles above the glammy hair metal it shared the airwaves with. Queensryche were dubbed “thinking man’s metal,” and I wanted to be a thinking man, so I fell in love with them.
It wasn’t difficult, honestly. They were among the very best bands of the 1980s, and when they hit it big with “Eyes of a Stranger” (and then bigger with “Empire,” “Jet City Woman” and the indelible “Silent Lucidity”), it was like some strange form of justice being done. Here was a loud, inventive, politically savvy band hitting the top of the charts with a song about lucid dreaming. They had their moment without compromising a thing. I was too young to know how rare that is, but I know it now.
In retrospect, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that Queensryche soldiered on through the ‘90s, the 2000s and beyond. They adapted to changing tastes without sacrificing who they were, they created albums like Tribe and American Soldier that carried on their legacy without sullying it, and they even made a sequel to Operation: Mindcrime that wasn’t an all-out embarrassment. Founding guitarist Chris DeGarmo is long gone, but the other four original guys – distinctive singer Geoff Tate, bassist Eddie Jackson, guitarist Michael Wilton and drummer Scott Rockenfield – have stayed the course.
That is, until April of last year, when Tate was fired for reasons unknown. The fallout was brutal and public, with Tate suing for wrongful termination and claiming ownership of the Queensryche name. The three founders hired former Crimson Glory singer Todd La Torre and kept going, while Tate formed his own version of Queensryche with some hair-metal survivors, including brothers Rudy (Quiet Riot) and Randy (Hurricane) Sarzo.
Whew. Got all that? Because it gets even more complicated and sad. A judge is scheduled to rule in November on which band gets the rights to the name Queensryche. Until then, though – and this is a really odd quirk of the legal system – they both get to use it. So we now have new albums from two bands calling themselves Queensryche, one led by the band’s longtime singer, the other by another three of its founding members. And the competition has been ugly. It’s been like watching a family break up.
Here’s what’s interesting, though. Sad as it is to watch a band with such a rich and lengthy history splinter in this way, the fans are winning. The little secret that both versions of Queensryche don’t want you to know is that you don’t have to pick just one. If you’re a fan of this group’s brand of intelligent, thoughtful metal, you now have two bands plying the same trade. Better yet, they’re both trying to outdo the other, so the music they’re making is lean and hungry and vital. I was truly surprised by how much I liked both of these new Queensryche records.
We’ll start with Frequency Unknown, the Geoff Tate band’s effort. Yeah, the cover is juvenile – a fist wearing F and U rings – but the album is pure Queensryche. Tate’s been the driving force of the band for some time, so it’s no surprise that his album sounds the most like modern ‘Ryche. But his tendency to skimp on the melodies is completely absent here. These 10 songs are all sharp and memorable, the riffs interesting. Tate’s voice has sounded strained in recent years, but even given his age-related limitations, he sounds good here. There’s really no mistaking that voice.
Frequency Unknown could have been just another Geoff Tate solo record, but he stepped up his game, as if he knew just how much more closely he’d be scrutinized here. The album has several melodic rockers, like the opening punch of “Cold” and “Dare,” but also its share of miniature epics like “In the Hands of God” and the interesting closer “Weight of the World.” Only “Everything” falls short, its keyboard-heavy structure slipping into power ballad territory.
Scanning the credits, Frequency Unknown starts to feel more like a studio creation than the unveiling of a true band. Tate hired axe-slingers Ty Tabor, KK Downing, Chris Poland (of early Megadeth fame), Brad Gillis and others to provide solos, and three drummers trade off throughout the record. The bonus tracks – new versions of Queensryche’s biggest hits – complicate things even more, as Martin Irigoyen handles all the instruments. It’s truly a hodgepodge.
But it’s remarkable how consistent it is, how well it hangs together as a Queensryche album. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Tate’s solo records, but this is in another category. This feels like the band I love, kicking it up a notch. If it’s the Queensryche name that brought this out of Geoff Tate, then let him keep using it, by all means.
But not if that means that the other founding members can’t also use it. Their first album with La Torre is self-titled, and it also feels like a rebirth. La Torre sounds an awful lot like Tate, but like the youthful, Operation: Mindcrime Tate. His range is remarkable, and the band sounds energized behind him. The result sounds very much like Queensryche, but a Queensryche that never took many of the stylistic detours after Empire. It’s sharp, guitar-heavy, dense melodic metal. Some of it reminds me of Fates Warning, particularly songs like “Spore.”
Most of it, though, just reminds me of Queensryche. The guitar harmonies are everywhere, Rockenfield’s drumming is powerful throughout, and the songs are soaring and strong. “Redemption” is a powerhouse, its thudding riff giving way to a break-through-the-clouds chorus, La Torre singing it exactly the way Tate would have. (My one criticism of La Torre is he doesn’t establish his own identity enough here, but his voice is so awesome that it hardly matters that he sings like his predecessor.) “Vindication” is a stunner, Rockenfield’s drums propelling things forward as Wilton and second guitarist Parker Lundgren dance around each other, heading into another great chorus.
My only complaint about Queensryche is that, at 35 minutes, it’s too short. All things considered, that’s a fine problem to have. Mid-tempo pieces like the crib-death tale “A World Without” dot the second half, and these songs are just as massive and epic as the Queensryche of old. Closer “Open Road” is a worthy little epic. I want another six songs like these. But I’ll take what I can get. The Todd La Torre version of Queensryche has also made a tremendous impact the first time out of the gate.
If there’s a difference between these two records, it’s that Tate’s group is reminiscent of more modern Queensryche, while La Torre’s hearkens back to the earlier records. You can see that in their choice of bonus tracks – both included old ‘Ryche songs remade, but while Tate focused on the hits, the La Torre band tackled songs from the first three pre-Mindcrime releases. (La Torre can really sing these tunes.) It’s a difference in attitude, but the difference in quality between these two records isn’t as vast.
I’m definitely interested to see which way the judge leans later this year. But for now, I feel like we’re getting the best of both worlds. We have three original members of Queensryche making remarkable music with a strong new singer, and we have the original singer stepping up his game with a new group of luminaries. If these two bands want to keep putting out alternating Queensryche records for the next 20 years, I’d be all right with that.
See you in line Tuesday morning.