How do you follow up one of the best prog metal concept albums of all time? That was the monumental task in front of Queensryche when they finished touring in support of Operation:Mindcrime and started recording their fourth full release, Empire, in the spring of 1990. Would it be a sequel to the concept album? Would we find out who killed Mary? Would it be an even heavier rocking album? Or would the band to in another direction? Luckily, the band chose the latter, and did an exceptional job of reaching the next level in their musical definition.
Prior to Empire, Queensryche built an identity on top of being this art rock/metal sensation that would appear to be coming out of somewhere in Europe. (They did record their first full-length album in London.) But Empire is the first point where the band stepped away from that image and got back to their roots as an American band, a group of guys that grew up in a pre-grunge Seattle, a place both high-tech and working class, removed from the California metal scene and on opposite shores as the New York music industry. It’s a more authentic, introspective sound. They aren’t attempting to be a balls-out metal band, and are seriously stepping away from any Judas Priest/Dio-related influence and attempting to set up their own musical arena outside that of the typical metal rat-race. Still produced by Peter Collins, who worked on the technically flawless Mindcrime, he pushes even further in the sonic arena, making an album that’s incredibly crisp, but with an incredible depth and presence.
Instead of covering socio-political topics through a metaphor or cautionary tale, as they had in their last three albums, this is the first time they discuss the perils and impact of our changing world directly, in songs that use their soundscape and direct feel as a vehicle for commentary. The lyrics discuss gang violence (“Empire”), struggling with disabilities (“Best I Can”), the environment (“Resistance”), and homelessness (“Della Brown”). But the balance of the album avoids preachiness, and mixes the message with a heavily introspective deep-dive into emotion and interpersonal relationships. And that’s mixed with this new sound: a more textured musical take, with smooth guitars and the occasional twelve-string mixed with a very up-front but laid-back bass sound, and Geoff Tate’s lyrics going from the all-out operatic to a more integrated and subdued yet effective part of the band.
This isn’t a concept album, in the strictest sense. But it uses many samples, intros, and outros to stitch together the first half of its its 63:20 length to be nearly seamless, and some argue that this makes it a loosely-coupled sort of concept album, although I’ve never seen a line-by-line explanation of what that story would be. But it adds to the depth of the album, making it something easy for me to visualize, and something more than just a collection of sounds.
Some of the best songwriting work on the album comes from guitarist Chris DeGarmo, who broadens his songwriting by heading inward to the more internal and emotional themes. An example (with lyrics about Tate’s future wife), is “Jet City Woman”, the typical tale of “I’m on the road a long time and have come back to my love”, although it’s a much more effective vehicle than the typical Motley Crue or Journey take on the same subject. And the title? The city of Seattle was once known as Jet City, due to the overwhelming presence of Boeing, who used to be headquartered there, and who built many of their passenger planes there. In the early 80s, the city held a contest and officially changed its nickname to the more pedestrian “Emerald City”, although many references to the old name still exist. I remember when I lived there in the late 90s, I used to often drive by a place called Jet City Pizza, which always used to be an unconscious homage (in my mind, at least) to this album.
One minor nit I’ve always had is the voiceover part in the middle of the song “Empire”, which laments the federal government’s spending on crime. Sorry Geoff, but the reason the federal government spends less on crime is because a huge amount of law enforcement is paid at the state and local level. One could use the same logic to lament the amount the feds spend on education, which is largely paid for by local taxes. I remember reading somewhere that Tate got the idea for this song based on a Vietnamese gangland murder spree in the Little Saigon area of Rainier Valley. I didn’t know this until much later, but when I lived in Seattle, this was the closest strip of fast-food joints, and I drove out in this area at least a few times a week. (It’s also the former location of Sick’s Stadium, where baseball’s ill-fated Seattle Pilots played their only season before moving to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers. Both Elvis and Hendrix played outdoor shows there; it was torn down in 1979 and is now the location of a Lowe’s hardware store.)
And then there’s “Silent Lucidity”. I’ve got to admit, I clearly remember the first time I heard this song in my car, during the first listen of this album, and how I thought “what the fuck? They are totally going to get sued by Pink Floyd for completely ripping off their entire style!” This Michael Kamen-orchestrated ballad seems to talk about lucid dreaming, but Tate has always said it’s about a parent watching their child sleep. Like classic Waters-era Floyd, this song was one of my go-to numbers to listen to when I got in ultra-depresso mode around this era. And then, all of a sudden, it went from about nobody ever hearing about Queensryche to literally everyone praising this song. MTV played the video constantly (yes, they played videos then) and it even got airplay on mainstream FM radio. I’m sure it was played at many a high school prom, and it popped up on all sorts of “power ballad” compilation albums you could order at three in the morning from a K-Tel TV ad. Suddenly, a band whose last album took over a year to break into the gold level of sales status entered the Billboard top ten within two weeks, and ultimately went triple platinum. I’ve always wondered how many people bought Empire, listened to that one song for a month, and then went on to the new MC Hammer album or whatever else. This gave the band the level of success to headline tours and record their next album completely on their own terms, but I always wonder if this was the beginning of the end in some way.
Empire was remastered and re-released in 2003, with three bonus tracks. There’s the overly hammy “Scarborough Fair”, the ho-hum “Dirty Lil Secret” and the decent but doesn’t-fit-here “Last Time in Paris”. They’re all nice to have, but the 11+3 track version of the album just doesn’t seem right. If you’ve got the cash, you can hunt down an import gold disc version of the album, but it’ll probably cost you $50. I finally got a copy of the 24K version and ripped it with lossless encoding to iTunes; it’s a good way to go, if you’re into that sort of thing. I also have the original tape somewhere – it’s shell is worn clean, but it’s a nice reminder of that era.
This album has always meant a lot to me. When it came out in 1990, I was commuting about 45 minutes each way to school, which meant I listened to this album at least once a day for months. Coming back to it, this album reminds me so much of that year of my life, and takes me back to that period so directly. And when I was in Seattle, sitting in my tiny studio apartment, songs like “Another Rainy Night” created the perfect soundtrack for those few somber post-college years of depression and emotion. Not only do I consider this the master album for the band, but it’s one of my personal favorites of all time due to the history and emotion interleaved within it.