Queensrÿche - The Verdict - (9/10)
Published on March 14, 2019
Twelve jurors can’t be wrong.
Being a trailblazer means never remaining in the same place for more than just a passing glance to take in one’s surroundings, often throwing caution to the wind and potentially getting lost in uncharted lands. While metal would indeed wither and die without innovation, there is something to be said for the multiplicity of iconic bands that had an impressive early run, only to frantically embark upon further stylistic development until they were all but unrecognizable to their early following. Such was the state that the Seattle-based power/prog pioneer outfit Queensryche fell into following the close of the 80s, continually trying to adapt to an ephemeral rock radio mainstream to the point that hardly a soul recognized them when 1997’s Hear In The Now Frontier came out in all of its post-grunge glory, to speak nothing for the confused mess that defined their material after principle songwriter and co-founder Chris DeGarmo opted for retirement. To say that a shakeup was the only thing that could resurrect this once mighty powerhouse was an understatement, and things began to look up immediately following the ejection of Geoff Tate and the introduction of current singer and sound-alike Todd La Torre, culminating in a new masterpiece of an offering in 2015’s second outing with him at the helm Condition Human.
It would be an understatement to suggest that the long awaited follow up The Verdict had some high expectations to overcome, and while the road taken here is a bit different, it comes fairly close to recapturing that same revitalized spirit. In contrast to the brilliant yet overt throwback to the late 80s sound of its predecessor, this time around the approach has a decidedly modern flavor that is a bit more reminiscent of the dense atmospheric character of Promised Land with maybe a few blatant nods to Empire thrown in to add a stronger familiarity to things for those still hungry for more of this band’s glory days. Consequently the songs tend to be more compact and almost uniformly mid-paced, though also rhythmically elaborate and possessing enough moving parts to avoid the monotony that sadly plagued much of this band’s early 90s output. This time around Scott Rockenfield opted out of involvement in the recording process, which gave vocalist La Torre the rare honor of also handling drum duties in addition to embodying all of the strong points of Geoff Tate’s younger years vocally, and his kit work is more than adequate in shaping that same classic sound that graced Empire. Truth be told, the whole band makes a strong showing in spite of the more simplified format, with Michael Wilton and Parker Lundgren putting on a guitar display worthy of the former’s longtime partnership with DeGarmo.
If there is a singular sentiment that ties this collection of melancholy anthems and brooding protests, it would be that of cynicism. It doesn’t quite reach the same sort of fatalistic woe that painted the Orwellian nightmare that was Operation: Mindcrime‘s plot, but there is definitely a similar vibe of a lone protester flying the flags of discontent before an uncaring power structure. Sometimes the objection takes the form of a specific political issue, as underscored in the punchy grooves and infectious hooks of the opening protest against the ongoing chaos in Syria that is “Blood Of The Levant”, which almost listens like a darker, heavier reflection of the catchy air that hanged over “Resistance”. Still at others, the harder fringe of this album’s generally nuanced sound takes on a more generalized objection is raised against the entire political system, as embodied in “Man The Machine” and the almost thrashing “Propaganda Fashion”. When things move away from impact-based progressive metallic force into more ballad-based territory, the optimistic philosophical pursuits of past hits like “Silent Lucidity” are foregone for bleaker territory in the occasionally subdued, occasionally thudding ode to personal struggle “Dark Reverie” and it’s somewhat more subdued and consistently atmospheric cousin “Portrait”.
The greatest selling point of this album, and to an extent the entire La Torre-fronted incarnation of this band, is that it doesn’t dwell upon the past as much as it seeks to learn from it. Though the commonalities that this album shares with Queensryche’s early 90s era are about as overt as Condition Human‘s were with their late 80s sound, this album also shares the aforementioned album’s approach of showcasing where that sound could have led on a followup rather that being just a full on throwback. The heavy-ended guitar sound and general degree of crispness and clarity in the whole arrangement has a very present-centered character, being maybe just a tad lighter than where bands like Ghost Ship Octavius and Witherfall have been going of late, but nevertheless capable of occupying the same modern paradigm. To put it a bit bluntly, it goes the opposite road that this band’s former front man Geoff Tate has been going of late by remembering to keep the metal part of the equation front and center rather than sacrifice it in the name of experimentation. It may not quite reach the same level of sheer glory that was all over the early classics from the 80s, but it definitely presents a scenario where those albums were followed with a worthy successor, all but erasing the past mistakes that hounded this band for the better part of two decades while still moving the ball forward.