Sometimes a band releases an album that’s much too great for their own good. Prior to 1988, Seattle’s Queensrÿche were one of the most exciting metal bands in the world, a band so loaded with talent, ambition, and songwriting skill, that the mind boggled at what they were capable of. Each release up until that year veered in different directions, brashly displaying how versatile, how bold Queensrÿche was: the 1983 debut EP showed they were more than capable of producing their own Americanized brand of British heavy metal, 1984’s The Warning delved into deeper lyrical concepts and epic song structures, and 1986’s underrated Rage For Order took a sharp turn towards more slickly produced, high-tech melodic metal. In the spring of 1988, it all came to a head with the release of the landmark rock opera Operation: Mindcrime, which masterfully combined elements from each previous album, going on to be widely regarded as one of the finest metal albums of all time.
How on earth do you follow up something like that? The answer came two years later, and while Empire became the band’s most commercially successful album, its pop metal sheen left many longtime fans disillusioned. From 1994 to 2003, Queensryche proved to be a very resilient bunch, enduring the grunge-crazed early 1990s, releasing four albums, but despite making it through the decade intact, the music they produced was often uninspired, as each album was bogged down by tedious, boring music, the progressive tendencies of the previous decade a distant memory.
The Art of Live, the band’s third live album, comes right on the heels of 2003’s studio effort Tribe, and while it serves as a snapshot of the band’s current incarnation that fans of the Queensryche of today will find interesting, it has very few redeeming qualities whatsoever, and very little appeal to those who lost interest after Empire. It doesn’t help that the tracklisting on the single-disc album delves very heavily on the band’s middling recent output (six of the album’s 14 tracks are songs from Tribe), but it also pales in comparison to the much more satisfying double CD set Live Evolution, which boasted a marvelous setlist, revisiting every album in the deep Queensrÿche catalogue.
Instead of possessing the great dual guitar work that the band has been famous for, The Art of Live is dominated by tired, turgid riffs by Michael Wilton and Mike Stone, testing the listener’s patience. Drummer Scott Rockenfield, once one of the most powerful drummers in the genre, sounds weak, not to mention pedestrian, his overall drum tone annoyingly tinny on the record. Singer Geoff Tate no longer possesses the stunning vocal power that he had 20 years ago, but he does his best with the material. Unfortunately, the vocal melodies are so forgettable, and so buried in the album’s toothless mix, that Tate’s once formidable presence is dearly missed.
After a yawn-inducing selection of later material (save for 1994’s “Sign of the Times”, which was never all that bad), the band resorts to the tired old “unplugged” gimmick, pulling out the stools and acoustic guitars, lazily picking their way through a couple of new songs that fall flat (“My Global Mind”, “Rhythm of Hope”). The thought of an acoustic rendering of the Warning epic “Roads to Madness” sounds tantalizing, and indeed, the band shows some life during the performance, offering listeners a cool, understated variation on the bombastic original song.
The album’s final four tracks finally have the band waking up, as they delve into selections from Operation: Mindcrime and Empire, and how refreshing it is to hear those melodic guitar leads, those memorable melodies, as the five guys, at long last, kick it into high gear (okay, maybe medium gear, tops) on “Anybody Listening?”, “Breaking the Silence”, “The Needle Lies”, and “Best I Can”. As energized as those performances are, though, the fun is short-lived, falling well short of saving this most disappointing live document.
Recently, Queensrÿche announced that their fall 2004 tour would feature performances of Operation: Mindcrime, complete with actors onstage, and after that, the band will be heading into the studio to record a sequel to the fan favorite. As pleasing as this sounds for fans in their mid-30s, it’s also disappointing to see, as the one-time phenoms come off as desperate also-rans looking to capitalize on the enduring popularity of their one great album. It would be so great to see Queensrÿche pull it off successfully (especially if key member Chris DeGarmo came back into the fold), but judging by what you hear on The Art of Live, you can’t blame some folks for being just a little skeptical.