Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Queensrÿche - Queensrÿche (2013)

While I've already covered their discography at length, one of the points I don't think I've driven home was my disappointment in Queensrÿche's decision to 'shy away' from the metal genre, like a turtle retracting its head to avoid some sort of predator; this predator, of course, being the changes to the musical landscape in the 90s which leeched away a lot of the attention the metal and hard rock sub-genres had been enjoying for over a decade. Here was this colossus of a band, riding high off their career-defining masterpiece Operation: Mindcrime, and then suddenly 'whoosh', we were lucky to get a few tunes per album that were metal based (in theory). I know I'm not alone in wishing I could erase the vast majority of their post-88 discography from my memory. So when the drama surrounding the band erupted over the past few years, with Geoff Tate alienating himself from his band mates creatively and financially, and the others recruiting a new vocalist, Todd La Torre, who had himself been primed as Wade Black's replacement in Crimson Glory, I was also not alone in feeling a tinge of excitement in my disenchanted brain...

Would Queensrÿche, at long last, release the musical (if not conceptual) successor to Mindcrime that I had long fantasized and drooled over in some alternate dream-reality? The pieces were in place: the band had admitted their desire to return to the material that once excited their fanbase in the 80s. The new singer could more or less deliver a close impression of his forebear. Fuck, they even signed to Century Media, a label that (despite many missteps) still holds a fraction more 'metal cred' than the majors. And, last but not least, while they never abandoned 'the icon', here it returns to the forefront of attention with a clearly rusted, old metallic sheen to it that simply reeks of some nostalgic retrogression 'to form'. So, have they actually succeeded in sticking it to their old main man and launching the monumental comeback so many have craved? Well, yes and no. I'd be a fool to deny that this was better than anything they've put out since Promised Land, and it certainly arching back towards the metallic angles dominant on the first three records, but apart from its general sense of competence and an earnest attempt at sinking some hooks into a long-jaded audience, I can't say that it's a substantial triumph when acts like Angra and Pagan's Mind have already flipped its script and widened this medium's parameters to a breadth that the Washington rockers can probably never reach, hand in hand, with all their collective arms spread to the maximum.

What this record is, is a collection of glossy, polished, out-of-date progressive rock songs which do once in a while hint at some greater heaviness, but even then usually have to rely on more of a light grooving texture with a figment of crunchy tone than the trad metal leanings of The Warning. In other words, it's more or less a Promised Land or Tribe 2.0, including even a few of the Eastern rhythmic influences, where most of the meager riffing progressions take such a back seat to a showcasing of La Torre's range and ability that they'd might as well relocate to several vehicles behind them on the freeway. Granted, they hadn't really been a 'riff first' band since the Mindcrime years, but the guitars fused so atmospherically to Tate's arrangements that they were brilliant anyway. Oh, there's metal here, with tracks like "Redemption" and "Fallout" offering some 18-wheeler aggression and grooviness, but by this point we've already heard these sorts of riffs so many times in even harder edged glam rock that I just never found myself engaged. Ultimately, if you're expecting some sort of mind warping transition using the 80s as stock, or a progressive metal gem at all, then this is not the droid you're looking for. If you want an album that's more or less the same thing they've been peddling for the past 20+ years, then this is that, with a little more bite due to the new singer's conviction.

Now, since it's the question on everyone's tongue: yes, Todd La Torre is a healthy replacement for Tate, in part because his inflection is so similar (allowing him to 'slide' right into the earlier material), and in part because he's got a power to his lungs which his predecessor no longer seems fully capable of, but can also pull off the dramatic, sustained mid-ranged huskiness Tate had brought in the late 80s. Admittedly, Geoff is still a little silkier and smoother in delivery, but with decades of experience, he should be. La Torre pulls off a number of ace choruses, like in the opening rocker "Where Dreams Go to Die", and he's got a nice sustain when he layers on the higher notes, similar to Nils K. Rue (Pagan's Mind). But let's face it, he's really not that unique in a field that has already given us a Tate, a Midnight, a Tom Mallicoat (Lethal) or even a Michael Kiske. It's been done, and so La Torre is relegated more to 'holding the line' than improving or expanding upon it. It'd be a stretch to say that in a lot of the verses and a few of the choruses, he was doing anything more than going through the motions, because the supporting music is just not that inspirational...but I'd still green light his artistic visa to remain in the Ryche-ranks for years to come, until those group therapy sessions and inevitable reunion. Hey, Dickinson, Halford and Osbourne returned, so it's highly unlikely that Geoff Tate won't.

Otherwise, it's the same band we've been hearing for years. Eddie Jackson returns to the fat, propulsive bass tones here that occupy a great deal of space, while Rockenfield continues to hit hard through a selection of basic, but tribally-injected rock fills that lend that larger than life quality to the production. Harder rhythms have the requisite crunch, but there are still a lot of classic clean, chorused, ringing, sparkling strings that signal a lack of total commitment to going balls out, which frankly I would not have minded. They haven't gone heavily synthesizer based, with only a tangential keyboard presence, and there's still a lot more of a Rush lineage than Yes, but the atmospheres seemed to fade from my memory almost as soon as I'd heard them, a trait also typical of their last 7-8 records. The production is really loud and even, but even though I've no idea what software and equipment they actually used in-studio, it has a pretty 'pro tools' feel, if that makes any sense. Punch, volume, brightness and lots of space for seamless overdubs, but maybe a bit too tidy. I read that Wilton used a lot of his old amps to achieve the 80s/90s tones, but I certainly felt like this was an album recorded in various places at various dates, which it apparently was.

The short length of the disc (about 35 minutes) might shock some people, yet I really don't mind it. The intro ("X 2") and ambient interlude ("Midnight Lullaby") are entirely throwaway, but I realize some people even thought that way about the story-filler bits on Mindcrime. I guess I just wish that the 33 minutes of rock were far better written and prone to delivering stronger riffs and choruses. As it stands, I'm pretty lukewarm on Queensrÿche. It proves to me that, in a less diminishing capacity, the boys might still 'have it', but if so they are just not spewing it all over us this time around. A solid effort, and practically a masterpiece when compared to tripe like Q2K or Operation: Mindcrime II, but my hopes of this creating the magic I used to feel in their music of the mid 80s were dashed against the rocks in just the first few songs, and then never restored through the scant remainder of new material. Not bad, but with luck, in further warming up to this flexible and capable new frontman in their midst, they'll also challenge themselves to write and perform at the level they've long abandoned. This material is basically like they're toe-testing the jacuzzi's temperature. Dive right the fuck in. Don't be afraid to beat the shit out of us, Queensrÿche. We deserve it.

Verdict: Indifference [6.25/10]


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