The late ’90s were not kind to Queensrÿche. 1990’s Empire was a commercial juggernaut, selling more than 3 million copies in the U.S. The followup, 1994’s Promised Land, was a strong artistic statement and sold well in its own right. Enter March 1997 and the release of Hear in the Now Frontier, Queensrÿche’s sixth full-length studio album. The album failed to earn Gold status in the U.S. and plummeted off the charts after debuting at #19. To make matters worse, the group’s record label – EMI America – went bankrupt soon after the album’s release. The band was forced to finance their own tour, which simply stopped after just two months.
By the end of the year, guitarist and key songwriter Chris DeGarmo left Queensrÿche after a roughly 17-year stay. Thus began Queensrÿche’s time in the desert, where they pretty much stayed until the release of Operation: Mindcrime II last year. But what about the album that started the slide? What is it about Hear in the Now Frontier that seems to polarize ‘Ryche fans to this day?
The obvious bone of contention for most is the production itself. After years of building up a loyal prog metal fanbase, the band shifted gears for HITNF and became grunge-ified. Toby Wright, who produced Alice in Chains’ self-titled 1995 album, was brought on board for this effort. The result is a sound that is more dry and stripped down than anything the band had ever released. The wall of guitar, drums, and vocals that had become synonymous with Queensrÿche was gone, replaced by a much more immediate and less powerful style.
Just over a decade later, the change is still pretty jarring to my ears. Even though no two ‘Ryche albums prior to HITNF were the same, they all had a similar style and feel. The only thing that truly marks this as a Queensrÿche effort are Geoff Tate’s vocals, and even they are more restrained than ever. So your enjoyment of HITNF pretty much hinges upon whether or not you can look past this completely different musical approach.
But what about the songs? Actually, I think a lot of this material is a lot stronger than I used to. The opening cut, “Sign of the Times,” isn’t a terribly gripping number to start an album, but it’s a very good tune in the vein of “Last Time in Paris” (I can’t take credit for that comparison, though, that’s from the allmusic.com review of this record). “The Voice Inside,” which the band played to open the concerts on the HITNF tour if memory serves, is absolutely my favorite song on the album. It’s one time where the ‘less is more’ approach used on this album is a real benefit. The wrenching slide guitar work by DeGarmo – particularly the solo – is the icing on the cake here.
For the most part, the slower and moodier numbers are the best (“Hero”, “The Voice Inside”), while some of the harder numbers (“Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Get a Life”) are a bit pedestrian. There are exceptions however – the laid back “Some People Fly” and “Miles Away” are a couple of snoozers, while “You” is one of the most satisfying uptempo songs on the album. I hesitate to even mention “All I Want,” Chris DeGarmo’s lead vocal debut. That became an instant skip and was likely only included to appease him.
Following some weak track, the album winds to a close with a pair of really heavy songs (“Hit the Black” and “Anytime/Anywhere”) that are excellent but seem really out of place on HITNF, this reducing their impact. Only on the album’s 14th and final song, “spOOL,” does the old Queensrÿche make an appearance. It’s a dense and moody piece that would’ve been right at home on the phenomenal Promised Land.
So for those who want to give Hear in the Now Frontier another shot, my advice is this – ignore the dud tracks and imagine what the good ones would’ve sounded like had they gotten the traditional Queensrÿche treatment. With that approach, it turns out the New Frontier wasn’t so bad after all.