Album review: Queensrÿche – American Soldier

QueensrÿcheIs there even a point anymore to comparing new Queensrÿche releases to older ones such as Rage for Order or even Empire?  It seems that to do so is unfair to the band, who clearly don’t care to repeat the past.  And yet that’s what has been happening for more than a decade, and in the process some bitter or resentful fans have missed out on some really good music.  Case in point, the band’s latest offering – American Soldier.

A look at the front and back covers of American Soldier (showing a pair of combat boots and an American flag, respectively) might give pause to some fans – has the same band who railed against war and the American government in the past turned into Toby Keith for the progressive metal set?  Not quite.  As the name implies, this is a theme album about American soldiers – their experiences, their sacrifices, and their hopes.  There’s no real soapbox moments here.

But what about the music?  Queensrÿche usually turns in at least good lyrics most of the time but has been a bit, shall we say, uneven since 1994’s Promised Land.  Well on that account, it’s a pretty strong statement by the boys.  I don’t think there are any instant classics here, but I’ve found myself humming or playing air guitar to some of the new material on more than a few occasions over the last few weeks.

In contrast to earlier releases where the listener is eased into the mood of the material, this album begins jarringly with a drill instructor barking, “On your feet!” as the opening track, “Sliver”, chugs to life.  The whole drill sergeant bit borders on hackneyed as he cries “welcome to the show!” and “I’m gonna tell you what’s up!” during the choruses, and I can sympathize with listeners who roll their eyes, but on the whole I think it’s an effective device.

The second track, “Unafraid”, is the first to feature one of the many interviews lead singer Geoff Tate recorded with actual American war veterans.  In fact the clips take the forefront here, with Tate only supplying the chorus.  The song is heavy on groove and crunch rather than pyrotechnics, which makes its early placement in the running order a little unfortunate.  The same goes for “Hundred Mile Stare”, which recalls some of the band’s moodier work from the ’90s (just more interesting).

By the time we get to “At 30,000 ft.” one of the major flaws of the album becomes obvious – while many of the slower and more brooding songs worked great as change-of-pace tunes on earlier albums, there are just too many of them here.  So while none of the aforementioned tracks are actually bad,it’s not until the dark, Middle-Eastern tinge of “A Dead Man’s Words” that things finally start to get interesting.  The song, told from the points of view of both a soldier injured behind enemy lines and one of his would-be rescuers, is haunting and heavy and stacks up against anything the band has done in a long time.

Queensrÿche - American SoldierThings move along pretty nicely and then get really good on “If I Were King”, the lead single from American Soldier.  It starts off like many of the album’s other songs, but then the deceptively simple and heavy chorus kicks on.  Coupled with a blistering (albeit brief) Michael Wilton solo, it’s proof positive that “modern rock” doesn’t have to be faceless and boring.

“Man Down!” finds Queensrÿche stepping on the gas for one of the precious few times on American Soldier.  This one pretty much has it all – excellent Tate vocals, a soaring chorus, and a propulsive rhythm by drummer Scott Rockenfield and bassist Eddie Jackson (probably the two unsung heroes of this record).  This is pretty much worth the price of admission alone, my friends. And it’s here that, finally, proper sequencing pays off.  Because up next is “Remember Me”, which approaches ballad territory but is a great counterpoint to “Man Down!”.  The chord sequence in the chorus has been in my head for days, a real testament to producer Jason Slater’s songwriting.  Hell, he writes a better Chris DeGarmo song than Chris DeGarmo does anymore.

So now we come to the penultimate track, “Home Again”.  I’ll spoil it a bit and let you know that it’s a duet between Tate and his 10-year-old daughter Emily.  Yeah, I thought it was going to be a total vanity thing and suck all the life out of the album.  But the thing is, it’s actually pretty good.  Tate the dad comes up with a nifty vocal melody, and Tate the daughter delivers it with a sweet sincerity (even with some bum notes) that totally sells it for me.  If you can listen to this duet, played out as a letters written between an overseas soldier and his child, and not feel anything, you should check for a pulse.

The album wraps up with “The Voice”, a straightforward rock number bookended by some eerie atmospheric bits.  I can’t decide if I like it to end the album or not, but today I think it works.

The good – Excellent performances all around, especially by Tate and Wilton (the lone guitarist in the band after the departure of Mike Stone).  The production, by Slater and Kelly Gray, is punchy and warm at the same time.  Rather than trying to artificially recreate a mood like the band did for Operation: Mindcrime II, they embrace their current status as a cerebral hard rock band.  More than a few songs (“A Dead Man’s Words”, “Man Down!”, “Remember Me”, and “Unafraid”) stack up against anything the band has done since Promised Land.

The bad – Unfortunate sequencing, and simply a few too many mid-tempo numbers.  I’m all for establishing a mood and atmosphere, but Queensrÿche is always at their best with a healthy balance of hard-driving and slower songs.  The album is also light on memorable melodies, a few songs excepted.

The verdict – If you’re one of the many fans of the ‘Rÿche who pine for the old days, you’ll probably be disappointed by American Soldier.  On the other hand, if you (like me) accept what the band is now, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

Track listing:
01. “Sliver”
02. “Unafraid”
03. “Hundred Mile Stare”
04. “At 30,000 ft.”
05. “A Dead Man’s Words”
06. “The Killer”
07. “Middle of Hell”
08. “If I Were King”
09. “Man Down!”
10. “Remember Me”
11. “Home Again”
12. “The Voice”

Watch the video for “If I Were King” –

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