|The Dark Side of the Band
by Malcolm Dome
It's a brave move to issue a concept album. But then, QUEENSRYCHE have never been afraid of taking bold steps. In the past, they've released two LP's ('The Warning'/'Rage for order')which had a constant theme running through them; now with the recent 'Operation:Mindcrime', the five-piece have moved into territory traditionally associated with the likes of Genesis, Pink Floyd and Yes. But so far the band haven't achieved that all important commercial 'breakthrough'. So what's their next move?On the eve of their first ever UK headlining shows, lead guitarist CHRIS DEGARMO and lead vocalist GEOFF TATE maintain there is no panic or gloom in the camp and that they'll keep right on refusing to compromise their musicianship and principles to sell extra records.
"I remember now......I remember how it started....." - 'I remember now' (track from the Queensryche LP 'Operation:Mindcrime')
Geoff Tate, lead vocalist with Queensryche, intones the word with a surety of tone and intent. It's his description of the Seattle band with whom he has built such an edifice of faith, hope and confidence.
"Actually," he retracts, "it's hard to sum up this group in a single word, because we try to incorporate so many musical variations and textures into everything we do. Let's just say we're Queensryche - 'Ryche and roll. Ha!"
Queensryche - Tate (who also plays keyboards), guitarists Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield. Perhaps the finest and most significant Metal band to emerge over the last few years (Metallica notwithstanding). A group blessed with the faint whiff of genius, yet struggling in the most exacting of commercial terms to launch themselves into the big bracket.
The history has been well-documented. An outfit who issued an EP titled 'Queen of the Reich' through a small, backwater label in 1983. Our own Paul Suter raved and drooled over 'em in print, playing a major role in getting Capitol Records to sign the boys. The EP was re-issued on Capitol, followed by the debut LP 'The Warning' with James Guthrie at the control board - strong songs ruined by inept, inappropriate production (the album was remixed by Val Garay).
Thence came the 'Rage for order' LP, a brave attempt to establish new boundaries and sounds that, in my opinion, failed because Neil Kernon didn't have the wherewithal to look into the eye of the hurricane and direct it's flow; he strayed towards the breezy edges and lost the momentum.
This year has seen the band switch from Capitol to EMI-Manhattan (an internal adjustment) and move management from Kim and Diana Harris (the Seattle husband and wife team who took the Ryche from the backwaters into the tidal wash, but seemed to lack the ability to surf on the waves) to the mighty Q-Prime organization (who also look after Def Leppard, Metallica, Tesla, Dokken and Cameo). They've also released the 'Operation:Mindcrime' LP (produced by Peter Collins), not only their most constructive and satisfying record to date, but in my book the Album of the Year, no question mark, no argument.
'Operation:Mindcrime' is a concept LP. No apologies or excuses. Simply, a logical progression from 'The Warning' and 'Rage for order', as DeGarmo explains...
"With both of these records, we established certain themes that ran throughout. 'The Warning' had a prophetic tinge, with an apocalyptic element. I suppose you could say it was a mystical look into the future. 'Rage for order', meanwhile, followed the theme of general order and chaos in the world. I guess 'Operation...' just takes things a stage further."
The whole concept (a word hitherto tainted with the discredit and disdain of the 70's progressive generation from whence it was lifted, but one DeGarmo is not afraid to own up to) derives from an original idea put forward by Tate and developed into what appears on record (not to mention cassette and Compact Disc). Brutal damnation of political intrigue, psychological blunders and manipulations, mass murder and final degradation. Perhaps Tates' childhood fascination with superheroes and the comic world might have something to do with this story...
"I remember as a kid I was convinced I had superpowers. On one occasion I scared the hell out of Mum by jumping from a tree - fortunately, I landed in the washing. Then when I was about nine, my family went on a caravan holiday and my dad said to me, 'So you think you've got superpowers, eh? Well go up to the caravan and punch a hole in it.' So I tried - and nearly broke my hand! It taught me a salutary lesson. I've got a cousin in his thirties whose whole life still revolves around comics and the like. He can't hold down a regular job and just exists in a fantasy world - an unhealthy situation.
"But apart from the fantasy elements in 'Operation...' I also included incidents I've encountered and people I've met over the years. Of course, although I came up with the original idea, once it was presented to the rest of the band they quickly added in their own thoughts to develop the story-line still further..."
All of this is from the past; the time when 'Operation:Mindcrime still slumbered in its crib, about to be awoken and baptized by the waiting world. Expectations were enormously high; predictions were rife that this would finally be the record to break Queensryche into the megastar bracket. Guest spots on 'Miami Vice' and 'Celebrity Squares' were just around the corner...but nothing of the kind has happened. The lights have remained on red.
"Over the years, we've continually got excited when people have hailed one of our records as 'brilliant' and claimed we were about to be the Next Big Thing...and then you get so depressed when this fails to happen.So now we just do the best we can with any given project and never worry about whether it will be 'The One' or not. At the end of the day, what matters to us is that we're proud of what we do."
Tate's words have certain ring of virulent wisdom to them. He continues...
"We started out as five nobodies from a small town to the north-west of Washington and over the past few years we've certainly gone through many ups and downs as a unit, but these have only served to make us stronger as a band and better friends as well. And we've been fortunate to meet so many nice people through our travels.
I've also been able to spend time in both London and New York, two cities from which I get so much intellectual stimulation because of the fast pace of life, and this has helped me develop as a person. It's also true to say we have been successful on our own terms. Each release sells more than it's predecessor, and whilst it would be fabulous one day to sell millions of records, if we don't then we'll still carry on doing what WE wanna do".
Tate's comments are echoed by DeGarmo. "'Operation:Mindcrime' has now sold something in the region of 350,000 copies in the US and we've certainly expanded our fan base. You know, the rock market is so different to the pop market. In the latter, an album is over after a very short space of time, but with a rock LP it can explode even after being out for months. We will be on tour until next June, so I certainly believe, we'll sell a heck of a lot more copies before we come off the road."
In many respects, 'Operation...' is a victim of its very logic. After all, there has yet to be a video shot for any track from the LP and there has been precious little airplay for a record without an obvious single choice, 'I don't believe in love' possibly excepted.
"We realize these problems," admits DeGarmo, "but we could easily make a video for any track we wanted, simply by dropping into the story at a given place, that's not a problem. We have lots of ideas for this. And we have been getting some radio exposure in the States on the harder AOR stations. But we take our cue from that Beatles song 'The long and winding road'. We have chosen our path and we will stick to it. No compromises. I honestly believe that sooner or later our style will collide with public taste - and then we'll achieve our big breakthrough sales wise.
"In this respect, we are very fortunate to have a record company and management who support us all the way. And I think we are beginning to attract a different kind of fan who is more tuned in, listens intently, and thinks deeply about what we're putting over. We have never underestimated the intelligence of our audience and this has proven very rewarding because the fans have understood the concept behind 'Operation:Mindcrime'.
"I hate the music business attitude that suggests you have to write very simple and basic music and lyrics because otherwise the kids won't get what's going on. This is bullshit! Why should Metal be ruled by mindless music?! We're interested in free form, intelligent metal."
Queensryche come to England during November to play three headlining shows at Hanley Victoria Hall (November 7) Nottingham Rock City (8) and Kentish Town Town & Country Club (9). At the time of writing all have virtually sold out and there is some talk of more dates being added. But what can Queensryche fans expect to see and hear at these shows?
"We won't be trying to compete with those bands who present a spectacular light and sound extravaganza, because these are the only dates on our European tour when we'll be headlining, " says DeGarmo. "The rest of the time we'll be supporting Metallica.
"What we hope to present is what I'd term an 'audio performance' using the best possible sound available to us. The material will obviously be drawn heavily from 'Operation...' but there will also be selected excursions into our past.
"As I've said, we do intend to stay on the road until next June. Already we've done a series of dates in the US supporting Def Leppard, which have been really good for us, getting across to new fans every night. And after Europe, we'll go back on the road in the US supporting Metallica until at least the new year. I think we'll find we have more in common with Metallica than we did with Leppard; we're kinda in the same vein as them."
However, the five are already beginning to think about the direction of the next album, amassing ideas as they proceed down that lengthy, dusty track into next Summer. "We have thought about doing an album full of Beach Boys cover tunes," smirks Tate, "but maybe we'll wait a while before attempting that!"
Queensryche are very much in control of their own careers. They may still be awaiting the attention and adulation accorded many with lesser talents and abilities, but at least they have the comforting knowledge that they've always been true to themselves.
'Operation:Mindcrime' takes Queensryche out beyond the reach of most of their contemporaries, and I suspect I'm not alone in thinking this. It shows a band prepared to enter into musical conjecture and give full force to their own formal and informal thought processes. It has taken them a little closer to tangoing on the edge. A sliver more into the shadows occupied by the immortals.
Metal music needs Queensryche. It also desperately, urgently needs Queensryche to be wholly successful. The forthcoming UK shows are an opportunity for us all to stand up and show our support for Metal with an after-taste of style, quality and urban depth and achievement., rather than Metal with an after-birth of complacency and confusion.