I’ve become a tiny bit gun-shy when it comes to albums talking about the American military and American politics, mostly because they tend to either be saying the wrong things or the right things but in a totally idiotic manner. As a guitar teacher I was naturally exposed heavily to the mainstream Pop/Punk abomination that was GREEN DAY’s “American Idiot”. While I didn’t particularly disagree with the message this album carried, the delivery was utterly pedestrian, the lyrics were blithering buffoonery at best, and the music brought a whole new meaning to the term vapid. Since this time there have been many similar musical offerings of minimal quality, to the point that by now the concept has gone well beyond cliché.
QUEENSRYCHE sort of holds an odd place in this day and age where failing at making a valid point musically is seen as profitable. They have a rich history of musical offerings that display a masterfully Orwellian skepticism towards authoritarianism, from the Sci-Fi parables of future dictatorships and environmental destruction on “The Warning” to the overt political messages carried in their epic concept album “Operation: Mindcrime”. Opinions vary on later material, but I personally saw most of their 90s releases as hit or miss, though still carrying a level of respectability even when falling short of their potential. Part of their musical deterioration could be blamed on the loss of Chris DeGarmo, who wrote many of their signature riffs, but not even that could account for where the band now finds themselves.
“American Soldier” is an utter joke musically, there’s absolutely no getting around it, even with the most potent of mind altering drugs. Not in the plodding dregs of PEARL JAM’s “Vitalogy”, the decrepit mess of NIRVANA’s “In Utero”, or even the god awful drivel heard on ANTHRAX’s “We’ve Come For You All” have I ever felt this level of sheer boredom. This whole album might as well be playing over a drum loop at a singular tempo it is so woefully one dimensional rhythmically. Matters are made worse by Geoff Tate overcompensating for a lack of interesting musical ideas by layering vocal tracks and spoken lines over each other like there is no tomorrow, making finding any kind of discernable melody difficult to locate. It is essentially the worst of both worlds, hypnotic drones with no depth to speak of are combined with meandering melodies that wander on in search of just one good hook, never coming up with anything but a trail of sung notes that are impossible to recall.
It’s difficult to pick on just one song because essentially everything on here has all of the same problems. One thing to note is that certain songs such as “If I Were King” and “Unafraid” are particularly annoying because of all the damned spoken parts, which basically makes Dave Mustaine’s ranting seem laconic in comparison. There’s also the really annoying chugging at the beginning of “Man Down”, which essentially sounds like a bad outtake from “Sound Of White Noise”. The riff work in general is very mid-90s ANTHRAX sounding, which means loaded with uninteresting Groove work that will cure insomnia faster than a gallon of warm milk. The lead guitar work makes no real attempt at being memorable, it just attempts to mimic the old classic QUEENSRYCHE sound heard on “Mindcrime” while being completely unsure of where it is going.
There is nothing really Progressive or Metal about this release, as it mostly hearkens back to their late 90s Grunge material, but without any of the sensibility for memorable songwriting. The only thing positive that I could say about this release is that Geoff Tate does do a good technical job with his vocals. He has been catching a fair amount of flak for having no voice anymore, but he does seem capable of being a forbidding presence when he feels like it. His vocal work on here is extremely subdued compared to 80s releases, but slightly adventurous compared to the low pitched and smaller ranged vocal work done in the 1990s. Unfortunately it is all for naught since this album is utterly terrible.
The final thing that really bothers me about this album is that, in spite of the revulsion towards the concept of war that it inspires in the events it depicts, the intention of this album is a tiny bit ambiguous. It’s unclear whether Tate and company are taking a “support the troops” or a “support the mission” approach to things, but if it is the latter, it speaks a lot for how far this band has drifted from what they used to be. I’m all for waving the good old American flag when there is a just cause behind it, but the only cause that is just on an album is quality music, and there is none to be found on here.
(Online May 25, 2009)