Issue 2009-032: Queensrÿche - American Soldier - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: Sliver (3:09), Unafraid (4:47), Hundred Mile Stare (4:31), At 30,000 Ft (5:11), A Dead Man's Words (6:35), The Killer (5:26), Middle Of Hell (5:28), If I Were King (5:17), Man Down! (4:57), Remember Me (5:00), Home Again (4:41), The Voice (5:29)
Ed Sander's Review
I've been a big Queensrÿche fan in the eighties and nineties and Operation Mindcrime and Empire are among my favourite albums from that era. But it was with the introspective and progressive Promised Land that the band completely blew me away in 1994. The album remains one of my all-time favourites that I return to frequently. If I ever were to be shipped to a deserted island this would be one of the CDs I would definitely take with me. As such, it was pretty disenchanting that the band continued to release a string of rather disappointing albums after this masterpiece. The collaboration with Chris DeGarmo on Tribe (2003) was a step back in the right direction, but the unnecessary Mindcrime II and covers album Take Cover left me rather cold again. I had basically given up on the band and when I heard they were putting out a concept album about American soldiers I was extremely sceptical and surprised at the same time. Surprised because the band had never made a big secret of their disapproval of the wars in the Middle East in the last two decades.
Listening to this CD this scepticism turned out to be a misconception. The lyrics really aren't about the wars themselves and the sense or insanity behind them. All of the songs actually deal with the lives and feelings of the man and women fighting in these wars, stories gathered through dozens of interviews with soldiers and veterans (fragments of which are used throughout the album), among whom singer Tate's own father. As Geoff Tate himself states on the band's website, one thing the album definitely is not is political. This is certainly part of what makes American Soldier such a strong album. No more fictitious stories about Sister Mary, Doctor X and Nikki but utterly shocking and heart-wrenching stories about real people.
The lyrics deal with topics like the adrenaline rush of the military training (Sliver, Unafraid), following orders without judgement (Hundred Mile Stare), the guilt of the bomber pilot (At 30,000 Ft), dying in the desert (A Dead Man's Words), the survivalist feeling of killing or being killed (The Killer), getting injured or dying (Middle Of Hell, Man Down!, The Voice), dealing with the death of fellow soldiers (If I Were King) and missing your wife and children back home (Remember Me, Home Again). All very strong subjects that match perfectly with Tate's amazing vocal performances.
Most of the album was written by Tate and producer Jason Slater. Unlike their collaboration on Mindcrime II the chemistry works remarkably well now, probably because there is no need to sound anything like a previous album. Having said that I'm extremely glad to mention that the one album that American Soldier reminds me of is Promised Land! Without a doubt this new CD comes closest to anything the band have ever done since 1994. Like on Promised Land most of the songs on this new CD are mid-tempo, dark, brooding and mysterious and many songs feature Tate playing saxophone, like he did on Promised Land. Also, the introspective nature of the lyrics creates the same feel I liked so much on that album. Another remarkable fact about American Soldier that will have an impact on the sound of the record is the fact that Michael Wilton has done all of the guitars on this album since Mike Stone had left the band. The departure of Stone, a co-writer of Mindcrime II, will most probably also have had a positive effect (in my honest opinion) on the sound of this new album. I do have the feeling that the departure of Stone has resulted in less guitar driven and stereotype metal approach on American Soldier. Two session guitarists, among whom ex-member Kelly Gray, make appearances on the album though.
Sliver is a powerful opener and features guest vocalist A.J. Fratto acting out the role of drill instructor while Tate himself adds a couple of metalish cries that remind me of the band's pre-Mindcrime era. Unafraid is a song that makes heavy use of the recorded interviews, with snippets making up the verses while Tate sings the short choruses. The downside of this combination is that the music needs to be turned down in volume and even then the interviews are not always all that audible. Still a nice track though. After these two rockers we arrive at the darker part of the album. The next three songs are mid-tempo songs. Hundred Mile Stare would not have been out of place on Empire, sounding a bit like the title track. At 30,000 feet might well be my favourite track on the album. Tate's performance is full of heartfelt drama and the contrast between the quiet verses and heavy choruses works very well. Berserk drumming by Rockenfield and an echoing 'Mindcrimish' guitar solo adds to the quality of the track. The dark and brooding mood is continued with Dead Man's Words, which has Tate performing in the narrative style he used on his solo album and on Tribe. The sound effects and saxophone solo in the climax make comparisons to the title track of Promised Land obvious.
The tempo is picked up with The Killer, a songs with a good melodic hook and an driving role for Jackson's bass guitar. As such, another song that would not have been out of place on Empire. The break with military drums and Wilton's guitar solo also remind me of Mindcrime. The dark mood returns with Middle Of Hell, featuring mesmerizing backing vocals and more saxophone. If I Were King is another highlight; probably the best ballad the band have done in the past 15 years.
It took me a while to appreciate Man Down!, the heaviest track on the album. At times it sounds like Metallica, but this is probably what the album needs after the less heavy songs that precede it. I still consider it one of the weaker tracks on the album though. Two more ballads on the same subject follow. Remember Me and Home Again are both beautiful songs about missing wife and kids. In Home Again Tate's daughter performs guest vocals, playing the role of the daughter who misses her father. Even though the key of the songs isn't all that suited for her voice and she will probably not be an Idol finalist, it does add a lot to the drama of the tune once you've get used to her vocals. In all honesty, the albums closer The Voice is the only song that didn't leave much of an impression on me. After playing the album for weeks this was the only song of which I couldn't remember the melody or lyrics. This is not to say that it's a bad song, it's just relatively unremarkable. Perhaps it would have been better to leave it of the album and make the more impressive Home Again the album closer.
All in all this is an excellent new Queensrÿche album and the best they've done in the past 15 years. Especially recommended to fans of the Empire and Promised Land days of the band. Now let's hope that the band can keep up this level of quality and don't slip back into mediocrity again.
Geoff Feakes' Review
Although often labelled a prog metal band, since their inception in the early 80’s Queensrÿche for me have always operated on the periphery of the genre. In comparison with Dream Theater for example I would class them as more hard rock, occasionally incorporating elements of prog and radio friendly AOR. Their tenth and latest studio release American Soldier is no exception although in true prog fashion there is a clear concept that links the twelve songs. Had an album with this title been released in the early 70’s it would have almost certainly been a cynical attack on the war ethics of America and its armed forces. Here however singer, songwriter Geoff Tate has devised a mature collection of songs that pays tribute to the fighting men of the US. It’s by no means a jingoistic venture however with an anti-war undercurrent throughout. It’s also thoughtfully and chronologically assembled, beginning with life in a military training camp in Sliver, through to the horrors of battle in Middle Of Hell and towards the end, the self explanatory Home Again.
As he did on Operation Mindcrime II, producer Jason Slater has made a significant compositional contribution along with former guitarist and co-producer Kelly Gray. Fans I’m sure will draw their own conclusions regarding the recent absence of Mike Stone both as a guitarist and a songwriter. To add weight to the concept the album is interspersed with taped interviews from war veterans. This device works least for me when they completely take over the song as is the case in Unafraid. The songs themselves are mostly up-tempo affairs dominated by Tate’s wall-to-wall vocals and whilst he undoubtedly has presence, for me he epitomises both the bands strength and its weakness. This is typified by Hundred Mile Stare where his histrionic style comes from the same gravel voiced school as the likes of Axl Rose. Not my favourite style it has to be said which is not helped by over repetitive and often uninspiring choruses.
Guitarist Michael Wilton provides some effective guitar dynamics and soling especially during At 30,000 ft and Middle Of Hell. It proves he can step out the box of the clichéd heavy metal guitar volleys and power chords he displays during the likes of Sliver and Man Down! The aggressive opener also reminded me of Run-D.M.C.’s rap contribution to Aerosmith’s Walk This Way. Best of all however in my opinion is the excellent rhythm partnership of bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield. During At 30,000 ft and The Killer they really crackle with the latter tune enlivened by a moody bass pattern and crisp snare sound.
If I Were King is a rather lame anthemic affair whilst the obligatory slow ballad comes in the shape of Remember Me which proves to be a pleasant tune nonetheless. Even more effective is Home Again, a bittersweet (if not a tad over sentimental) duet between Tate and daughter Emily. His voice is at its restrained best here and it’s a change to hear a touch of acoustic guitar, albeit only during the intro. They close on a dramatic high with The Voice, a powerful semi-orchestrated song that finds Tate in David Bowie cracked vocal style backed by Rockenfield’s thunderous drumming and symphonic embellishments courtesy of guest keyboardist Randy Gane.
To my ears this latest offering from Queensrÿche sounds monotonously samey for a good deal of its duration with the vocal dominance allowing little room for instrumental expression. I began to lose interest around the midway point which only picked up with a change of mood and tempo towards the end. Without the two final songs I would have awarded this album a lacklustre 6 out of 10 but their presence warrants an extra half mark each, raising it to a respectable 7. Whilst this will undoubtedly appeal to the band's fan base its unlikely in my opinion to draw in the casual listener despite the presence of some memorable tunes. With the exception of the excellent closing track, prog purists are advised to approach with caution.
Menno von Brucken Fock's Review
The American hard/rock or rather melodic metal outfit Queensrÿche really needs no introduction. Their magnum opus Operation Mindcrime is a very popular album amongst both hard rock fans and fans of progressive music with a harder edge. This time Tate and his band-mates got their inspiration from Tate’s dad who used to be a professional military man. As many of them, who were witness to some of the horrors of war, he never opened up to his son Geoff until a few years ago. Geoff became intrigued and started interviewing numerous (veteran) soldiers of all ages. Lyrics and music were mainly written by Tate and producer Jason Slater, along with drummer Scott Rockenfield, and contributors Kelly Gray (former guitarist) and Damon Johnson. Tate plays saxophone and clarinet on this album too.
The concept album on the ‘nation built on over 3.5 million deaths” begins with a ‘sergeant’s’ drilling voice shouting “on your feet!” and announces the shortest song on this album, a mid-tempo guitar driven rocker. Sirens are sounding because of an imminent airstrike in Unafraid and then a background of bass, drums and guitars and just a little bit of orchestration features numerous quotes by (veteran) soldiers. Hundred Mile Stare is perhaps the most characteristic Queensrÿche tune, rather slow, melodic and Tate is singing beautifully and it’s got a nice guitar-solo by Wilton. A short piece of an interview is followed by subtle plucking of guitars before the harder rocking parts come to alternate with the ballad like ones. A Dead Man’s Words is a rather slow soft rocker in the vein of some of the more relaxed tunes by Deep Purple (Rapture Of The Deep) and features Tate’s clarinet. A nice but rather mediocre rock song is The Killer. The B, D and E chords, frequently used in heavy metal and rock are used here too. In the last part several guitars are mixed in a nice harmony. The same slower pace is maintained in the next track, The Middle Of Hell, that has the same kind of atmosphere, no solo’s, no stunning effects but a catchy melody and multiple vocals.
Starting with another fragment of an interview, a quiet Led Zeppelin is combined with a bombastic strong riff driven chorus, followed by another part of one of the many interviews and then the chorus again, ending rather abruptly. One of the most catchy songs without a doubt is Man Down! , heavy but melodic guitars and the power equals that in Operation Mindcrime. Finally some twin guitars! The first ballad on this album would be Remember Me, a very emotional and sensitive song with great vocals by Tate. Even more a ballad with Emily Tate singing next to Geoff is Home Again, another a beautiful song, full of true emotions. In The Voice we hear some words by Geoff’s father and this closing track is also a mid tempo rather bombastic rocker, maybe the only one with fairly obvious orchestral components, and a very smooth ending… “don’t be afraid…”
In conclusion, American Soldier is much more to my liking than its two predecessors, strong lyrics, serious and respectful subject but although the spoken words contribute to the album lyrically, musically sometimes I find them rather disturbing. The melodies are catchy, but I do miss some of the violent guitar parts that used to characterize the band in earlier days. The album should be categorized as melodic rock with some heavier parts, but I wouldn’t call it progressive at all. Live, with a full band with an extra guitarist and keyboard player and the no doubt stunning visual melodramatics, I think the album would be much stronger and more bombastic than on the ‘bare’ CD. The DVD which I think they will be going to record at some point will be a must have for me anyway…