While their self-titled EP sounded like some kind of generic heavy metal, this Seattle once-covers band started down the path of prog-metal with their first full-length release. This nine-song album features some great long-form metal pieces, excellent sound, and the beginning of the formula the band grew with over their career.
The band headed to London to record their album, and hired James Guthrie as producer. He’s best known for his engineering and producing work on pretty much every Pink Floyd album that matters, plus producer credits on Judas Priest’s Hell Bent For Leather. Mix those two bands together, and you’ve pretty much got Queensryche; it explains how he captured the mystical, ethereal quality of the band, without losing the metal edge. Also add in arranger and conductor Michael Kamen, who wasn’t a super-soundtrack-ultrastar like we know him today, but he did work with everyone from ‘Floyd to Johnny Cougar to Jim Croche to the Eurythmics to David Bowie, and it seems odd that he picked this little-known metal band to work with. But you can find his symphonic touch on the album, which is a cool feature with the songs here.
The album starts with “Warning”, which seems to trod a bit, without really bringing things up to pace. It’s a much thicker texture than the EP, and ties in with the album artwork, a mystical hand selecting a tarot card with a titular reference. (The press kit uses the tarot as a theme, showing a very cool one for each song on the album.) But the slow pale of the album is immediately brought to speed with “En Force”, a more conceptual piece about surviving an apocalypse and fighting for the survival of a future. It begins with these Kaman-esuque chimes that follow the song, like gothic church bells, then hands it over to the guitars. The song doesn’t have much as far as actual meaning or context, but it does have a lot of guitar hooks that take it at a gallop and show that Queensryche can mix a longer song like this and still make it rock. “Deliverance” follows this theme with a slightly more straightforward guitar-oriented song. It’s worth mentioning that Tate’s operatic lyrics are used to full effect, and he’s hitting high notes and using excellent vibrato and sustain all over the place.
“No Sanctuary” slows the tempo down considerably. It’s almost a ballad, but not the hair band sort of arena rock ballad, but more of a clean, acoustic guitar sound, finishing with a bit of an up tempo melody. It’s a great demonstration of Tate’s lyrics, and it shows that the band doesn’t just need to play faster-faster-faster. It’s very well done, although at just over six minutes long, it does drag a bit.
One of my favorite songs on the album is next, “NM 156”. It’s sort of an Orwellian, anti-technology piece like something Rush would do, but with much more of an epic metal edge. It starts with some computer-type sound effects and some synth sound and vocoder work, and breaks into a faster number, with some great guitar solo work. The only real complaints I have with this song is that 1) it’s only 4:38 long, and by the time you tack on the digital intro/outros, it’s too short for me, and 2) there’s not another song on the album that has this kind of raw energy and futuristic vibe, although some songs have brief bits in them that are this cool. “NM 156” is one of my favorite old Queensryche songs, and I must not be the only one, because the band still brings this one out for their live shows. In fact, the Live Evolution double CD from 2001 opens with it. And this album was supposed to open with it too, but EMI changed the track order against the wishes of the band, putting the title track first. Oh, and a trivia hint for fans born after 1985 or so: the sound effect at the end of the song is called a “dot-matrix printer”. Old people used to use them before laserprinters were invented.
The next track (first song on side B for those who remember tapes and LPs) is also the only single from the album, “Take Hold of the Flame”, a sort of power-ballady song that both features Tate’s swooning vocals, plus had enough of a rock edge behind it to sound cool. There are two more songs after this, “Before the Storm”, and “Child of Fire”, that are mid-paced and longish songs similar to “En Force” or “Deliverance”. Both are good, but nothing special. The only unique thing here is that the first song pretty much stops about 45 seconds from the end, and then leads up in this dredge bit that goes right into the next song. The album ends with the almost-ten-minute “Roads to Madness”, which trudges on at a very slow speed, and builds a bit, but at about five minutes in, it all but ends. But some haunting string synth pulls the music on a bit as the drums start up and keep the theme going. With about two minutes left, the whole band suddenly picks up again, Geoff Tate screams out an impossible note, and then the whole thing picks up in this total balls-out refrain that rips through the album at the very end. It’s an unexpected ending, and very rewarding if you stuck with everything up until then.
A lot of this album is like that. This is probably the first album I ever got into in which the phrase “rewards repeated listens” was completely true. Individually, not many of these songs (with the exception of “NM 156”) are that interesting on their own. But if you invest the 50 minutes to really go through this album, and spend the dozens of listens to let it really grow on you, it brings out a sum greater than the parts. And this seriously showed me that a band besides Rush or Yes could take on this progressive rock label and do it in such a way that was so non-Rush or non-Yes-like. This album isn’t for everyone, and by their next release, they were doing similar stuff but in a more accessible way, but it’s an excellent first shot for the band.