I could be rightly labeled an optimistic fool when it comes to QUEENSRCHE, so much so that I find myself wanting them to sound good when I know for a fact that the album art has rightly depicted yet another experiment gone grotesque. Perhaps what was ultimately needed was a complete shakeup of the entire concept of this band, and damned if one didn't just explode with the fury of a thousand suns with Geoff Tate's extremely auspicious and arguably embarrassing ejection from the fold. After all, Tate isn't the sort of helmsman that can just be replaced...or is he? While many apt emulators from Michael Kiske to Nils K. Rue have come on the scene since QUEENSRCHE became a household name, none of them have been a perfect clone of Tate's rather smooth to the point of debonair delivery, but the Metal winds seem to have been blowing a bit differently of late.
While all that makes this band is not found in the vocalist, most of it is, and this band could not have found a more adequate replacement in Todd La Torre. This man is not merely a stand-in, but an outright replacement in the clearest sense, perfectly imitating Tate's inflections and occasionally one-upping the youngest incarnation of him circa "The Warning" with a slightly more nasal yet extremely powerful high range. It might not be fair to compare a younger voice to the aging and weathered pipes of Tate at present, but at the same time, the stellar performance found on here all but erases the unnecessary stylistic detours that began to ensue on "Empire". At certain points he shines more brightly than other, but any song features an extravaganza of high soaring majesty, from the gymnastics heard on "Vindication" to the dark, deep wails of "A World Without".
Be all this as it may, another nagging question comes into the equation, which is did QUEENSRCHE just change out a vocalist and put out another crappy Pop/Rock album like "Q2K" or "Dedicated To Chaos", let alone an anti-musical nightmare like "American Soldier"? Thankfully the answer is a resounding no, though those who are expecting the incredible album that "Empire" could have been had it continued the glorious tradition set by this band in the 80s will feel shorted a bit here. In essence, this album listens the way their early 90s material would have listened if the commercial pandering and experimentation that underscored their 1990 LP were gradually introduced alongside a strong remnant of the band's older sound. Nothing on here comes off as overtly terrible from a songwriting perspective and there is no annoying "Della Brown" to crowd out nearly 8 minutes of the album's duration, but nothing really quite recaptures the 80s period in its entirety.
Don't get me wrong, there are some rock solid songs on here that occasionally veer into territory resembling "Rage For Order", and the album itself does have a slight digital feel to it given the extremely massive production sound and atmospheric detailing. The riff work is occasionally animated and Metallic, as heard on the intro of "Where Dreams Go To Die", which otherwise has a lot of balladic elements. At times the whole arrangement gets moving to the rate of becoming actual Power Metal as on "Don't Look Back", which seems to be trying to be "The Needle Lies" but doesn't quite come off as edgy or catchy, though it's definitely hard and heavy. That's really the general feel of this album, be it down tempo groove anthems like "Redemption" or atmospheric half-ballads like "Open Road", everything is sufficiently good sounding and well executed, but seems to be falling short of outright glory.
This is the first Metal album that QUEENSRCHE has put out since "Operation: Mindcrime", and it is definitely a good one by any reasonable standard. In many ways, this is the album that both "Empire" and "Promised Land" should have been, and while the songs are mercifully shorter and to the point (as is the album, interestingly enough), they do tend to resemble the sort of arena anthem feel that those albums took on, though with a noticeably harder edge that can be recognized as a 2013 release. Intense drama can sometimes yield utterly ingenious results musically, but this isn't one of those instances, though the drama pretty well salvaged what was a complete and utter train wreck that made many of this band's fans (myself included) embarrassed to be called as such. Hopefully the next album will see the rust wiped away and a full out glare of Metallic light will shine back at us, and this time the potential is actually there.
(Online July 3, 2013)