Queensryche - Promised land
Queensryche - Promised Land

RAW #163, November 1994

Mind over Metal!

QUEENSRYCHE were selling millions of albums when Pearl Jam were just out of nappies, but after four barren years, they've become Seattle's Other Band. Can their blistering Precision Metal still cut it? MARK GREENWAY gets nasty with GEOFF TATE...

THEY'VE BEEN tagged the thinking man's Heavy Metal band, yet when they began, over a decade ago in Seattle, Queensryche wore the usual back leather and made spectacularly bad videos for songs like 'Queen Of The Reich'. The quintet would eventually string together an enviable succession of releases that would cement their cerebral approach and establish them as one of the world's biggest bands.

Their fifth and latest endeavour is 'Promised Land', an album of heady, multi layered melodies which proves that Geoff Tate's soaring vocal pitch is still in full working order. A dark sense of foreboding hangs on almost every chord. There seems to be just one thing lacking: guitars. Like the ones that tore your face off on the band's legendary 1988 concept album 'Operation:Mindcrime', and poured concrete into the mould of '90's 'Empire'. With the exception of 'Damaged's cavalcade of riffage and a couple of other notables, the new album almost floats away on a breeze of acoustics. But although 'Promised Land' was conceived and recorded in the unlikely setting of an isolated log cabin in the San Juan Islands (off the coast of Washington State), Tate denies that the surroundings soothed the beast within.

"It actually allowed us to focus more intensely on the project because there weren't any distractions," he says. "When you have that peaceful environment, you tend to be less observational about what's going on around you and instead you look within. That was the album's lyrical theme, so we thought it beneficial to adopt that atmosphere. That was the determining aspect about the log cabin. Plus it was big enough to house us all and it had this great pub!". So, no distractions then, Geoff?! "Oh, I wouldn't call that a distraction," he says with an ale-loving smirk.

Chris DeGarmo

GOING BACK to the album, did the band consciously decide to stray from the heavy side of the tracks? "Well, you may only equate heaviness with chunka-chunka guitars and rapid tempos, but that's separate to our definition," explains Tate. "We've explored the obvious intensities for years now, and there's so many other areas to discover." "That applies to instrumentation, too," proffers drummer Scott Rockenfield. "Aside from the cellos and sitars that Chris (DeGarmo, guitarist) played on this album, we got into percussive experimentation with instruments that weren't strictly musical! Things like wine bottles filled with different liquids and garbage cans set out on the edge of a cliff ....the sort of stuff you can't do in a studio on the clock when you're paying two thousand dollars a day. If it doesn't work you can just go, 'Hey, cool, let's try something else'."

These wide-open, creative approaches go some way to dispelling accusations that Queensryche are heading for the doldrums into the arena of offensive lounge Rock. "We haven't changed in terms of our basic values, more so in the sense of exterior stuff," parries Tate. "One thing that I'm sure everyone's aware of is that when you sell records you become incredibly wealthy. Because of that I've sort of become everything I used to hate about other people. How do you live with that? How do you face looking in the mirror every day thinking, 'Shit! Now I'm one of those f**king rich people who were always behind the mess that everything was in!'. What do you do when you have everything you ever dreamed of?"

Geoff Tate and Chris DeGarmo

WELL, YOU could start by unloading some unwanted dosh in my direction, mate! But I digress. It's been four years since the multi-Platinum 'Empire'. One wonders whether the processed strains of 'Promised Land' will fall upon ears that now prefer more pogo power per pound? "We never try to contemplate what we have to do to appease a mass audience. It's hard to say whether people will like it or not," shrugs Rockenfield, as though the question has never occurred to him. "Neither do we get stressed out about re-establishing ourselves. All we do is write music play it live and if people like it, fair enough," adds the besuited Tate. We've all heard such comments from a thousand young upstarts, but they're rare from people who have brushed up against superstardom. Are there no concerns at all of becoming the Band That Time Forgot? "We're fortunate because a good proportion of our fan base have been with us for years, and it's given us the freedom to do whatever we've wanted from one record to the next. Of course, it's hard to say whether they'll enjoy what we're doing now, but hopefully they'll stick with us."

Music aside, Queensryche have undergone several changes on the visual front - these days they're looking positively bedraggled compared to the glitzy - some said ridiculous! - costume era that accompanied 1985's 'Rage for Order'. Why are they looking so scruffy?! "It comes with a slow understanding of becoming comfortable with who you are," explains Tate. "I'm an incredibly insecure person because I grew up in a family that criticized me for everything I tried to do. When I was younger it was very easy for me to hide behind the mask of an exterior image - be it a hairstyle or a fashion sense." Scott: "Which is why it would be internal suicide to turn back the clocks and try to create another 'Empire', despite the success."

Such talk of backpedaling brings us to the rumours which had suggested 'Promised Land' might have been 'Operation:Mindcrime Part II'. Six years down the line, the original is still viewed as the quintessential 'Ryche. Is this flattering or frustrating when trying to push new material? "Believe it or not, there are still people who tell me 'Queen Of The Reich' ( the band's very first self-financed EP back in '83!) is the best thing we ever did," splutters Tate. "I used to think, 'C'mon, what we're doing now is more intense'. Then I learnt to appreciate that something I've been involved in has touched people significantly. Even if they never appreciate what I'm doing now, they'll always think that'... Mindcrime' was incredible, so I'm glad."

PART OF the appeal of '...Mindcrime' was the Orwell mind-control story behind it. This theme also runs through 'Promised Land', but it's taken from a personal perspective with deep, and sometimes confusing excursions into pity and hopelessness. So what, quite literally, is the story, Geoff? "It's a kind of psychological analysis of what it's like to be born and raised in a family, and what sort of input shapes your being. It's determined by upbringing, the cities in which we live, peer pressure and the media. If we were removed from our parents and forced to live in the jungle, we'd mimic the animals and become a product of the environment." So the album could've been more adequately titled, 'Everything You Need To Know About Life Itself, And How To Live It'?! "Maybe," Tate chuckles. "But it also refers to this whole American Dream ideal that success equals happiness. Everything about our society is based upon consumerism and selling. Having that as the main reason to exist seems so shallow." A commendable attitude. But isn't Queensryche's own commercial success privy to that chain? Tate nods. "I'm not implying that Queensryche are above and beyond anything. We're a part of it, along with anyone who buys into the myth that capitalism is the best thing there is."

"We kind of lived the record before we wrote it," Rockenfield continues. "In a way we are a part of the system, and we did achieve success. But is it necessarily success that will provide us with the ultimate happiness?"

This brutally honest self-analysis comes in a handy cellophane-wrapped, 48 minute long, audio companion. But how will the band follow that revelation next time around? Geoff and Scott lapse into brief, contemplative silence. "Y'know what? It could be time for Operation Mindcrime II'!"