Song of the day: Queensryche, “Neon Nights”

Since I’m all about Queensrÿche lately, here’s a freaking impressive take on Black Sabbath’s classic, “Neon Nights.” RJD would be proud.


For love of Queensryche

Ever done something you knew was right, but felt guilty about it anyway?

Last year, I wrote a rather dismissive review of Queensrÿche’s “American Soldier.” In short, I said the concept was strong and handled tastefully, but the music was dull and not terribly metal. I look back at that interview now and I still agree with every word. I bought a copy of “American Soldier” so I could do the review … and after I was done, I never had the urge to listen to the album again.

But writing negatively about Queensrÿche felt a lot like kicking a good friend when he is down. My QR fandom goes way back to the mid-1980s; I really do have a copy of “The Warning” on cassette that is probably 25 years old and I bought the band’s albums religiously up to and including “Empire.” I even saw the band do “Operation: Mindcrime” in its entirety on the “Empire” tour and remember the show to this day.

So today, I wanna go back, way back into those halcyon days of the 80s/early 90s and give you a Queensrÿche appreciation, if you will. Sorry I didn’t like “American Soldier,” guys, but I still think you’re great.

Let’s start at the beginning with the band’s debut ep in 1983. Really, only two of the four songs were truly mind-bending – but those songs were so good they catapulted the band to near the top of my teenaged “favorite bands” list. “Queen of the Ryche” is part Iron Maiden gallop with a hint of proto-thrash and a set of guitar solos (including a dual solo) that must have melted the amplifiers. Geoff Tate’s vocal range was stunning (the man could nail a high C note fairly effortlessly).

Compared to what the band did on its next three albums, “Queen of the Ryche” isn’t the band’s best work … but it’s still a great song and it was a million times more advanced than anything say, Motley Crue, Ratt or any of the “hair” bands were doing at the time.

The band was most likely forced by EMI to shoot a hilariously weird video, where the band battles a scantily clad, well endowed, helmet-wearing evil queen woman for control of a post-apocalyptic computer (or something along those lines). I don’t get it … but again, it’s a great song.

“Nightrider” and “Blinded” weren’t all that memorable, but, hey, this was the band’s debut – the time when Queensrÿche albums would be mandatory listening from beginning to end were still a few years away. But “The Lady Wore Black” is a thing of beauty, with an acoustic melody and verse leading into the metal chorus before switching again to heavy. Tate is great here. From “Queen of the Ryche” and “The Lady Wore Black,” the future promised great things from the band.

The band’s first full-length album, “The Warning,” more than delivered on that promise. “The Warning” was released one year after EMI released the ep, but that’s misleading; the band had already sold thousands of copies of the ep before EMI came calling, so its reasonable to assume Tate, guitarists Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo had long been working on material for their followup.

A truly bizarre album, “The Warning” is adventurous in ways even bands like Iron Maiden weren’t willing to be at the time. While not exactly a concept album, many of the songs – “Warning,” “En Force,” “NM 156,” “Child of Fire,” “Before The Storm,” “Deliverance” – are similar in their futuristic, doomsday-infused themes. Highlights? Hell, only “En Force” is less than great … and I’m reluctant to go even that far. If you have a house full of beautiful children, how do you decide which you like the least? No kidding, I loved this album. Dark and moody, “The Warning” was my musical companion on more than a few summer nights back in the ’80s.

“Rage for Order” was a bit of a lyrical change for Queensrÿche. Instead of an entire album of techno-apocalypse, much of “Rage” deals with … uh … love and relationships. Yeah, I was a bit wigged out, too, and not all of the lovey-doveyness works: “The Killing Words,” while not bad, was uncharacteristically weak compared to the tracks on “The Warning.” The other love songs, “I See in infrared,” “Walk in the Shadows” and particularly “London,” however, are very strong … and the quirky, twisted “Gonna Get Close to You” is both wacky-kooky fun and more than a little unnerving.

“Rage” shifts back to Ryche-style armageddon with “Surgical Strike,” and really pours out the madness on “Neue Regel,” “Chemical Youth (We Are Rebellion)” and the outlandishly chaotic “Screaming in Digital.” The remaining tracks, “The Whisper” and “I Will Remember” are very good, with “I Will Remember” closing the album on a quiet note.

Not everyone loved “Rage For Order.” Some said the love songs were too commercial while others were likely just confused by the weirdness of songs like “Screaming in Digital.” But in my opinion, “Rage” holds up, with good songs and solid performances from a band that was more than willing to experiment. 

The consensus is Queensrÿche reached its musical pinnacle with 1998’s “Operation:Mindcrime.” It’s hard to argue otherwise; with “Mindcrime,” the band was at its most political and lyrically complex … and if they weren’t quite as mind-bendingly experimental as on “The Warning” or “Rage,” Tate, Wilton and DeGarmo had certainly developed their songwriting skills to the point where could effortlessly write epics like “Revolution Calling,” “Eyes of a Stranger,” Speak” and “The Mission.”

When I placed “Mindcrime” in the CD play a few days ago, I was surprised at how fresh it still sounds. The riffs are impressive, the solos are incredible and Tate’s lyrics seem ripped from today’s headlines instead of being more than 20 years old. Beautiful, dark and ultimately, terribly depressing, “Operation:Mindcrime” is a classic album. It’s the QR album to which every subsequent QR album would be compared.

“Empire” was released in 1990 and was the band’s biggest commercial success. The album had a few mainstream rock radio hits, particularly “Jet City Woman,” “Another Rainy Night (Without You)” and, of course, “Silent Lucidity,” which was inescapable on radio for freakin’ years.

After “Operation:Mindcrime,” the band had likely gone as far as it could with political/social lyrics (although “Resistance” and “Della Brown” take on political and social themes song and  the song “Empire” is a strong, surprisingly conservative look at crime and what Tate saw as a lack of resources for police departments).

With “Empire,” Queensrÿche had matured completely as songwriters, and if the songs aren’t necessarily as complex as those on “Operation:Mindcrime,” they are certainly more polished. The best song, “Della Brown,” isn’t “metal” at all, but it’s one of the best songs on the band’s career.

But overall, I felt “Empire” was a bit lacking. With a major emphasis on love and relationships, “Empire” wasn’t as compelling for me as the albums that came before. Also,the album was safe, with the band taking none of the chances that had gotten them notices on “Warning,” and “Rage” … but beyond that criticism, there isn’t really a “weak” track to be found on the album. I got to the point where I couldn’t stand “Silent Lucidity,” but perhaps I was in the minority.

I didn’t follow Queensrÿche any further into the 1990s after “Empire.” As people say in breakups, it wasn’t them, it was me: My tastes in metal had moved on, and Queensrÿche didn’t interest me in those years. By the time the band released their followup to “Empire,” my favorite albums were Soundgarden’s “Louder Than Love” and Alice In Chain’s Dirt (both of those bands, like Queensrÿche, were also from Seattle). When I started doing a metal radio show in college a few years later, I was spinning bands like Carcass, Entombed, Candlemass and Pantera (along with hardcore punk like Dead Kennedys) and had left Queensrÿche behind.

I started this remembrance by noting my disappointment in “American Soldier,” but I don’t want to end on such a sour note. So, instead, let me tell you how pleased I was to find Queensrÿche alive and vital in 2006, when the band released “Operation:Mindcrime II.”

I know, I know – much of the consensus was “O:MII” was a fallback for the band, an attempt to recapture much of their lost metal audience. To that, I say, “oh bull.” In my opinion “Mindcrime II” was the sound of a band returning to do what they do best – experiment and push their musical limits. I don’t care about the general opinion; I liked that album, and the more challenging parts have grown on me over time.

“Operation:Mindcrime II” picks up the story 18 years later, with Nikki being released from prison. Society, he finds, is as diseased as it was when he was incarcerated, but that’s not his focus. Nikki spent his entire time behind bars dreaming of killing “Dr. X,” the mastermind behind the assassination plot to which Nikki provided the trigger finger. And, of course, X was responsible for killing Nikki’s love, the ex-prostitute and conspiracy member “Sister Mary.” In this one, politics take a back seat to Nikki’s personal need for revenge.

But to the music: “I’m American” is a raging gate-crasher, stronger than anything on “Empire,” and it ranks along “Revolution Calling” as one of the band’s most compelling songs. The album has other riveting moments – “One Foot in Hell” is great, “The Hands” is an eerie number with strong harmonies from Tate,” “Re-Arrange You” is powerful and “Hostage” is simply stunning, with a chorus that gives me chills every time. “Murderer?” harkens back to the massive experimentation of “Rage For Order”: It’s the weirdest song on the album and reminds me of the no-holds-barred band that once recorded “Screaming in Digital.” The album closer, “All The Promises” is, frankly, just a damn pretty song.

Not everything quite works. The female vocals are great in “One Foot in Hell,” but are often overused. And, frankly, not every experiment works – the second half of “Speed of Light” meanders and “The Chase,” with guest co-vocalist Ronnie James Dio, starts well but ends up sounding like a metal Broadway musical.

But what I admire about “O:MII” is the band’s willingness to take chances. They could’ve played it safe and simply written 17 copies of “Operation:Mindcrime” songs. Instead, they threw in tons of new ideas and didn’t let the fear of comparisons to the original scare them into musical timidity. It takes repeated listens, but “Operation:Mindcrime II” is well worth the effort you’ll devote to listening.

Some people gave up on Queensrÿche when Chris DeGarmo left the band, but that’s not fair. DeGarmo’s replacement, Mike Stone, is an excellent guitarist (check out the dual guitar solo on “I’m American”) and “Operation:Mindcrime II” shows the band can still write great songs. In retrospect, the biggest problem with last year’s “American Soldier” was the band played it too safe.

What’s to come? I hear the band is recording again. I hope the end result wows me … but if not, they’ve already given me more than I could want. Even if I don’t go along for the ride next time, I’ll still respect them for all they’ve done. They deserve to be revered as one of the greatest bands in metal.