For about the past year, Queensrÿche has been treading the same path as such unenviable bands as LA Guns and Great White: major internal tensions reach critical mass and a key member quits (or is fired). However, instead of embarking on a solo career or joining another band, this person takes the band’s name as his own. Meanwhile, the remainder of the original band quite sensibly keeps the name too, which results in two entities using the same moniker at the same time, or at least until the inevitable court case is resolved. It’s a sad, unfortunate situation for everyone, from the fans who either have to choose sides or support both bands, to the promoters who are confused as to which version to book gigs for, to the bands themselves who have irrevocably tarnished their legacy.
Hopefully, the rightful ownership of the name is determined soon (the court case starts in November), but until then both camps are calling themselves Queensrÿche and are aggressively recording and touring in order to one-up the other. Both versions of the band have brand new albums out, but are they worthy additions to the Queensrÿche legacy — already severely damaged by a string of subpar albums released over the past 16 years — or are they merely half-assed, throwaway travesties, recorded and released as quickly as possible, to capitalize on the band name before the rapidly approaching courtroom drama?
Vocalist Geoff Tate was fired from the band shortly after performing at Rocklahoma in Pryor, OK, last year. After being shown the door, he assembled his own version of Queensrÿche and quickly hit the road, performing the 1988 masterpiece, ‘Operation: Mindcrime,’ in its entirety (this is, however, the fourth tour now where this album’s been performed live so the charm is definitely gone). While very few people could conceivably be happy about this turn of events, no one can deny that they weren’t intrigued by the Tate-fronted lineup. Featuring the legendary Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy Osbourne, Quiet Riot, Whitesnake) on bass, his brother Randy on guitar (replacing former Megadeth guitarist Glen Drover, who dropped out for undisclosed reasons), Simon Wright (AC/DC, Dio, Rhino Bucket) on drums, and one-time Queensrÿche axeman Kelly Gray, Tate’s band is a heavy metal fantasy league lineup.
While that same configuration does appear on the new album, entitled ‘Frequency Unknown’ (note the initials), they only play on a handful of tracks. No less than twelve guitarists (including K. K. Downing and Chris Poland) perform on the album, along with four bassists and four drummers (including Slayer’s current drummer Paul Bostaph). The album suffers as a result — the revolving door of musicians, along with an extremely rushed production schedule destroys any chance at consistency. One gets a sense that the myriad musicians were all herded into the studio, quickly played their bits, and then their output was hurriedly and unceremoniously dumped into a song or two.
There’s still some undeniably great stuff here though; how could there not be with such a stellar roster of musicians. Opening track “Cold” starts off with a great metal riff, something that’s been largely absent from recent Queensrÿche recordings. However, once the chorus kicks in, it sounds like the same old ‘Rÿche of the past decade and a half. The frenetic guitar solo shreds but cannot fully save the song. “Slave” is surprisingly heavy and in your face, while “The Weight of the World” is an epic track very much in the style of “Anybody Listening?” Founding Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland contributes a phenomenal guitar solo that elevates the song even more. If the rest of ‘Frequency Unknown’ was like these songs, it would’ve been an easy recommendation. Alas, the album is littered with generic, disposable tracks, or downright embarrassing ones like “Dare,” which appears to be a thinly veiled threat to his former bandmates. Such juvenile trash-talking like “you wouldn’t dare hurt me cuz you just might get hurt yourself” really should be beneath the man who wrote the lyrics to some of the most intelligent songs in rock history. As immature lyrically as some of these new songs are, the cover art is even more infantile: a hairy-knuckled fist wearing three rings, one bearing the familiar “tri-ryche,” between a ring crowned with a capital “F” and the other with a “U.” Reeeeeeal subtle. And don’t even listen to the four re-recorded ‘Empire’ and ‘Mindcrime’ tracks that serve as a coda here: they come nowhere near the majesty of the original classics.
Faring much better is the eponymous album released by the other Queensrÿche, composed of three-fifths of the original band, along with guitarist Parker Lundgren (who also was once married to one of Tate’s daughters) and new vocalist Todd La Torre (who is also the vocalist for fellow prog-rockers Crimson Glory). They make a strong case here that they’ve been held back and restrained by Tate because, frankly, this album rocks harder than any Queensrÿche release since ‘Operation: Mindcrime.’ Indeed, it sounds more like the successor to that celebrated concept album than ‘Empire’ does. Drummer Scott Rockenfield reminds us that he is actually one of the best percussionists in rock. We’d almost forgotten what a legend he truly is. And guitarist Michael Wilton is unleashed here, making up for the years of walking in the shadows. The band chose well when they brought La Torre aboard as Tate’s replacement; the man is an absolute powerhouse. He can sound uncannily like the former Queensrÿche if he chooses to, but just as often adds his own personality to this new version of the band.
After the very cinematic-sounding intro “X2,” the band gets down to business with “Where Dreams Go to Die.” Imagine if 1986’s ‘Rage for Order’ was recorded today and you get an idea of what this song sounds like. Fascinatingly enough, Lundgren, who was born in 1986, wrote this song. He may only be 26, but he completely understands what made Queensrÿche so special back in the 1980s. If comparisons to the past must be made, then to say the new album sounds like a long-lost cousin of ‘Rage’ and ‘The Warning’ would not be unfair. Like Tate’s album, this one is pretty heavy too, although closing track “Open Road” might just be the prettiest thing they’ve recorded since “Silent Lucidity.”
This album is not without its faults either though. While it’s exponentially better than Queensrÿche’s previous offering, ‘Dedicated to Chaos,’ it is not up to the high standards of their 1980s and early 90s output. So, it actually would not make that great a successor to ‘Mindcrime.’ The album clocks in at a mere 33 minutes, and most of the songs are under four minutes long. Everything just breezes along and doesn’t really stick. Like Tate’s ‘Frequency Unknown,’ it takes several listens before the songs start sinking in. Nothing really stands out like, say, “Take Hold of the Flame” or “Revolution Calling.” In fact, at times it feels as rushed as Tate’s album, and it probably was, in order to keep their former vocalist from hogging the spotlight. And while this is admittedly a minor nitpick, why title the album ‘Queensrÿche’? They already released an eponymously titled album: their 1983 debut EP.
However, in the battle of ‘Frequency Unknown’ versus ‘Queensrÿche,’ the latter is clearly the champion. Hopefully the next battle of the bands, this time taking place in court, will ensure that only one band goes by the name Queensrÿche.