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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

New Queensrÿche album is more of the same

I am an oldschool Queensrÿche fan; i.e., I adore their 1990 & earlier stuff. I truly believe Operation: Mindcrime is one of the best hard rock albums ever recorded. Alas, like King Diamond's sequel to the legendary Abigail, Mindcrime II fell flat in comparison to the original. Why did Operation: Mindcrime II stink so bad? Because, like King Diamond, they waited too long to do it. You have to strike while the iron is hot. In addition, however, unlike King Diamond, Queensrÿche has been losing its edge since the unexpected mainstream breakout success of 1990's Empire.

The raw sound that Queensrÿche crafted on their 1983 debut EP, honed the following year on The Warning and perfected in 1986 on Rage for Order is the style the band was built on. When Mindcrime released in 1988, I was blown away by not only the more polished sound, but also the mysterious, intriguing storyline and the incredible accompanying music videos.  "I Don't Believe in Love" (the band's first Grammy-nominated song) became a staple on MTV's "Headbanger's Ball."The band had the amazing opportunity the following year to support that album performing as the opening act for Metallica on the ...And Justice for All tour. Queensrÿche was suddenly a household name where metalheads were concerned.

Then came Empire. MTV rotated the hell out of the tracks "Empire," "Jet City Woman," and the dreadful "Silent Lucidity," the worst thing to ever happen to the Queensrÿche sound, and possibly to progressive hard rock itself. In pandering to the Top 40 and Hot 100 crowd, the album achieved triple-platinum status and "Silent Lucidity" received two Grammy nominations. The video was nominated in five categories at the MTV VMAs, winning only one--Viewer's Choice--further cementing my opinion that the album critically sucked but seemed to please the MTV masses.

The followup album, Promised Land, though released four years after Empire's explosive success and not changing the formula much from that which brought them commercial success (aside from being a touch more gut-centered rock-oriented), became their best charting album to date. However, at this point the band had strayed so far from that original, influential sound and attitude on the first two full-length releases that I decided I'd had enough. That's when I gave up on Queensrÿche.

They seemed to stagnate and stay out of the limelight throughout the mid-to-late '90s and the first decade of the 21st Century. I checked back in with them now and then to see if there had been any change in direction but of course was not surprised to find that the edge had gone permanently missing. One exception I'm just now discovering is the album of cover tunes they released in 2007. Don't get me wrong--the raw power I speak of is definitely gone, but Take Cover seems like an album I could actually listen to now and then because Queensrÿche had nothing to do with the writing of the pieces presented. All we have is Geoff and company giving their take on a full gamut of songs from a more varied supply of sources than any other cover album I've ever heard, except maybe for Richard Cheese's stuff. (On a side note, I wish more heavy metal bands did cover albums, particularly MANOWAR. I'd love to hear that.)

So we're finally up to the album in question, 2013's Queensrÿche. The new self-titled album is sadly but expectedly no different from the lackluster norm, except to say that it's probably worse. One might think, with last year's departure of founding guitarist Chris DeGarmo and this year's firing of vocalist Geoff Tate, perhaps the band might find a new direction or try a return to its roots. No such luck.

Following in the steps of many outfits before them, the band recruited a "safe" replacement singer, Todd La Torre, who does a really decent imitation of the band's original vocalist--and, as it happens, at the time of his recruitment, shared my opinion that the best Queensrÿche has to offer comes from the time period between the untitled debut EP and Empire. La Torre, originally a drummer by trade, was fresh off a three-year stint as frontman for obscure-but-tenacious prog-metal band Crimson Glory.

At this point, though, half of the band that spent the last 30 years together as a cohesive unit is missing. Surprisingly, the lyrics seem to jibe with the band's prior catalog, and the music is fairly consistent as well. If anything, perhaps it's a bit more watered down that in the past--more progressive than metal. It's possible that the band's last couple of releases have been inching toward this fate; I wouldn't know, not having really even listened to them in the last decade except for a regrettable, outright blind purchase of Mindcrime II simply based on what it was (yeah, they suckered me) and a single listen of 2009's American Soldier, which failed to impress as usual.

The newest album is not without its high points, though. Four tracks of the 11 got my attention. First there's the intro, which is a sort of ambient, electronic, futuristic, industrial, minute-long affair. Along the same lines, there's the very creepy, dark-ambient, horror sounding "Midnight Lullaby." But these don't really count, right? I mean, they're not proper songs. I might be tempted to put them on my Arkham Horror playlist, but they're nothing to jam to in the car with my windows down and my system up.

The band pre-released a single, "Redemption," but I don't find it the heaviest or the most accessible tune on the album. It's ...o..kay... as are most of the songs presented here, but I think the real high point is the balls-out rocker, "Don't Look Back." Great hook, solid riffs, nice pace and rhythm, good lyrics--this one's tough to beat. The other song that caught my attention is "In This Light," which hearkens back to the original Mindcrime days, carrying with it a style highly reminiscent of  "I Don't Believe in Love" or "The Mission."

So, in a nutshell, if you like what Queensrÿche has been doing for the last 20 years, I think you'll dig this record even sans DeGarmo and Tate. There's not much in the way of growing pains to bridge the gap to this incarnation of the band. I suspect you'll find the transition quite easy. Have fun with your substandard bastardization of a once-glorious heavy metal trailblazer.

If you're like me, though, and prefer the heavier, early stuff, then there's not much on this album to appeal to you. Perhaps hit up your iTunes or Amazon store to grab a preview and maybe download a couple of tracks ala carte. The Queensrÿche you love is dead. This release carries residual echoes from beyond its grave, but they are mere shadows of what was once great. The past cannot be reclaimed. Now go put The Warning on your turntable, drop the needle and reminisce.