"When I write, I go for the monster riff," says Queensrche's Michael Wilton. About five seconds into "Open," thousands of Queensrche fans will know he isn't kidding. Wilton's guitar melts away the years on the opening track of Tribe (Sanctuary), the Eastside-based band's new release. "Geoff [Tate] puts on the awesome hooky chorus, you get the rhythm section behind it, and boomit's a Queensrche song."
Queensrche DREAM THEATER Paramount Theatre, 206-628-0888, $29.50$37.50 7:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 2
The band's return may come as a surprise to some. Queensrche are coming off a couple of poorly received studio efforts and have spent the last few years taking the rock version of a victory lap: a Greatest Hits album and the double CD Live Evolution. For longtime loyalists, it's nice to hear the Rche are back.
Just don't go expecting a reprise of Empire, the band's 3-million-selling 1990 disc, whose hit single, "Silent Lucidity," briefly put the band at the top of the pop heap. Instead, Tribe finds Queensrche playing to their strengthscomplex, idea-filled, heavily conceptual art-rock with a metallic wallopand to their core audience. This is a band that has always kept moving forward in its musical evolution and which prides itself on doing things its own wayeven when that's meant doing things the hard way. And even in the face of a rotating guitar chair. The core band is Wilton, singer Tate, drummer Scott Rockenfield, and bassist Eddie Jackson. Chris DeGarmo left the group in 1997, came back for the new disc, and left again before their current tour, which hits the Paramount Theatre this Saturday.
WHEN QUEENSRCHE formed in 1982, every heavy-metal dude with a Les Paul and a Marshall stack to his name was seeking to build a band around the perfect singera tall, good-looking guy with incredible vocal range and power to spare. Somebody like Geoff Tate.
The young members of Queensrchethen a cover band known as the Mobhad caught Tate's performances on the Eastside battle-of-the-bands circuit and began pursuing him. But Tate wanted a recording contract, and he spurned the Mob for a band with original songs. A couple of weeks later, DeGarmo and Rockenfield showed up on Tate's doorstep with a tape of three new songs the band had written.
Call it beginners' luck, but the group's first songwriting efforts were good enough to lure Tate into the studio to record what would become the four-song Queensrche EP (their new band name was taken from a track titled "Queen of the Reich"). The resulting demo got the attention of Kim and Diana Harris, who would become the band's managers.
The Harris battle plan was an unusual one: Let the tapes do the talking. Queensrche boycotted battles of the bands and off-night bar gigs in favor of releasing their own independent EP in 1982. Good buzz in metal circles and rave reviews from the U.S. and European metal press combined to move 60,000 copiesastronomical numbers at the time for an independent release. Getting big in Europe also made them legends in their hometown without playing a note. The band soon inked a deal with EMI.
The resulting album, The Warning (1984), was a feast of Maiden/Priest-style metal with hints of the band's progressive leanings. In 1986, Rage for Order featured more personal lyrics and a new glammed-out visual image. Soon, the band was playing opening sets for major touring acts such as Bon Jovi and Metallica. This was no time for a risky movebut you can't tell that to Tate. The singer decided to push Queensrche to the next level by releasingdrumroll, pleasea concept album.
Once an idea works, it's hard to find anyone who will admit to having been a doubter. But that isn't a problem here, says Tate, because everybody had misgivings about the projectincluding his fellow band members. "Nobody was very enthusiastic about it at firstI really had to sell it to them," recalls Tate. "But once I had Chris on board, things really started happening quickly."
Operation: Mindcrime (1988) is now recognized as one of the classics of its genre. There's a lot of credit to hand out: Peter Collins' meaty production provides a larger-than-life stage for the group's heavily theatrical performance. The interludes between sections are well thought-out. The musicianship is first-rate. The varied group of songs keeps the listener on an emotional roller coaster for a full hour. Seattle singer Pamela Moore, whose greatest success to that point was her stirring performance of the Guitars, Etc. radio jingle, contributes a career- making guest appearance. And Tate sings the hell out of all the songs.
It's also a cool story, rendered with disarming simplicity (the teenage-runaway-turned-nun is named Mary; the evil villain is Dr. X) and reminiscent of then- ascendant hard-boiled graphic novels like Frank Miller and Bill Sinkiewicz's Elektra: Assassin. Operation: Mindcrime concerns a drug-addict-turned-political-assassin. It's straightforward in places, shadowy in othersleaving questions that just might be answered with one more listen. "Even today, you still get these fans reaching for these things that they want to know about Mindcrime," says Jackson. "These kids are so a part of this record. It's amazing how it's connected to so many people."
Elated with the success of Mindcrime but exhausted after an extensive world tour, the band was eager to return to Seattle. Tate spent hours on his sailboat, floating off Blake Island and looking at the Seattle skyline while he wrote songs. DeGarmo, who was living on Capitol Hill at the time, was also hard at work. Which might explain why 1990's Empire exudes a strong sense of the city. "Jet City Woman" is an obvious local reference, but "Another Rainy Night" also feels distinctly Northwestern. Even the inclusion of "Della Brown," a story of a homeless woman, seems to coincide with the rapid growth of Seattle's street population.
The band had already established itself on MTV (the "Eyes of a Stranger" video had kick-started sales of Operation: Mindcrime), but Empire's release coincided with the peaking popularity of heavy metal, rising to No. 7 on the album charts, while "Silent Lucidity" was a No. 9 single. The group toured extensively for two years, played the Grammys, and won an MTV Viewers Choice Award, while selling 3 million copies of Empire.
Even during the band's most commercial incarnation, though, Wilton and DeGarmo kept the music complicated, maintaining their knack for surprising you with the next chord. "It was like, 'Hey, let's turn left on this part of the song here,'" says Wilton. "Let's throw the listener for a loop and then bring them back."
Nevertheless, the group found itself firmly in the mainstream. "When you collide with the masses, it's overwhelming," Wilton recalls of the period. Tate, the group's easily recognizable frontman, quickly grew uneasy with the adulation. "They were talking action-figure dolls and lunch pails and all that crap, and that wasn't what I wanted to do," he says. The four-year gap between Empire and its follow-up, Promised Land (1994), was largely caused by this retreat from the spotlight. "We basically unplugged and disappeared," admits Tate. "That was a conscious effort to stop the machine rolling."
Promised Land represented another stage in Queensrche's evolution, a comparatively measured and introspective album after the triple-platinum bombast of Empire. "Instead of going to the big studios, we went out to the San Juans and set up a studio in a cabin," says Wilton. "Everybody was expecting the big follow-up to Empireit kind of threw them." Still, the album did well, rising to No. 3 on the charts and going platinum. They followed it with a Promised Land CD-ROM game, loosely based on the best-selling Myst, which featured an island with five individual "worlds"one designed by each band member. (Jackson's humorous contributions stole the show, featuring guest spots by Mariner pitcher Randy Johnson, his mother and father demanding that he turn down his music in both English and Spanish, and himself in drag as a receptionist.)
But Promised Land's appearance came at an awkward time. Heavy metal was pass闩ronically enough, thanks in large part to fellow Seattle bands like Soundgarden and Nirvana. Queensrche's belated response to the changing face of music was 1997's Hear in the Now Frontier. "Chris and I had started experimenting in drop tunings, which a lot of bands were doing," says Wilton. But heavy metal had become a genre again, with the requisite purity tests; many diehards didn't appreciate Queensrche sounding a little like Alice in Chains or Pearl Jam. The storm clouds were gathering: During the resulting tour, the band took a pair of body punchesEMI Records folded and DeGarmo quit the band. His replacement, Kelly Gray, played on 1999's Q2K, the group's sole album for Atlantic, and Live Evolution before leaving the group a guitar short once again.
DESPITE THEIR FADING fortunes in the larger marketplace, Queensrche, like many metal and art-rock bands, have long cultivated a loyal fan base. In fact, the band owns and operates its own fan club. Queensrche went onto the Internet in a big way in the mid-'90s, and their fan site (Queensrche.com) includes photos, press clips, and sound clips from every stage of the band, plus a message board frequented by the band members themselves. Even the big-haired evidence of the Rage for Order glam-fashion makeovera major switch from the black-leather cool of The Warningcan still be glimpsed on the Web site. "We keep trying to hit that delete button," says Rockenfield with a laugh.
The fan club "has been a big, important part of what we've done almost since day one," Rockenfield continues. "We've seen what it does on a business level for us to keep these people happy and nurtured."
It's also a two-way communication, says Tate. "We kind of exist on the fringe nowwe're not a mainstream band. It really is the one kind of tether we have to our public."
The fan club purchases good seats for Queensrche shows for resale to members on a first-come, first-served basis. Members of the Queensrche Campaign are also eligible to attend concert sound checks and to schmooze with band members at the meet-and-greet sessions held after every concert.
"Half of the [fan club members], I know by first name," says Rockenfield. "They've been there for 20 years, and now they're bringing their kids."
Does he mean little kids?
No, now it's their long-haired teenage sons who say, "I like your band," Rockenfield says with a laugh. "Play me next to Linkin Parkthere you go."
Tribe, the band's new release, is constructed around Tate's lyrical observations on post-9/11 America. "It was funny," says Rockenfield, "because the music we had all been separately working on seemed to fitit had this tribal flavor."
The record also marks the temporary reunion of the original Queensrche. Founding member DeGarmo co-wrote three songs ("Doing Fine," "The Art of Life," and "Falling Behind") and contributed the bridge to "Open." Any uncomfortable feelings about the reunion disappeared once the five longtime friends started playing, says Jackson. "The minute we sat down and started working out the music, it was like he never leftthe chemistry just clicked."
Although the band's own press releases were coy about whether the reunion would prove permanent, DeGarmo remains an ex-member. Echoing his sudden departure from the band in 1997, DeGarmo first committed to, then backed out of Queensrche's recently completed European tour.
His replacement on the road is Mike Stone, a guitarist whose r鳵m頩ncludes a solo album, a turn with Boston punk band Klover, and a stint backing former KISS drummer Peter Criss. Although Stone had played a concert with the band once before, getting ready for the European tour on less than 10 days' notice was a challenge. He remembers the first time he played with the band: "I said, 'No problem,' then I put in the CDs and said, 'Whoa, there's a lot of work here.' [But] after 20 or 25 songs, you really start getting a feel for how they put things together." That's a good thingthe band likes to vary its set lists nightly.
Queensrche's current tour finds them co-headlining with math-metal cult band Dream Theatera smart consolidation of two bands with similar leanings. "Our music styles complement each other really well," says Wilton. "I know a lot of tours have been suffering, but this one is really kicking ass." After thrusting themselves from a Redmond basement to the top of the rock world, Queensrche have now managed a difficult trick: a successful negotiation back to the middle. "It's a long time, and we've been through many different musical changes," says Jackson. "I never thought in my life that we'd be doing this 20 years later."