[26 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Throughout the early to mid-1980s, Seattle’s Queensrÿche was like a highly touted prospect in any sport: all eyes were on them, and the potential to lead contemporary heavy metal into uncharted territory was there, but unlike many of their American peers, artistic and commercial success wasn’t instantaneous. They scratched and clawed in those early years, challenging listeners with adventurous ideas such as lofty, progressive-minded arrangements and the embracing of technology (including the then-dreaded synthesizer), earning respect one step at a time. When they finally managed to knock one out of the park in 1988 with the landmark rock opera Operation: Mindcrime, everything came together: it was one of the boldest metal albums in history; it was loaded with superb, accessible singles; the critical acclaim was near-euphoric, as was the fan response; the videos received hefty airplay; and, at long last, the records were selling briskly.
While 1990’s Empire shrewdly capitalized on the band’s well-earned fame, resulting in their first headlining arena tour, little did Queensrÿche know that the window of opportunity was slowly narrowing, thanks to a new rock sound from their hometown which was quickly rising in popularity. As the world’s taste for heavy rock changed overnight, the band at first got by on reputation, but try as they might, soon fell victim to stagnation, each subsequent album sounding like a pale imitation of the previous one. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that Queensrÿche would undergo a creative rebirth, as Operation: Mindcrime II was an admirable return to form.
Since then, while not exactly burning up the charts, momentum has been building steadily, and the band and both its current and former labels have been doing their best to capitalize on the renewed interest. A live CD and DVD, Mindcrime at the Moore, was released on Rhino Records earlier this year, an album of covers was recently released by the band as a stopgap before recording the official follow-up, and Capitol Records, their home for nearly 15 years, has jumped on the revival bandwagon with Sign of the Times: The Best of Queensrÿche, the third best-of compilation to come out in the past seven years. Compared to the similarly solid Greatest Hits from 2000, it seems that the label is just flogging a dead horse, but credit has to be given to the band for trying to at least give both new listeners and longtime fans a reason to give this collection a listen.
First of all, and what is most key about this compilation (which comes in both single and double-disc packages) is that the album tracks have been culled from the series of 2002 remasters, all of which featured significant sonic improvements, as early albums were either given more clarity, or some much-needed weight. And The Best Of disc, despite perpetuating the usual what-or-what-not-to-include debate that plagues such a release, delivers nicely. Key breakthrough singles like “Silent Lucidity”, “Jet City Woman”, and “I Don’t Believe in Love” are present, as are longtime staples “Walk in the Shadows” and “Queen of the Reich”, while “Warning”, “The Lady Wore Black”, and the underrated “I Am I” effectively showcase the band’s heavier side. Far too much emphasis is placed on the band’s mid to late-1990s output, while 1986’s brave, highly overlooked Rage For Order is unfairly given the usual token nod, but the inclusion of Mindcrime II‘s ballad “All the Promises” does help redeem this disc somewhat.
It’s on the special Collectors Edition’s bonus disc, though, that things get mildly interesting for the diehard listeners. Ultra-rare, early demos of three key tracks courtesy Myth, singer Geoff Tate’s band prior to joining Queensrÿche, offer glimpses of “Take Hold of the Flame”, “Walk in the Shadows”, and “Before the Storm”, in skeletal, barely recognizable form. At times clunky, other times far heavier, it’s a fascinating slice of the band’s history, as are the three previously unreleased demos from the sessions for 1984’s The Warning, the most intriguing track being “Waiting For the Kill”, which bears a striking similarity to the album’s high-tech opus “NM 156”.
After the first six tracks, though, Capitol starts cheating, padding out much of the rest of the disc with bonus tracks from the 2002 reissues, including the pompous, cornball cover of “Scarborough Fair” from 1990. The previously unreleased performance of “Della Brown” from the band’s 1992 set on MTV’s Unplugged is a good touch, as is the 1994 live recording of “Silent Lucidity”, but after throwing fans a tantalizing bone, it’s a shame to see the rest of the “rarities” disc go through the motions, serving up tracks most fans already have. Mercifully, the new recording “Justified”, reuniting original guitarist (and key songwriter) Chris DeGarmo with the rest of the band, is a solid enough song to have us wishing he’s rejoin Queensryche full-time, enough to give folks at least a capgun-level bang for their hard-earned bucks.