Queensryche – Hear in the Now Frontier (1997)

This oddly-titled release is often bemoaned as being too “alternative” or “grunge” by many fair-weathered fans of the band, which is a pretty inaccurate comparison. This came at a time when many bands were cutting their long hair and trying to move out of the strictly-defined world of metal to survive, and bands from Metallica to Tori Amos were being called “grunge” or “like Soundgarden” by disgruntled purists. The funny thing is that this album was recorded in Nashville, and probably owes more to country, or at least the new alt-country sound of the era. And it’s also produced by Peter Collins, who desked Queensryche’s two most popular albums (Operation: Mindcrime and Empire) and is more of a direct connection to the band’s metal background than anything else.

One thing is true about this album: it was the last studio album to be recorded by the original lineup of the band; Chris DeGarmo split after this release. (Yes, I know he came back later, but that’s not really the same.) It’s pretty clear that there were differences within the band as this album came together, and its failure to be another Empire was probably just the gasoline dashed on the fire.

This isn’t a pseudo-concept album like Promised Land, and it isn’t aimed at that kind of niche listener, either. It starts out with
the slightly metal single “Sign of the Times,” and the album proceeds to trade off writing credits between singer Geoff Tate and guitarist Chris DeGarmo. The DeGarmo tracks are much more laid back and almost border on the kind of stuff you could see on the Country Music TV channel. Tate trades off with more socially-aware tracks like “spOOL,” which features lyrics like “Focus on a strategy to / open up our minds and then, / together… turn another turn.” It sounds like something Jefferson Airplane, but it rocks out well.

It’s worth noting to those who are interested in this (usually inept metal purists stuck in the past) – Geoff Tate can’t sing
anymore, or at least he can’t sing the crazy operatic stuff. He’s slowly lowered his ability to do this, a pack or two a day. To be
fair, he can sing, and he does it well, but he’s not going to do any of those breaking-glass shrieking howls anymore. And for the most part, that stuff’s been written out. “spOOL” is a good example of how he really tries to reach his old limits, but he can barely make it.

I’d hate to hear that song live at the end of a tour. (In fact ,they didn’t play this song live on this tour, although Tate did play it later when he was touring for his solo album.) The good news is that on this album, he has really started to write his stuff in a
slightly lower register, and his voice still has a great tone to it. But if you’re one of those “god damn it, he hit that high note 20
years ago, what the fuck” people, I don’t know what to tell you.

And I should give an obligatory mention to the one song that’s sung by Chris DeGarmo and not Tate. It’s “All I Want,” and it’s truly horrifying. It’s like the bad b-side to an Oasis single, and it’s in your best interest to program your CD player accordingly, or remove it from your iTunes playlist. The only thing interesting about this song is that I’m sure it came to be because of a major inter-band argument, and I could imagine DeGarmo pouting “I want to sing one song or I’m going to quit!” and then locking himself in a bathroom for four hours.

Going back to this album, it really reminds me of 1997 in a lot of ways. I mean, I did listen to it constantly back then, (except for
that “All I Want” song) and it’s just such a pleasant little mix of metal and a slightly more contemporary blend of pop. It came at a time when the whole grunge thing was long dead, but when metal was also completely slain by this alt-rock beast (or not). I remember at that time really stretching to find something new to listen to, because I was getting bored of just re-buying old metal albums, and I wasn’t about to cash in to the electronica craze or the Smashing Pumpkins or whatever the hell was going on at that moment. And for me, this album just sounded RIGHT. It was smooth, it wasn’t just a metallic collection of screaming solos, it had substance, but it wasn’t a giant rock opera or some pretentious format that would make me only listen to it twice a year. It was intensely enjoyable, and had unlimited repeat playability.

And of course, it was the last album before the group fell apart, and that’s my typical luck. In other bad luck, EMI, the band’s label, went bankrupt during the tour for this album.  The band financed the rest of the tour themselves, but I’m sure the financial strain and lack of label support for the album didn’t help tensions in the band.  (It also guaranteed a worthless box set and “best-of” album to get out of contractual obligations once the label was bought out of bankruptcy later.)

But despite the fact that everyone thought this album was “Queensryche meets Soundgarden” or some insipid nonsense like that, I really do enjoy this record, and I still do, over a decade later.

Rating: 9