In my opinion, Promised Land is not just my favorite Queensryche albums but one of the most brilliant albums ever made in my opinion. While I will be talking about that album in a future article and while I have always been very open about my love for that album, one of things I have never really talked about on my site is my love for its predecessor, the album entitled Empire. For the past 20 something years I have found myself defending this album quite a bit. Up to this point Queensryche was pretty much a cult band. They made a moderate sound with their debut EP and Warning in the US but in Japan and Europe they were quickly turning heads. Queensryche began to turn a few more heads here in the states with the release of Rage for Order but it was their magnum opus, the conceptual album Operation: Mindcrime that would finally garner them some critical acclaim and earn them some new fans.
Their 1988 masterpiece Operation: Mindcrime pretty much flew below everybody’s radar until the band started releasing videos. “I Don’t Believe In Love”, “Eyes of a Stranger”, and “Revolution Calling” would find Queensryche being featured regularly on MTV and even and the music for “Speak” used as the intro music to MTVs metal hour show, the Hard 60 (later to be condensed to the Hard 30). Queensryche toured with everyone from Ratt to Def Leppard which exposed them to the masses but even then the band still hadn’t really broken big in the states. Even with their new level of notoriety, up to this point, Queensryche was pretty much a buzz band. All of that would change in 1990.
As of 1990, I had already been a Queensryche fan for a few years. I first fell in love with them after seeing them open for Ratt in 1987 on their Rage for Order tour and they were a band that I was really excited about. When the first video/single for the song “Empire” was released, I remember being so blown away by the song. It sounded so different from the Operation: Mindcrime album and even as a 16 year old metal fan I was very much aware of their pretty drastic shift in gears. I knew I loved the song but I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about the rest of the album. I anxiously awaited its release date and I was there to buy it at Turtles Records and Tapes the day of its release.
I managed to talk my dad into fronting me an early birthday present buy purchasing this cassette for me. On August 20, 1990, I walked into Turtles and picked up the cassette (CDs were way too expensive) and took it home. Happy Birthday to me. I ripped the cellophane off of the cassette, popped it into my stereo, put my headphones on and lay on my bed. The sound of keyboards steadily swelled in my ears and went right into the opening track, “Best I Can” and immediately I felt it. I was so blown away by the dramatic shift that Queensryche had taken and I loved the journey.
Song after song I was completely mesmerized. Each song seemed so different from the one before it. I was also so blown away by the lyrical content of this album. In the past, Queensryche was a band that was kind of like Pink Floyd in the sense that there was a certain level of anonymity to their songs. They were very much stories (or in the case of Operation: Mindcrime, one long fucking epic narrative) and there was very little that let you know anything about the people who were writing the songs.
With Empire, I feel like that wall was completely ripped down and as a fan I really got to hear what it was that made these guys tick and what it was that made up these amazingly talented individuals. From the outside looking in, Empire may look like a band that dipped their toes into trying to make a commercially acceptable and very successful album. While this may be true, to think that this is all it was is to underestimate the ingeniousness of Queensryche. I spent some time watching interviews with Geoff Tate and Chris Degarmo from 2002 and it was really fascinating to hear them talk about Empire with so much pride.
In a nutshell, DeGarmo stated that up to this point, Queensryche had immersed themselves in thematic aspects of songwriting. As artists, he and Tate both felt the need to step away from that aspect of writing and bring in a more personally connected aspect of songwriting and on Empire, they fucking nailed it.
There are so many things that I got out of the songs from Empire and I also loved that each and in each and every song I could find my own interpretation. Queensryche didn’t put to rest completely their political ideals as “Empire” is every bit as thematic and conceptual as anything on Operation: Mindcrime. The message of positivity in “Best I Can”, the voyeuristic view into sexuality via “The Thin Line”, and the semi-autobiographical story of love, “Hand on Heart”. Even as played out as it may be, “Silent Lucidity” still brings me to tears. It’s such a simple, timeless song. Geoff Tate states that “Silent Lucidity” is, “timeless. It has a human message and no matter what age you are, where you’re at in your life, or what date it is, it’s a song that is still going to connect with people.”
From 1990-1992 the band was touring behind this album playing sold out arenas all over the world and by the release of its final single, “Anybody Listening?” in 1992, Empire had sold 3 million records in the US alone. Every Queensryche fan I knew loved this album and this album also brought in a whole new wave of fans that may have never even really known much of the band outside of the single “Empire.” The album went on to spawn five charting singles, “Empire”, “Best I Can”, “Silent Lucidity”, “Another Rainy Night (Without You)”, and “Anybody Listening?” but 27 years later, Empire as an album finds itself under a degree of scrutiny from fans.
The criticisms of this album run the gamut. I’ve heard everything from, “It doesn’t stand the test of time” to “I loved it as a kid but as I got older I liked it less and less.” Neither of these statements was I able to even remotely agree with. There are plenty of albums from this era that I listen to today and I think, “Wow, that doesn’t sound as remotely good as I remembered it” but Empire is definitely not one of those albums.
While writing this editorial, I listened to Empire a total of 8 times from start to finish. I kid you not and guess what? Not only did I enjoy it every time but with each passing time I found myself hearing things and connecting to things that I hadn’t before. If anything, my biggest conclusion and opinion was that “Empire” was by far my least favorite song on the album. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fucking amazing song but it just didn’t capture me or move me like the other ones did.
So you thought this article was long? Oh I have only begun. What follows now is my track by track take on the album Empire.
Best I Can
What a fantastic opening. The haunting keyboards, the eerie kid’s voice (nothing is creepier than a kid singing in the first place), and Tate’s naked vocal intro before the band kicks into this positive, optimistic anthem makes for a stellar album opener. It’s catchy, it’s fun, but it’s also very smart and musically inventive. The keyboards tend to annoy people but I love the depth that it adds. It’s such a subtle thing but effective. The lyrics are so strong yet simple at attainable. Queensryche still manages to set themselves ahead of the pack lyrically even by simplifying their own strategy toward writing lyrics.
The Thin Line
“Another hungry look in her eyes again
Pacing the floor
The hunt begins
Skin-tight leather provides my pleasure
Wake my fear, surge with the pressure
Walk away and leave forever, do I dare?”
Laugh all you want but this has to be one of the fucking sexiest songs ever written. It’s like the metal version of Sade. It’s almost like this is what the Scorpions would sound like if they were a bit more lyrically smart. This particular song offers the listener a voyeuristic look into the life of who? DeGarmo? Tate? Who knows but either way, this song offers a bit of transparency and lets the listener in on the private fantasies and life of whoever wrote it. Is it real or is it a product of Queensryche testing the boundaries of their fans? Either way, it’s a stellar fucking song. It’s dark, it’s sexy, it’s perverse, and it’s all the things that Queensryche only hinted at in the past put right out on the line for all to see.
Jet City Woman
That opening bass line. There aren’t too many songs that I can think of that actually start off with an opening bass riff that is as memorable as a guitar riff. “Ace of Spades” maybe? “Psycho Love” by Skid Row? Either way, this particular song kicks off with Eddie Jackson’s bass riff that would trigger roars of applause for years to come and this song is quite spectacular. I love the layers of subtle melodic guitars and DeGarmo’s guitar solo is absolutely outstanding. He is without a doubt one of my all time favorite guitarists. He’s so innovative and full of feel in his playing. For a “hit”, this song really delivers.
On this song, drummer Scott Rockenfield’s performance really stands out to me as some of his finest playing. For being such a busy, hard hitting player, his ability to reel it in and all of this subtle changes in signature really blow me away. This is one of those songs were I feel like the drummer really carries the lead on this song. At this point in their career, I also have to say that this is probably my favorite Geoff Tate vocal performance. His voice is so emotive and versatile and it really draws me in to the story. The story behind this song is one that I discussed with Geoff Tate (interview coming soon) and after hearing the story I found myself even more drawn into the beautifully sad song. The closing part of this song is also one of my favorite musical moments on the album. I could listen to that go on and on for much longer than it does.
Another Rainy Night (Without You)
Much like with “Jet City Woman”, this song opens with a very memorable riff showcasing the dual guitar magic of Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton. While not my favorite of the singles, this song once again had me wondering if this was autobiographical or just touching upon a subject. Singing songs about love, love tried, and sexuality is all aspects of past Queensryche but never until this album were they so transparent and almost obvious. Lyrically, once again, Queensryche has this way of taking the most simple of topics and making an interesting and at times poetic song. I think that this is a pretty fucking cool thing for a band who for so long shrouded themselves in mystery and now are showing that they are flesh, blood, heart, and soul just like the rest of us; men capable of feeling all of the emotions that we feel only now they are finally taking the opportunity to address them.
“I’m sorry. It’s um, starting to hit me like a, um, two ton heavy thing.” The voice message left by keyboardist Randy Gane kicks off this song. What the fuck is that all about? One of these days I’m going to ask Geoff Tate about that one. This song is one of the two songs that sound the most like Operation: Mindcrime era Queensryche both musically and lyrically. This song was definitely a product on what was going on in our world. The youth of American seemed to be rising to the headlines with struggles of gang/drug violence while also being tied up in the Gulf War at the time. This song definitely has a timelessness to it that very much rings true from generation to generation.
It’s crazy to me that these two songs, back to back both thematically and musically both sound like they could’ve been on Operation: Mindcrime. “Resistance” is a powerful fucking song and one of the musically strongest songs on the album. By strong I mean heavy and impacting. As a matter of fact, the band thought so as well since they chose this one to be the opening song on their Building Empires tour. “Breathe deep before it’s too late. The sky is falling, burning your eyes.” This is another fine time capsule that pretty much sums up all that was wrong with the world at that time and guess what? STILL IS! This song never gets old and I stand by the fact that it’s one of the all time greatest show openers. This song is strong, unforgiving, smart, and in your face. This is Bono minus the pompousness and lame ass voice.
No matter how over played this song may have been this is a great example of a truly timeless song. I know, I know. If I have to hear “They stole that from Pink Floyd” one more goddamn time I’m going to kick Todd LaTorre in the face. Never mind. Say it again a few more times. Anyways, this is a truly gorgeous song and I just love the pure, simple beauty of it. The incredible orchestration in the song by Michael Kamen took this song to soaring heights and it was such a huge element of this song and its overall vibe. “Silent Lucidity” is a song that to this day still makes me teary because it triggers memories of my father who loved this song. Geoff Tate says in an interview, “A song like “Silent Lucidity” is timeless. It has a real human message to it that no matter what age you are, where you’re at in life, or what date or what the date is, it’s a song that will always connect with people.” I don’t think I could say any more than that.
Hand on Heart
I love this song. I also love that no matter what these guys there is always that signature guitar sound that is unmistakably Queensryche. This is probably the simplest of songs lyrically on this album and honestly, I love it. It’s a really pretty remarkable love song without being a full on sappy ballad. The bridge leading up to the chorus and the chorus itself are easily a couple of my all time favorite Queensryche moments. That fact that even if they wanted to cheese it up a bit yet they could still pull it off and kick ass doing it just makes me love them even more for it.
One and Only
This son is easily the only real weak song on this album. With that being said, it doesn’t suck. It’s just a song that is listenable, super un-insulting, yet completely forgettable. This song almost sounds like a total filler track in that if you shaved this one off, you’d have an extremely solid 10 song album. Again, I didn’t hate it by a long shot and it’s far better that most band’s best song but in this collection, “One and Only” just didn’t measure up to the others on this album.
Sigh. This song… What can I even begin to say about this song. Not only is it hands down one of Queensryche’s most shining moments, it also serves as one of the single greatest album closers of all time in my book. This is without a doubt one of those songs that cannot be described in word. You just have to hear it to understand what I mean. It’s absolutely stunning. It is one of the most mind blowing exercises in dynamics. The slow mellow beginning, the steady swell to this climatic guitar solo only to be cut completely free to just float… Have you ever heard a song that makes you feel like you are absolutely weightless and immersed in the visuals of ever word sung from start to finish? Well, this is one of those songs. Wow. What a way to go out.
After writing this piece, Empire proved to be a far more important album to me than I even remembered. Going back and re-visiting this album nearly 27 years later is akin to reconnecting with an old friend only to find that your connection now is stronger than it ever was in the beginning. Empire is very much a great friend that has found a new, lasting part in my heart and it’s an album that I feel will only grow stronger and more connected to me as the years pass.