Having published more than 60 album reviews in the past month, we bring DPRP's Prog-Tober 2022 to a close with a special double feature on prog-metal pioneers Queensrÿche.
Alongside a review of their new 16th studio album, Digital Noise Alliance, DPRP's Andy Read revisits 1986 and their ground-breaking second album Rage For Order.
Queensrÿche — Rage For Order
Here's a story for ya! Music fans of a certain age may recognise the emotions involved.
I spent my teenage years living amidst a small collection of fields, hills and orchards hidden at the end of a ten-minute bus ride from the small south-western town named Yeovil. You may have been there, but probably not. It was once known for making helicopters and gloves. Its football team is mildly famous for it's giant-killing exploits in the FA Cup. If you were a teenager, not much happened in Yeovil.
Although it did have three record shops. For a youth, newly-embarked on a voyage of musical discovery, that was enough reason to jump on the purple Safeway Services bus from Stoke-sub-Hamdon to Yeovil for a Saturday of record shopping alongside a movie or a footy match.
I had a newspaper delivery round and mowed the lawn for the retired village vicar and his wife. Every week I scoured the pages of Kerrang or Metal Forces magazine to curate a list of desired albums. I then saved up enough money for the bus fare, a ticket for the cinema or the football and an LP or three!
One musical emporium was in the high street. It occasionally came up trumps. In later years the new shopping centre offered an Our Price, squashed between a Top Shop 'fashion' store and a Mothercare baby shop. However my pulse-rate always reached its peak when entering the door of the family-run Acorn Records; conveniently located right next to the bus station.
At the very back of the shop leaned the rock/metal section, always stocked with one copy of every album I wanted to buy. You could even ask to listen to them on headphones first. As a bonus, it also sold concert tickets with travel by coach. The anticipation of when the tickets would go on sale for my annual trip to the Donnington Rock Festival, was almost unbearable. They sold out quickly. There really was not much for teenagers to do in Yeovil!
With my new vinyl wrapped neatly in the Acorn Records carrier bag, there was then the unbearable wait as the purple bus chugged slowly between the high hedges of the Somerset countryside towards home. Towards my bedroom. Towards my record player.
The LPs in my collection that were acquired by that fortnightly pilgrimage, are easily identifiable. The give-away is the Acorn Records price tag that remains stuck to the top right-hand corner of the plastic cover. That's why I know that sometime at the start of the school summer holidays in 1986, I paid six pounds and ninety-nine pence for this, the third album by a band from Seattle, USA that probably no-one in Yeovil, and few anywhere else in England had ever heard of; apart from me and the owners of Acorn Records.
Back then Kerrang always published a weekly top 10 of "import" metal albums. It proved a great source of new bands to dicover, especially from the USA. I had bought Queensrÿche's debut EP on that basis. Loving their new sound, Acorn Records also furnished me with their debut album, The Warning. I loved that too. So buying a copy of Rage For Order as soon after its release as I could, was my next mission. Acorn Records dutifully proffered a copy on my first visit.
It's hard to explain the pure excitement, the anticipation, that I felt back then when buying a new piece of vinyl (and it takes a lot for me to remember going into a shop and buying something).
But it wasn't just the buying of a piece of music. It was the artwork, the sleeve notes, the memories of seeing a band live for the first time, and hopefully the fact that none of your mates had 'discovered' this band yet. It all enriched the experience. It was kinda magical.
Today I can listen to anything and everything. It all feels ephemeral and weightless and no matter how many times I stream an album, the connection won't be there like it was back then. Music was much harder to come by back then, so I think you appreciated it more when you got it.
Back home in my bedroom, I began the ritual of sliding the vinyl out of the sleeve, putting it on the record player and placing the needle down on the outer groove. In sitting back, I always listened to it right through, just as the artist intended and not bouncing about tracks based on a whim.
This time, the sounds that emerged from my speakers were unlike anything I had ever heard before.
The story behind Rage For Order had begun 18 months previously. The band has always been happy to state that their debut album, The Warning was pretty accurate summary of what they were into at the time. It was a commercial success, peking at 61 on the US album chart, and Take Hold Of The Flame was a hit single in Japan. It also led to their first U.S. tour the opening act for Dio, Accept, Kiss and at the request of bassist Steve Harris, five dates at Radio City in New York with Iron Maiden on their Powerslave tour.
Instead of heading straight back into a studio, the band took 18 months off to look at themselves critically
Working with Pink Floyd-producer James Guthrie, The Warning did have the hallmarks of something different with the use of orchestration. This was thanks to the involvement of Michael Kayman (Pink Floyd) who composed some very dark accompaniments to the songs.
The strangely-titled N M 156 (population control by lottery) was the final song written for album. One listen to its technical and electronic nature, should have given listeners a very big hint as to what direction the band would be heading in next.
Singer Geoff Tate, who had started his career fronting local prog-rock band Myth, later saw that song as a turning point for the way Queensrÿche would be writing music.
"We try to take the music that we do further than just the obvious metal cliches," he said upon the release of Rage For Order. "We try to bring other influences into it and make it our own. We definitely have metal roots - that's where we started - but the direction we are heading in now is completely different, with flavourings of other things."
The band's intention was to bring an industrial, modern feel to their new record. In achieving that, much of the credit should go to famed producer Neil Kernon.
Kernon had actually approached the band himself, asking to work with them on what would become Rage For Order. Speaking at the time of its release he recalled: "I had heard Queensrÿche about two years before, and right from the beginning it was a really different sound. One of the most exciting things about this project has been working with Geoff Tate, as his voice is so versatile. There are not many singers around who can do what he can do, as well as he can do it."
In a promo video for the album, guitarist Michael Wilton was keen to emphasise the band's desire to bring in new sounds. "We did use a bit of keys on The Warning, but their role on this new album is not really what keyboards have been in the past. What comes to most people's mind when they hear the word 'keyboards' is the old washy synth sound that was the keyboards on Deep Purple records and that. But the past three to four years have seen a real advancement in what keyboards can do."
Across the album are clips of samples of non-musical sounds. The band merrily spent one day violently smashing up everything and sampling the sounds.
For the drums, it was decided that a "live and aggressive sound" was needed. After two weeks of searching, they found a big stone warehouse in an industrial park where they parked a mobile recording studio for five days.
To get the desired guitar sound Wilton recalls: "We tried around 15 different speaker and amp combinations. We finally ended up using these two Marshall amps that were on the verge of exploding. They gave us the right sound; this edge and tension for the album."
The lyrics for the album follow a loose concept divided across three platforms, all dealing with (rage for) order. What you have is order in the personal sense, dealing with relationships (Dream In Infrared, Gonna Get Close To You). Then order in a political, a world sense (Neue Regal, Surgical Strike, Chemical Youth) and order in the technological front (Screaming In Digital).
"Working under these three themes, allowed us to write about some very different topics within a framework and with an emphasis on melody," explained Tate. "High-tech metal" was his initial description of the resulting music.
And somehow the combination of all of those ingredients worked like a dream when the first notes finally made it out of the speakers stacked on a dressing table, in the bedroom of a semi-detached, middle class, cul-de-sac home in rural Stoke-Sub-Hamdon, Somerset, England one Saturday afternoon, sometime in the summer of 1986.
Walk In The Shadows is just one big hook surrounded by heavenly guitar and lots of clever stuff filling the background. The foreboding acoustic opening of I Dream In Infrared suggests a topic far from the dungeons and dragons of Dio's Holy Diver. Until now that had been my favourite album. The way that this song segues into the aggressive, rolling guitar riff that opens The Whisper, will never leave my musical memory.
I had only listened to 11 minutes of music but had already unanimously decided that Geoff Tate was the greatest singer in the world. From whispers, through soul-drenched melodies, and onto certain notes that were quite literally off the scales, he could do anything.
Of course, at the time I had no idea that Gonna Get Close To You was a cover version. I'd never heard of Lisa Dalbello, let alone her version of this song. It is rather fabby and somehow manages to be even more creepy. See the official video here.
Queensrÿche's version is metallic and catchy in a Kate Bush meets Meat Loaf meets King Diamond sorta way. It is also progressive and creepy as hell, especially when Tate admits: "I get excited when I hear footsteps in the hall". No one has ever done anything like it before, or since.
We return to the new normal with the big keyboard motif and riffs of The Killing Words. Such a theatrical song, it is quickly given contrast by the tribal drums leading us into a Surgical Strike. The shortest and heaviest song, this has proved a favourite head-banger whenever they play it live.
By now I was sure that I would never again be so excited listening to a new album.
I get up to turn over the vinyl, and again watch the needle slowly drop into the opening grooves.
Neue Regal begins. This is where the band puts the progressive into their high-tech-metal. The brooding opening, with acoustic guitar and some keys, builds to 'that riff'. But instead of taking off, it stops. The void is filled with only a distorted voice and drum and cymbal. The backing vocals carry the melody in the chorus, with Tate giving the response. Layers are added. More layers are added, before it all collapses in a collision of guitars, drums and samples. An extraordinary feat of composition and production.
Chemical Youth brings us more contrast, with gang vocals exhorting that "we are rebellion". To reflect that fact, the song is unable to stay still in any melody, beat or framework. I always remember the hook, but only a tiny bit of the song. Genius.
London is the quasi-ballad that becomes almost Queen-like in is majestic chorus. The bass-like drone in the background, another twin guitar solo from heaven and the note that Tate hits afterwards, stay in the mind forever.
Again the way that it bleeds into Screaming In Digital is sublime. Here, the verse is totally out of the box, with the biggest use of samples. Then a chorus where Tate's vocals are continuously overlapping himself, before another guitar solo from heaven. And again, the way it segues into the closing song is divine. Indeed, Side B really plays like one multi-part song.
The opening to I Will Remember with drone and acoustic guitar is just beautiful, so beautiful. We even get a whistle and maracas. The perfect way to end the perfect album.
Back then I had recently read the term 'progressive metal' for the very first time. That was me. I was now a fan of 'progressive metal', and Queensrÿche were my new favourite band. No, not just that, they were the most exciting band on the planet.
I put some Blu Tack onto the four corners of a magazine poster of the band and stuck it to my wall between the one of Doro from Warlock and a recent Magnum tour poster. I was hooked.
A great album is a beautiful thing. But it is also a rare thing. Rage for Order is something rare and beautiful.
Queensrÿche — Digital Noise Alliance
So we pass forward through four decades and find Seattle's finest in surprisingly good health.
After 2019's lacklustre The Verdict, Digital Noise Alliance is the band's 16th studio offering. Parker Lundgren is out and Mike Stone back in on guitar. Long-time Kamelot drummer Casey Grillo makes his debut, behind ever-present Michael Wilton (guitar) and Eddie Jackson (bass), with Todd La Torre about to mark his tenth anniversary behind the Queens-mic.
Early reviews have hailed this as their best since Mindcrime/Empire/Promised Land (select as taste dictates). To be fair, that's not a million miles off the mark.
It is not in the same league as the first two, but it would have pleased many fans if something of this nature and quality had appeared as the follow-up to Empire. I probably prefer the slightly darker tones and heavier approach enjoyed on Condition Human, the band's second album with La Torre in 2015. But this certainly beats anything released in the band's 20-year-long musical wasteland between Promised Land and Condition Human.
It's all about the tone. What the band has created is a collection of carefully-placed harmonies, twin guitar solos, some craftily-imposed time changes and instrumental sections, and a stockpile of melodic lines, riffs and grooves that would not be out of place if slotted into the more melodic songs from their first five albums.
Some may see that as self-plagiarism, others as going back to what they do well. I simply enjoy this as a (largely) great collection of (prog) metal anthems.
High-powered opener In Extremis has the spirit of Surgical Strike with a nice change of pace in the instrumental mid-section. Like the subsequent Chapters, it is crammed with melodic hooks. Together they form a classy one-two launch for the album.
The vocal phrasing and use of harmonies on the mid-paced Lost In Sorrow mirrors Empire-era Tate a little too closely, even down to the echoing sustain at the end of certain vocal phrases. The guitar solo, in terms of tone and flow, is prime deGarmo/Wilton. This track is a little too predictable.
I love the opening riffs to Sicdeth and the venomous edge to Torre's vocal. The higher-paced material does suit him much better. It is a solid slab of prog-power metal with a big Iron Maiden vibe.
The aggression is maintained with Behind The Walls; perhaps my favourite track. It certainly has the biggest hook and the most inventively-catchy riff.
The industrial opening to Nocturnal Lights is a blend of I Dream In Infrared and Neue Regal. The brighter chorus gives a nod to Empire. This is the perfect mid-album track. A little more adventurous. Not sure I've ever heard the band do a slow-paced mid-section like the one here. A lot of thought has gone into the running order. The album has a wonderful flow, always keeping things interesting.
Out Of The Black doesn't seem to know quite what it wants to be. Part melodic hard rock single, part classic metal. The different sections jar, rather than flow. Forest is the ballad. Torre can not pull these off as well as Tate. These are the album's two fillers.
Realms returns to the industrial style of Rage For Order, whilst Hold On takes more of an Empire influence. Both work well.
Tormentum is the band's most proggy effort. But despite a wonderfully epic opening, it loses me with a voice-over and the concept-album-like instrumental passages. It should have evolved the opening theme rather than start afresh.
The cover of Billy Idol's rock classic Rebel Yell sticks faithfully to the original and so is rather pointless. It doesn't hold up well to the band's best-known cover version; that being Lisa Dalbello's Gonna Get Close To You from Rage To Order 36 years ago.
And I think that takes me back to where I came in.