It’s 20-some years since Queensrÿche, bursting with new kid on the block promise, finally came of age with three of the finest records of their career; Rage For Order, the triumphant Operation:Mindcrime and Empire, a triptych of releases that elevated them to an enormodome level of popularity. Much of the 90s, however, found the band, rather ironically, flapping around in a blind panic, fighting the Seattle grunge invasion that was taking pace on their home turf.
So the 90s and early noughties then, are best described as their wilderness years; wrestling with a litany of basic, everyday career set -backs, which cumulated in founding guitarist Chris DeGarmo throwing in the towel to become a commercial pilot (perhaps he’ll form a musicians-only airline with Bruce Dickinson one day?), audiences becoming decidedly more ‘selective’, and lastly, perhaps predictably, confusion over musical direction.
Through it all, however, Queensrÿche managed to keep their cool. With multi-platinum success to crow about, not once did they surrender to the inevitable; retiring to a beach house and counting a not inconsiderable fortune earned from life at the top of the 80s hard rock milieu. Sure, Operation: Mindcrime II may not have been the wisest move, and it might have sparked a great deal of disorderly muttering amongst die-hard fans, but at least it signalled to the world that Queensrÿche weren’t going down without a fight.
Come 2005, with renewed ambition, the band appeared to be constantly on tour, revisiting old classics and letting dedicated supporters know, in no uncertain terms, that they were back. A welltimed jaunt around the US with co-headliners Dream Theater bucked their ideas up further, forcing them to acknowledge musical roots and re-program their prog-metal objectives.
American Soldier is, and let it be shouted from the tallest mast, a MAJOR masterpiece. Frankly, it wouldn’t have surprised me to have been handed a lacklustre set of recordings spray painted with disjointed arrangements and half-cocked lyrical themes. Instead, Geoff Tate and crew have gone for broke and come up trumps. The subject of war is its central nervous system, with a 12-song tapestry of explosive technometal musings fitting together like giant cogs in a monster-sized steam engine.
Imagine, if you will, an interpretation of Apocalypse Now, and to a lesser extent, Jarhead; everything from psychedelic, dream-like passages to full-on raging techno-metal, performed in muddy combat boots and shrapnel torn battle fatigues. You can hear the explosions of both mind and body. You can feel the searing heat of Operation Desert Storm, the suffocating humidity of Vietnam, the genocide of Serbia. You can even smell napalm in the morning. Most mind-blowing, however, are a collection of spoken word samples. Like a crazy embedded war correspondent, Tate went out into the field with tape recorder in hand and collected interview after interview from real life war veterans. The results are both quixotic and troubling; a collection of quotes woven into the tracks that will leave you stunned and shattered. In fact, the Hollywood insanity of Colonel Walter E Kurtz is dwarfed by these real life confessions.
Musically, there are no complaints. Personally, even though I was looking hard, I cannot find fault with any track. It is one thing to reclaim your past, but to improve upon its legacy is virtually unknown. The production is pitch-perfect and the musical entente is seriously flawless, but that’s not to say this work is without soul.
Lead-off track Sliver is a raging cauldron of new metal punishment that squashes the controlled fury of upstarts like Evanescence, whilst _Hundred Mile Stare _and The Killer elevate the ’Rÿche back onto the progmetal throne big-time. _Middle Of Hell _and Man Down! are seriously illin’ slabs of adrenalin-fuelled mayhem. Best track? It would take a brave man to utter words of such impudence, but if a gun were placed to my head I’d nominate If I Were King, a seething masterpiece of controlled technical ecstasy.
Hats of then to the ’Rÿche, and all who now sail in her, for delivering what is arguably their greatest work. Who would have thought that, twenty years and counting after O:M landed on our now obsolete turntables (yes, in that era!), we would be trumpeting the same band, playing the same quality of music, with the same enthusiasm. An essential purchase, make no mistake.