by MetalMike & Sargon the Terrible
Queensrÿche had a massively influential run in the 1980s, with an effect that is still felt today, even though that legacy has been somewhat stained by their lesser, later-period works and the band strife that split them apart. But from their debut EP in 1983 until the mainstream success that they hit with Empire in 1990, this band made very few mistakes in their rise to be one of the biggest bands in metal. Here we're going to take a look at these albums and the reasons why this band got so much attention and respect until they pissed it away.
Mike: This is where it all started in 1983. Queensrÿche's self-titled debut burst on the metal scene like a bomb, unless you were from the Seattle area, where the band originated and where the EP was available via the local independent label 206 Records. This is the first release I can remember knowing about before it came out, thanks to a massive promotional campaign from EMI Records, who signed the band based on the strength of the indie release.
And talk about strength. I'd heard Iron Maiden and Judas Priest by this time and was really getting into heavy metal in a big way when Queensrÿche hit, and it blew me away. The huge, soaring chorus on "Queen of the Reich," the frenetic gallop of "Nightrider," the sneaky hooks of "Blinded" and the pure emotion of "The Lady Wore Black" were hard to comprehend coming from a new band relatively no one had ever heard of. That's what happens when two skilled guitarists, a rock-solid bassist and an aggressively precise drummer talk a singer with a tremendous range into joining their group. It was a once in a generation kind of gathering and would result in several more outstanding albums over the next 10 years or so. The first three songs capture a young band full of fire and the urgency of musicians grabbing what could be, for all they knew at the time, their only shot. There's a complexity to their songwriting that is unmistakable but which their passion and bombast overshadow in a lot of places. It isn't until "The Lady Wore Black" that we get a glimpse of the depth, if not yet the full scope, Queensrÿche were capable of. Very few debuts can claim to be as electric as the Queensrÿche EP and far fewer would find bands releasing not only better but exponentially better albums in the subsequent years.
Sargon: One of the advantages of this early release is that expectations were not a thing, as nobody had really heard of this band before. Queensrÿche started out as a band called The Mob in their earliest incarnations, while Geoff Tate came from a prog-rock band called Babylon. This was the early ‘80s, when metal was just emerging into the wider public consciousness, and Seattle turned out to be an epicenter of the scene in the US—one that would produce bands like Metal Church, Sanctuary, and Heir Apparent among others.
The other advantage of an EP is that it was a concentrated burst of songwriting. The band didn't have to come up with an entire album's worth of songs, they could just load this with their best stuff so that it ruled from one end to the other, no filler all killer. Even in this primitive state, Queensrÿche showed the taste for sophistication that would later define them, with more ambitious songwriting than a lot of bands ever manage. They incorporated a more European style of melody than the more punk-influenced US metal scene of the time, and there was no sense of them just making noise and being loud, rude metalheads. The playing is several cuts above most demo-level bands, and Geoff Tate's accomplished, well-trained voice was just the element needed to push them into the big time.
The most interesting thing, to me, is that even at this early stage of the game, the band presents a solid aesthetic and mood. Tate's lyrics certainly had a large part to play in that, as his contributions to the lyrical themes, song titles, and overall feel of the band helped really cohere them as an entity that stood out from their more scattered brethren. Even on this first recording they put forth the attitude of a band that knows exactly what they want to do and where they are headed.
Sargon: The Warning is, oddly, a somewhat divisive album in this band's history. Not divisive in the sense of quality, as pretty much everyone agrees it is a great album—but a percentage of the band's fanbase hold this up as their best work, and look down on their more "commercial" sound on following albums. I can kind of see that, as the soundscape presented on this disc is very different from what came before it and certainly what came after it.
The songs on this album are overall slower, more epic in intent, and often more experimental than before. Rather than speedy hooks like on "Queen of the Reich," this album took "The Lady Wore Black" as kind of a jumping-off point. This was recorded in London and it shows, having a very different sound than the brighter recording job on the EP. Part of that is the mix, which was taken out of the band's hands and which they reportedly hate, but I think it works for the material at hand. The sound is murky and has a kind of dark gloss to it, so even if the guitars don't sound as upfront as they could, I think it gives this a distinct sound.
The strength of the songwriting is what carries this along, and set the band on an upward path. Really strong compositions like the opening title cut, "Deliverance," "No Sanctuary," and "Before the Storm" are just first-rate metal songs that hold up today, no question. I remember "Take Hold of the Flame" was somewhat derided for being "too commercial" back then, but now it is considered a classic. There are some weaker tracks, like the rather dull "Child of Fire," and the beginning of the band's flirtation with industrial sounds on "NM 156," which is a song that just doesn't work. But the last song is the massive, epic "Roads to Madness" that closes the album out on a really class note.
Geoff Tate was really pushing himself here, making for an amazing performance. In his vocal prime, clearly reveling in his range and power, he showed off the reason why he is one of the genre's iconic singers with this display of dexterity, control, and maturity. Tate in his full force has rarely been equaled, however big an asshole he turned into later.
The real revelation to me, listening to this now, is what a fantastic lead player Chris DeGarmo was. I mean, we knew he could play, but the leads on this are so classic, so well composed and phrased and placed within the songs. Fantastic work. You also get Eddie Jackson's bass much more upfront, a sound they would keep, and Scott Rockenfield moved to that heavily gated sound that he might as well have trademarked.
I don't think this is quite the follow-up people expected from this band, and the response to it was somewhat muted in comparison to the praise lavished on the EP. The band wasn't really happy with it either, but seemingly for very different reasons. Fans were uncertain because it was a bit more experimental than they wanted, and the band didn't think it was experimental enough. No two Queensrÿche albums sound alike, but this one is the most solidly in the US-Metal tradition of the early ‘80s, and is still a landmark in the scene.
MetalMike: After the Queensrÿche EP blew everyone away, expectations were understandably high for the first full-length album, The Warning. Holding it in my hand at the record store and drinking in the cool cover art, so different from the simplicity of the EP's cover, only heightened my anticipation. I remember listening to it several times over the coming weeks with a mixture of excitement and a strange curiosity about what I was actually hearing (not for the last time with this band).
The Warning is not the follow-up I think a lot of people were expecting. As you said, despite some truly fine metal songs like "En Force," "Deliverance," and "Before the Storm," the album as a whole was more "The Lady Wore Black" and less "Queen of the Reich" than many fans were probably expecting. The production is muted and apart from Geoff Tate, whose amazing voice could transcend just about anything at this point in his career, you really had to listen hard to appreciate just how great the rest of the band was. The other thing you could hear despite the production, was how the band was challenging their listeners with intricate yet accessible songwriting. Guitarists Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo gave Geoff Tate some amazing musical tableaus over which to weave lyrics that featured a depth of storytelling and emotion that was only just starting to penetrate "mainstream" metal. For many fans this was the first time being exposed to songs that weren't about chasing women, the metal life, warriors, battles, and dragons. Personally, I really like the song "N M 156" where the band uses their instruments to simulate computers and electronics while Tate sings about a dystopian future where machines conduct "bloodless" wars and the population obediently submits to euthanasia. It appeals to the sci-fi fan in me, I guess. I never cared that it was basically the same plot as "A Taste of Armageddon," an episode from the original Star Trek TV show. "Take Hold of the Flame" may not be the heaviest Queensrÿche song, but it introduced a lot of elements that would define the band's music going forward, especially the chanted backing vocals on the chorus.
There are some songs that haven't aged as well, such as "No Sanctuary" which I find kind of dull, made even more so by the mushy production and "Child of Fire," which feels like an attempt to capture the same vibe as "Queen of the Reich" but falls short. "Roads to Madness" is a song I never much cared for, probably because it takes a while to get to the middle section where things really pick up and I was impatient, but I've come to enjoy it more as time has passed.
Despite its opposing aspects (the superlative playing, challenging and inventive songwriting vs. muddy production, change of musical direction from the EP), The Warning remains a pivotal album in heavy metal. It paved the way for bands to bring progressive elements into their songwriting and showed you can write songs with deeper and more thought-provoking lyrics and continue to build a fanbase. It also feels like a transitional release, one on which Queensrÿche was still trying to figure out where they were headed and as a fan, it felt like you were on the journey with the band with no idea where you were being taken. Like every new release by Queensrÿche in the ‘80s, it was pushing boundaries and boy, were Tate, DeGarmo, and crew just getting started with The Warning.
MetalMike: When Queensrÿche's second full-length album, Rage for Order, was released in 1986, I don't remember if I rushed right out and bought it, but what I can remember is that when I finally held the cassette in my hand, I thought the cover was a step back from The Warning. Then I saw the band and their new look; hair swept up on the sides, lots of gel for the "wet look," long leather coats that looked as though they'd ran afoul of a Bedazzler convention, and I really started to wonder what I was in for.
The first thing that hits you with Rage for Order is how much better it sounds than The Warning. Everything is crystal clear and in your face in all its glory from Tate's vocals to Rockenfeld's drums to the guitars of DeGarmo, Wilton, and Jackson. It is a big step up in terms of production and the opening song, "Walk in the Shadows," is one of the better tracks in Queensrÿche's entire discography. It's got the riff, the chorus, the backing vocals, the stunning solo and the FEEL of a great metal song. I'm singing it in my head right now as I type this because it simply kicks ass. From this point on, things get complicated. There are more songs in this vein of classic Queensrÿche heavy metal with a touch of prog like the barn burning "Surgical Strike" driven relentlessly by Rockenfeld's impassioned drums and the oddly titled "Neue Regel" that nevertheless delivers on all fronts. But these songs are in the minority and the band, clearly unafraid to try new things went all over the map. One of my favorite songs, despite being rather slow and featuring heart-rendingly sad lyrics is "I Dream in Infrared." Never before had I heard a song like this as of 1986. It is such an odd yet fascinating story that features one of Tate's most memorable vocal performances. His understated line "when we first met, I must have seemed a million miles away" is one of my favorites and I love how it juxtaposes with the emotional outburst of "when my lonely eyes see only your face at night."
Apart from those songs, however, I didn't take to the rest of Rage for Order, not back then. "The Whisper" and "The Killing Words" were OK but didn't blow me away. "Chemical Youth (We Are Rebellion)" was more upbeat but didn't click either. "London" seemed like a throwback to The Warning, all slow, stodgy and kind of boring and "I Will Remember" was a song I always skipped, coming as it did at the end of side two of my cassette. Then there's "Gonna Get Close to You." It wasn't until many years later when I learned this was a cover (written by Lisa Dalbello and originally released by her in 1984). It's such a weird and frankly creepy song and seemed so out of place on Rage for Order and yet it fit at the same time. At the end of the day, subsequent releases by the band would overshadow Rage in my eyes and I never found much reason to come back to it.
The passage of time, however, has opened my ears and I now feel it ranks up there with the rest of Queensrÿche's early albums rather than being the spare wheel of their discography. It sounds better than The Warning and is purer than Empire, leaving only the EP and Mindcrime ahead of it (though they are all pretty damn good and the margin of difference is slim). Almost every song that didn't work for me in the past, I now find engaging and interesting, with the exception of "London," which is still boring. Anyone that thinks Rage for Order is a dog needs to let go of the band's questionable fashion choices and truly listen. What you will find are all the precursors to the next band's release, which would ultimately be viewed as one of the greatest metal albums of all time, if not THE greatest.
Sargon: It's taken me a long time to write about Rage for Order because I have a lot to say about it. It's definitely one of the most underrated albums of the ‘80s, maybe of all time. It's a classic case of a band releasing a transitional album at exactly the wrong time. It doesn't help that the album is pretty inconsistent both in quality and in tone and focus.
There was pressure on the band after the somewhat tepid reception of The Warning, and where exactly the pressure came from is not clear at this distance—accounts differ. I think it was probably the result of a lot of different forces converging all at once. The label wanted something more commercial and saleable, hence the odd choice to release a cover song as the lead single. The band wanted to push out in new directions and try new things, and that resulted in some of the most involved and complex songwriting they ever did mixed with some obviously half-hearted stabs at more direct compositions to appease the execs.
The real sticking point for a lot of people was the aesthetic the band went for. There was the thought that Queensrÿche needed a visual hook or gimmick to make them stand out in the increasingly crowded scene, and in the mid-80s the glam scene was taking off, so what the band landed on was a gothic vampire look and feel for the album, and there's no understanding Rage for Order without getting that it is primarily a collection of vampire songs. The band pics showed the guys in heavy makeup and moussed-up hair, dressed in some admittedly pretty sweet leather coats. It wasn't what people expected and ran straight into the brick wall of the "all T-shirts and jeans all the time" vibe that was taking over the metal underground like an unofficial uniform.
Then the lead song off the album was "Close to You," and while it's not a bad song and definitely fits the gothic vibe of the album, it was a million miles away from what people wanted from Queensrÿche. Combined with the glammy look, it steered a lot of people straight away from this album and it never really got a fair shake in the metal press. It was 1986. Thrash was a rising wave and everything was getting more "street level" and aggressive, so this orchestral, gothy album was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In retrospect, I am kind of surprised it didn't just kill the band entirely.
This is an amazing album, even if it's a bit inconsistent. The highs on this disc are so high the band would never really match some of them. Opener "Walk in the Shadows" is like the opening music to a Vampire: The Masquerade movie, and the other songs that are in the same vein (ha ha) are some of the most outstanding work this band has ever done. "I Dream in Infrared" is a moody, overdramatic ballad that leads into the razor-sharp main riff of "The Whisper," and it's about here that it really hits you that Geoff Tate is fucking killing it all the way here. He doesn't wield the power he would conjure up on Mindcrime, but this is such a technical, emotive performance.
The production is the other thing that will hit you, because this sounds so much better than The Warning it's not even funny. The clarity, the space, the sure-handed mix. Veteran producer Neil Kernon expanded on what the band was capable of, making sure everything came through. There are so many more layers to this than before, adding in keys and really solid orchestrations that make it sound lush and vibrant.
On the album, "Close to You" really breaks things up, because while it's not bad, it lacks the intricate melodies that are the band's strong point, and when "The Killing Words" kicks in you are like fuck, there it is. Another vampire tune, with highly dramatic lyrics and a hell of a performance from Tate.
After this the album gets more fragmented, with some half-assed tunes like the dull "Surgical Strike" and the even more dull "Chemical Youth" standing as dead spots on what is otherwise such a vibrant disc. "Neue Regel" is an odd one, as while it does not fit the gothic lyrical themes, it is the most lavishly orchestrated song on the album, with layers of harmonics and vocals all mixing together to make something hypnotic and driving—I don't think Queensrÿche ever recorded another song like it.
"Screaming in Digital" is another take on the techno-horror the band dabbled in on "NM156" on the last album, and while this is a better song than that one, it's still not that good. "I Will Remember" is a solid ballad that does a good job of closing the album on a classy note, again highlighted by Geoff Tate in his prime doing a tremendous job.
Which brings me to London—the centerpiece of the album and one of the best songs this band ever did. It's one you tend to miss on first blush, because the pleasures of the songwriting are very subtle, and take time to sink in. It's the most progressive song here, and features a standout performance from Tate in an album where he already stands out. It's the most vampiric song on the whole album—a kind of culmination—and it has everything refined to a sharp edge: The slow build, the dark romanticism of the lyrics, the first-class leads, and the spine-tingling high notes as it reaches its crescendo of wrenching tragedy. It's a song that gives me chills every fucking time.
So Queensrÿche released a debut that was good but not as good as people expected after the EP, and then Rage for Order, which was even further from what people were hungry for. It would have seemed like this band was going to just vanish, never fulfilling the promise of that first release. Fortunately that was not the case, as they came back two years later with one of the greatest metal albums of all time.
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