Queensryche was progressive heavy metal before there was any such thing as progressive metal. Based out of Bellevue, WA, they got together in the early 80s. Perhaps they would’ve belonged completely to the L.A.-based metal explosion, but they rapidly evolved beyond that scene in at least a couple of ways. They laced multiform tune structures together, borrowing from the Canadian band Rush, and they also took a page from the British group Iron Maiden to use social and historic topics for their subject material. They were, at least arguably, the very first American band to do so. Certainly, they took it well past their “hair band” contemporaries, and in the process, made it cool to be both a brainiac and a headbanger at the same time.
Queensryche attained their primary roster very early and would keep it until 1997 when their fortunes waned. Until then they featured Geoff Tate as the lead vocalist. Tate’s range was a stunning four octaves, and he could hold vibrato for an entire lunch break. Michael Wilton and Chris Degarmo alternated lead guitars, advancing on line like infantry troops, while Eddie Jackson strummed a pillar-rattling base. Finally, there was Scott Rockenfield at drums, with the rapid-fire skill to handle most any track.
# 10 – Someone Else – Promised Land, 1994
Promised Land was Queensryche’s sixth album. They were still coasting to some degree on the popularity wave of Operation: Mindcrime and Empire, but they were starting to burn out due to heavy supporting tour schedules. Promised Land came out to decent acclaim; in fact it latched #3 on the U.S. overall charts, the highest of any Queensryche album. But heavy metal as a genre was starting to eat dust from the grunge explosion… which ironically got its start in Seattle, the immediate neighbor to Queensryche’s home of Bellevue.
Promised Land took a sharply divergent path from earlier releases. Some critics have called it more somber, others simply considered it more introspective and subtle. Certainly the range of subject material got wider even by the band’s own standards. They investigated topics like a father’s disconnect with his son (“Bridge”), a wish to have done more in one’s past (“One More Time Around”), and learning about international crises in the information age (“My Global Mind”). Their musical style also switched around to become a little softer, with more predominance of clean and acoustic riffs. Some of their material stayed with common elements from earlier records, such as internal challenges and personal growth.
Starting out the Top 10 Queensryche Songs list is the track “Someone Else,” which depicts a character who is at a fork in his road. He can internalize the perception others have had of him, or he can forge his own future. Either way he will have to leave some aspect of him behind. The song itself is a wistful and lovely piece played on minimalist piano. But if you like your metal to stay metal, there is also a full band version available on their 1997 compilation album Greatest Hits (or iTunes). In that version Geoff Tate lays down a little sax for us (as he also did in the title track “Promised Land.”) Either version is emotional and moving.
# 9 – Anybody Listening? – Empire, 1990
The aptly named Empire was released at the pinnacle of the group’s fame, securing #7 on the U.S. overall charts. Their previous album Operation: Mindcrime had elevated their notoriety by geometric degrees, so when Empire arrived it was an instant smash. Their instrumentation was at its most elite: glossy and heavy, and their subject material was adapting dramatically. The first real chart-popper, “Silent Lucidity,” came from this record, making #1 on U.S rock ratings.
But a less-exposed nugget is “Anybody Listening?” Similarly to “Someone Else,” this ballad starts off easy and gentle before switching keys and slapping down some rough guitars in the chorus. Now, in their best-known albums Queensryche developed a unique combo with their guitars, and “Anybody Listening?” is the first song on this Top 10 Queensryche Songs list to display it. One guitar takes lower register while the other takes high, at least an octave above, and manages to maintain the note much higher than usual while still retaining full metal distortion.
The result is a splendid synthesis of force and mystique that enchants all who hear, not unlike the chords of a pipe organ. Anybody listening, you ask? We can’t help but listen, are you kidding? Tate carols about the difficulty in experiencing authentic reactions from others, and the ballad is nicely capped by some beachfront sounds from the Northwest Pacific coast.
# 8 – Take Hold of the Flame – The Warning, 1984
This pick is a straight hard rocker from Queensryche’s 2nd album, The Warning. The record was the first one of full studio length, and the group was already demonstrating their advanced capability to concoct a tune. Their production had a way to go, and some of the music was hampered by a slightly coarse tinge. The band later revealed they did not like the finished product because it had been mixed by someone with no experience in hard rock. However, every song on the record is solid and stirring, without any puffery or filler. “Take Hold of the Flame” is one of the best and well deserving of its spot on our Top 10 Queensryche Songs list.
The guitars wail in full metal mode as Tate shrills about overcoming adversity. Most of the songs on this record are about adversity in some form or another: supernatural conflict and spiritual victory. As for Tate, this is one of the earliest songs that showcase his gift before a mike. That man can shatter every window on the block, and holding a flame can be no harder than quelling his voice.
# 7 – I Dream in Infrared – Rage for Order, 1986
1984 was the title of George Orwell’s fictitious glimpse into a society so oppressive and dystopian that the ruling order managed to control thought itself. By the release of Rage for Order in 1986, that iconic date was two years gone, but the threat was still very present in the American mindset, due to the specter of the Soviet Union and the Cold War which had stalked for almost 40 years (though it would crumble in another three.) In addition, some major technological breakthroughs were on the rise, such as the personal home computer. Many minds were concerned that our scientific ability was exceeding our moral capacity, and Queensryche joined that throng.
Rage for Order was their third record. It joined notions of authoritarianism and technology to produce, not exactly a concept album, but one on which most tracks bespoke a pessimism concerning modern science’s ability to influence the human mind and take over the human soul. “I Dream in Infrared” is one such track. Its brilliance is its captivating melody. Once again the pipe organ effect returns, and Tate’s vocals are masterfully harmonized with each other. In this, Rage for Order stepped up substantially from The Warning.
Its sound quality was far more refined. Its tunes and rhythms were much more experimental and layered, and the band introduced keyboards. That last could be a good thing or bad, depending on your preference, but the keyboard use was generally well-timed. What the band did not do was succumb to the eighties trend of dolloping synthesizers all over the place like a quart of syrup. “I Dream in Infrared,” for example, trails off with a nice keyboard trill that reminds one of church bells fading into the distance.
# 6 – Another Rainy Night (Without You) – Empire, 1990
By the time of Empire’s release the band was unquestionably trending mainstream. The record contained a whopping four tracks on a subject never before broached by Queensryche: romance. There were other topics too: a bag lady’s plight (“Della Brown”), or overcoming physical disability (“Best I Can”). This shift wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially because the music itself wasn’t tarnished. Although “Another Rainy Night’s” message of ‘I miss you when you’re gone’ might be better suited to a maudlin country number, the pace offers no compromise.
The mood treads between bitter and sweet, but all throughout it’s laced with iron. The chorus swings up like a roller coaster and gleefully plummets back down the other side, with the fanciful air adding to the ride. Audiences appreciated it, and it took #7 on the U.S. rock charts, just behind “Jet City Woman,” another track from the same album at #6.
# 5 – The Lady Wore Black – Queensryche EP, 1983
The self-titled Queensryche EP was their first commercial release ever. It had only four tracks, and though the quality of this first draft was a little sandy, the music showed enough promise to land a record contract with EMI covering the next 15 years and 7 albums. “The Lady Wore Black” is the last track on the EP, and the first one written by Tate. It begins like a ballad with some clean guitars, but soon bursts into a metal storm with an emotional bridge that causes fists to pump uncontrollably.
The message is about an unknown woman undergoing penance, perhaps voluntarily, and of the singer who would like to escape sharing her fate, but cannot because he has come to love her. After one listen the most pollyannish among us will dye her hair purple, grow it long over one eye… and probably be happier about it. What a great piece for the band’s debut!
# 4 – Breaking the Silence – Operation: Mindcrime, 1988
No more ballads. No song of any kind if it doesn’t seize listeners by the scruff and snatch them away on a cyclonic journey of unfettered drama. We began with “Breaking the Silence” from Operation: Mindcrime. This concept album has made just about every metalhead’s list in one way or another: best heavy metal concept album, best eighties album, or for some, best heavy metal album of all time. Certainly, this is the record that catapulted Queensryche into the big time, and well it should have. The identity of Queensryche’s muse is unknown, but she is an angel of musical inspiration had led the group to write well and true. Every song on the record is intense and poignant, going toward an integrated saga of revolution, assassination, and a doomed “Romeo and Juliet” love affair.
“Breaking the Silence” gives listeners no time to prepare before they are launched from a cannon. Wilton and Degarmo slam out the fretwork in perfect synchronicity, and once more that glorious pipe organ effect surges forth. There is an unusual chord structure in relation to the bass notes and it works stupendously. This piece occurs late in the album’s story, and it is an excellent portrayal of the desperation of our protagonist, Nikki.
# 3 – The Mission – Operation: Mindcrime, 1988
Most every song on the record is a fabulous synthesis of energy and emotion, but “The Mission” is just an edge better than most. The band brings in a string section to help them out, and while the guitars are pounding the strings continue in a sustained lovely peal. Nikki is ruminating on the importance of his assigned assassination errands, but is also beginning to need support and comfort.
“The Mission” is just beautiful, with marvelous vocal arrangements. Jackson’s bass lumbers inexorably like a 30-car freight train. You won’t stop this one, not with a steel wall you won’t.
# 2 –Eyes of a Stranger – Operation: Mindcrime, 1988
This is the last track on Operation: Mindcrime, when our friend Nikki has been captured and accused of murder. Nikki himself doesn’t remember whether he committed the crime, but his best friend and lover is now dead. Music rarely manages this degree of theater. Rockenfield hammers with snare and bass in a fast syncopated beat. Tate leads three verse stanzas, different melodies on each, but always they return to the mesmerizing chorus. Toward the end, as Nikki struggles to make sense of his memories, the song fades into a staggering medley of voices, and one prodigious shout.
When it’s over, the listener doesn’t know whether to applaud, plop down in a daze, or play the whole record 10 more times. The audience longs for more, but at this level of ferocious glory, more is hard to come by. “Eyes of a Stranger” attained #35 in the U.S. overall charts, and #59 in the U.K.
# 1 – Empire – Empire, 1990
Our choice for the Number 1 song on our Queensryche Songs list is the title track from the Empire album. This screamer grabbed #22 on the U.S. rock charts. It is an anthem for archons, and a fierce rebuttal to any who thought it couldn’t get better after Operation: Mindcrime. The tempo is slow but commanding, and the guitars hurl out spine-tingling power riffs. Two-thirds in, the key note shifts, the guitars ease to clean chords, and a recorded voice intones about the woefully state of law enforcement expenditures. And that, my friends, is the tirade for this piece: In 1990 crime in America was getting out of hand.
The record came out as gang-banging and increasingly lethal firepower were starting to hit public awareness. The “empire” was that which streets thugs were building for themselves with growing efficiency. In the song, right after the recorded voice finishes its admonition, Wilton spirals into a shrieking solo as if to punctuate the danger. If you don’t have chills all through when it’s done, better check your pulse.
Heavy metal was often accused of being shallow or brain-dead. While that accusation may have been legit in certain circles, Queensryche was never that band. They were one of the fore-runners of modern progressive metal, giving bands permission to be loud and talented, crazy and precise, forceful and meaningful. (A number of contemporary prog metal gods, like Dream Theater, list Queensryche among their influences.) Metal is meant to combine beauty and power, and Queensryche was at the very top of that game. Let’s take AC/DC’s 21-gun salute and throw it toward, not just those about to rock, but those who did rock as well as Queensryche!
Top 10 Queensryche Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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