Back in April a Queensrÿche album called Frequency Unknown was released. And it was terrible. The 10 new songs were so generic that they were painful to listen to. Or maybe it was the production and/or mixing. The drums sounded like tin cans. Actually, that’s an insult to tin cans. I don’t mean that as an insult to AC/DC drummer Simon Wright, who played drums on the album, however. His drumming was fine. It’s the production that made the drums sound bad. The production made the whole album sound bad. I also thought it was in poor taste that they re-recorded four of the band’s biggest hits for bonus tracks. I understand bands wanting to reclaim their songs from record labels that can’t even bother to reprint their albums, but these new versions of the songs sounded like bad demos. Against my better judgement, I listened to the album a second time and liked it even less. And I won’t be listening to it ever again.
In fact, I’d decided never to go out of my way to listen to another new Queensrÿche album ever again. Then, earlier this month, Amazon sent me an e-mail suggesting another new Queensrÿche album, which rendered me confused. I could understand the band wanting to release another new album soon to bury Frequency Unknown, but how on earth could they be releasing a new album just a couple of months later? A few Google searches later, I discovered that Geoff Tate was fired from the band last year and that the other guys were continuing as a band with a new singer, Todd LaTorre. This new, self-titled album was that version of the band. I found it odd that both groups were using the name Queensrÿche, but this has happened with other bands during recent years as well with two versions of L.A. Guns and two versions of Great White touring and releasing albums at the same time. Prior to hearing Queensrÿche’s new self-titled album, I probably would have said that Geoff Tate should be the one to continue on with the Queensrÿche name, as I wouldn’t have been able to imagine the band without his unique voice. But I decided to take a chance on the new LaTorre-fronted version of the band. Now I would have to say that that version of the band deserves the Queensrÿche name. I say this because their new album blows away the horrific new Tate album. And LaTorre sounds so much like Tate that you really don’t miss him.
The version of Queensrÿche with LaTorre on vocals features three members who’ve been with the band since 1982: guitarist Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield. The only other member of the band is guitarist Parker Lundgren, who first joined the band in 2009 but had parted ways with the band at some point only to rejoin when they were about to make the new album, if I understand correctly.
The LaTorre-fronted band, which I’ll simply refer to as “the band” for the remainder of this review, approached the songwriting for their new album as a band with each member contributing to the process. And they wisely brought on board producer Jim “Jimbo” Barton, who’d previously produced a few of their albums including their two most successful, Operation: Mindcrime and Empire. And, I have to say, their new album is my favorite Queensrÿche album since Empire. It’s clearly not an attempt to re-make any of their past albums, however. I would say that it meshes the heaviness and paranoia-informed lyrics of Mindcrime with the melodic sensibility of Empire. That said, a lot of the songs on Empire were almost AOR. “Jet City Woman” and “Silent Lucidity” immediately come to mind. And, clearly, they were radio-friendly; the songs garnered the band heavy rotation at mainstream rock radio for the first time in their career. While the new album does have shining melodies and impressive guitar harmonies, none of the new songs seem aimed at radio. I wouldn’t say that the new album harkens back to the band’s earliest, proggy albums, but it is certainly a metal album, not AOR. If they had one thing in mind when they were writing the album, I’m guessing that it was to make a metal record. A HEAVY metal record.
The album opens with “X2,” an ominous-sounding intro that sounds very much like intense horror film score. Creepy bells, a ticking clock, voices that say things in the background where you can’t quite understand them — this intro has it all. It climaxes with thunderous drums that crash right into the first song on the album, “Where Dreams Go To Die,” where they’re joined with piercing electric guitars and some nice and chunky bass guitar. They briefly switch to acoustic guitars as LaTorre begins singing: “So here we are again, as we plead upon our knees.” It’s almost as though the band is asking for redemption. Only it would actually seem to be about people *not* being forgiven. From the second verse: “You thought you’d get away / but karma made its move / the bad things that you’ve done / will be coming back for you.” One might speculate that the song is a message for Tate. But it’s not the lyrics that should trouble him: it’s how astonishingly good this song is. Not only does it kick some major ass, it has a very infectious melody and LaTorre’s vocals soar in a majestic way that Tate’s haven’t done in years. And it’s easily one of the band’s best songs ever.
The death of dreams would also seem to be one of the themes of the second song on the album, “Spore,” which is one of the band’s heaviest songs to date, erupting like an angry volcano. “Dreams are feeling sick,” LaTorre sings. The song would seem to be about people suffering from various types of agony. On one hand, it mentions “a prisoner of war,” but as it goes on it could be referring to internal struggles. It’s not all misery, however, the song advising one to “ride the waves of faith and hope.” Just don’t expect to feel hopeful when you come away from listening to the haunting power ballad “A World Without.” It’s dark, moody, and even slightly bluesy, but it’s far from being another “Silent Lucidity.” On the contrary, it ends: “my baby’s staring back at me, and now a broken family / your name now etched in stone, no place to call my home.” It’s like the Queensrÿche of Empire meets vintage Black Sabbath. Certainly not a bad thing.
Another highlight is “Redemption,” a brutal metal assault which explores themes the band’s fans will find familiar, such as corporate greed and being brainwashed by the media. But they take things one step further with the following song, the heavy as hell “Vindication.” “For we are all kings, with merit it brings / as we rise to the top once again,” goes part of the first verse. Not only is the music inspired, it’s actually inspiring. Which can be said of the album overall. The band might point out the ills of society, but they’re also interested in motivating people to carry on. “Don’t Look Back” ends with: “magnetize what you conceptualize / because your thoughts become things / this is the law of attraction.” Listening to the album may get you thinking about conspiracies, but you won’t need to reach for a self-help book.