Thursday, June 27, 2013

Queensryche - s/t - The Brilliant Return of the 'Ryche

It's impossible to talk Queensryche without mentioning the past year of controversy, so let me get it out of the way. I don't care about contracts, I care little for judges, and I have no dog in this fight, but to my ears what the world now has is a band called Queensryche that consists of three original members of the Seattle bred band, and another Queensryche that looks, sounds, and feels more to me like Geoff Tate's solo career - a career that has been in gear for sometime under his old band's name. I wish everyone involved nothing but well, but when I put on Tate's latest effort and this album by the Todd La Torre fronted band, I only hear one Queensryche, and it's not Frequency Unknown (no offense to anyone, just one guy's opinion).

(I spoke with Michael Wilton the day after this review was written, and I'll post the interview a bit later this week - the new album's brilliance required that the review go up first!)

Queensryche is a return to form - the likes of which I haven't heard since Rob Halford returned to Judas Priest. This album literally jumps out of the speakers with a confidence and joy that is very palpable, and barely containable. Todd La Torre performs brilliantly, singing and writing with one foot in the band's hallowed past, and one in the future - yeah, he does echo Tate stylistically, but I figure he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't, and he's done a great job of giving the band's fans a great bridge across which to walk into a future I see as very bright, indeed.

Classy was a word I generally used when I'd talk about Queensryche, and with this album the band seems to have returned to a certain state of grace. They've done a masterful job of creating an album that somehow makes it seem like all of the controversy never happened - there are no obvious barbs pointed at their old singer, and they have simply gotten back to the business of writing, recording, and playing great rock.

One thing that jumps out at me is the way La Torre and drummer Scott Rockenfield lock into a very simpatico relationship - Where Dreams Go To Die is the first song after a brief intro, and while the music was written in the main by relative newcomer Parker Lundgren (joyfully unleashed as a fully contributing member after a few years as a non-writing sideman), it sounds as if it would have fit well on any of the band's early albums. When Michael Wilton goes into his solo, it's clear that he's creatively reborn. Classic Queensryche once again.

Spore suggests that the band was listening closely during the days when other Seattle bands were garnering all the attention, and the Eddie Jackson written riff demonstrates to me that maybe the band knew where to go all the time, but didn't have the freedom to do so. La Torre does a great job of supplying stellar lyrics throughout the album, and none of the band's literary past seems to have suffered with the changes. His vocals are a little edgier, and his range is exquisitely wide.

Producer Jimbo Barton reconvenes with the band after an absence of almost twenty years, but he still knows exactly how to track this band - In This Light has the band breaking out the Roland JC120s for those classic Queensryche clean, chorused guitar tones, and while often the guitars are heavy they never bury either the singer, or the rhythm section. Scott Rockenfield is one drummer who knows how to listen to a singer - he never lands on La Torre's words, but he's incredibly commanding. Again, Wilton's soloing is scorching hot, and a melodically joyous earful.

Redemption was the first track the band laid down, and it must have been a thrill to experience its first playback. La Torre remains true to the style but his own chops are all over this one as he swoops, screams, and delivers staccato riffage before launching into the soaring choruses. He's not just a singer, he's a competent drummer himself, and you can hear it in his vocal delivery - he's crisp and very tidy. I cannot imagine a Queensryche fan not being pretty damned thrilled by this.

Ripping rock is on call for Vindication - the guitars are almost pinky at times, and Rockenfield sounds like he's being chased by the devil. La Torre's going to have a blast tearing this one up onstage. His melodic phrasing is astounding as he wraps his throat around the barreling changes. The first note of the choruses is more Halford than Tate, and he shows that he has as much range as anyone.

Midnight Lullabye eerily leads the band into the dark journey of the night that is A World Without, a song that meditates on a recent father's loss of a mother and a wife. The strange tuning that the guitars wear is perfect for the arrangement, one of the most truly disturbing since The Ballad of Dwight Frye. The production on this is brilliant - it's seldom that music follows the tale this closely, but that is exactly what it is supposed to do. Wilton's sideways fills are mindbending, and rock is seldom this brilliantly theatric anymore. Then he rides it out with more elegant soloing. Great work.

Don't Look Back almost echoes early Thin Lizzy before kicking into fast paced, ripping rock. Scott Rockenfield is again playing with tremendous passion and fire - when he plays his fills, it's actually thrilling, but then I'm a drum guy from way back. It's great to hear this band writing again - my main gripe with the band's last iteration was that the band had stopped writing. Now I know why I was so pissed - these guys write great rock.

Bassist Eddie Jackson brings some solid writing to Fallout - it's a great riff that La Torre takes and runs with, and Wilton and Lundgren are on fire - there's some great tight harmonies that remind me what a great guitar band sounds like. When Michael Wilton kicks it in gear, I'm reminded of my old boss Michael Schenker - all guitarists should aspire to this level of fire and passion in their playing.

Acoustic guitars finally make an appearance as Wilton gets a chance to display his signature ESP on the albums closer, and again, the Roland JC120 proves itself to be one of the closet classic amps of the '80s. Open Road - what a great title for a song that concludes an album that sees one of rock's finest institutions revived, revitalized, and redeemed.

Queensryche? Yes, this is Queensryche - they have earned the right to keep the name. The market will decide, but I can't imagine that the band's hardcore won't find this to be the band's best since Empire, and worthy of standing beside any album in their catalogue.

Out this week on Century Media.

Thanks to Michael Wilton, Queensryche, and Kevin Chiaramonte at PFA Media.

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