Queensryche’s combination of progressive metal and bold political lyrics stood out from the pack in 1988, and still do in much the same way here in 2013.
There are few albums in rock history that warrant a 25th anniversary tour where the album is played in its entirety. Queensryche’s 1988 masterpiece Operation: Mindcrime is just such an album though, hence the eager crowd on this Sunday night at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium. The mind-bogglingly ambitious concept album about a troubled young man drawn into an inspired yet flawed underground revolution was a stinging indictment of nearly everything that ails modern society’s capitalist paradigm of greed, war, and propaganda.
It was a mind-expanding shockwave of truth to the youth of the late ‘80s, since most hard rock bands of the era were singing of little besides general debauchery. Mindcrime built on Queensryche's earlier albums to propel the band to a new level of artistic and commercial achievement. This in turn led to a lengthy career for the band, which celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2011. But all has not been well in the Queensryche camp over the past year. Fans were stunned in 2012 when news hit that the rest of the band had apparently fired singer and creative ringleader Geoff Tate, a turn of events that failed to compute on multiple levels.
Tate was not only the creative mastermind behind Operation:Mindcrime, he’s been the band’s primary songwriter all along. Drummer Scott Rockenfield and bassist Eddie Jackson have long been one of metal’s most dynamic rhythm sections, and Michael Wilton’s guitar licks have dazzled for decades. But they seem to be a few cans short of a six-pack with this move. The trio are planning to launch their own Queensryche tour with another singer, but Tate has beaten them to the punch in a proactive effort to win the name. Tate attempted to obtain a court ordered injunction preventing his former mates from touring behind the Queensryche name, but the judge in the case ruled that he will not decide until this November, after the market has had a chance to show who fans are responding to more.
Tate wasted no time in assembling a new all-star band of sorts, starting with metal legend Rudy Sarzo on bass. Sarzo played with a who’s who of metal bands in the ‘80s, including Quiet Riot, Dio, and Whitesnake. This was after making a name for himself as the man who played bass in Ozzy Osborne’s band during the Randy Rhoads era. A higher level of metal bass cred would be tough to come by. "Geoff and I first met in 1983 when Queensryche toured with Quiet Riot. I immediately admired his voice and dynamic stage presence. It's truly an honor and privilege to join the new Queensryche line-up on its wondrous musical journey,” Sarzo says in a recent press release.
Insert Simon Wright from AC/DC on the drums and Tate has himself the type of formidable rhythm section necessary to make fans forget about Rockenfield and Jackson. With Kelly Gray and Robert Sarzo on guitar and Randy Gane on keyboards (Gray and Gane played with Tate in his pre-Queensryche band Myth), the band feels like an organic affair with flair.
It all comes together when they hit the stage to open the show with “Revolution Calling”, Mindcrime’s scintillating call-to-arms opening song. The new lineup is tight and Tate’s lyrics that deconstruct the facade of American liberty ring as relevantly now as they did in 1988:
“I used to trust the media / To tell me the truth, tell us the truth / But now I've seen the payoffs / Everywhere I look /Who do you trust when everyone's a crook?”
The crowd definitely leans to the older Gen-X demographic, but it’s also inspiring to see that some have brought their kids to the show. Most in the audience probably saw the band tour behind Mindcrime with a full theatrical presentation in 2005-06, but hearing the album in its entirety again remains a compelling and often spine-tingling experience due to hard-hitting power of the music and the ever-timely social commentary of Tate’s insightful lyrics. “Spreading the Disease” is another prime example, featuring a spoken word interlude by Tate that speaks truth to power as few bands dare to do:
“Religion and sex are powerplays / Manipulate the people for the money they pay / Selling skin, selling god / The numbers look the same on their credit cards / Politicians say no to drugs / While we pay for wars in South America
Fighting fire with empty words / While the banks get fat / And the poor stay poor / And the rich get rich
And the cops get paid / To look away
As the one percent rules America”
References to the injustice of rule by the one percent have been common since the Occupy Wall Street movement took off in 2011, but Tate presciently called the number 25 years ago. It’s no wonder that Queensryche earned a reputation as the thinking man’s metal band.
“The Mission” is one of the night’s most chilling moments, a dynamic tune featuring some of Tate’s most dynamic vocals as the story’s protagonist Nikki sings a song blending hope and sorrow in a unique manner. This sets the stage for “Suite Sister Mary”, the epic tune that ends the album’s first side. That’s right, back in 1988, most people were still buying music on cassette or vinyl, so the album was clearly split into two halves. The song features a duet between Tate’s Nikki and his girlfriend Mary, a former prostitute who has become a nun that he’s been ordered to kill by his superior Dr. X because she knows too much. It’s a cinematic type of tune that rivals the drama of The Manchurian Candidate, with Mary played here by the Bay Area’s own Nina Noir (aka Jessica London?) who sings in her own band The Lions, as well as with The Killer Queens (an all-female Queen tribute band). It’s a peak moment as fans revel in the performance of not just one of Queensryche’s best songs, but one of the greatest songs in hard rock history.
Some of Rudy Sarzo’s showboating antics seem a bit out of place during the performance of such thought-provoking material, but there’s no doubt that the metal legend remains one hell of a bassist. The band continues to fire on all cylinders as the show progresses, with the hard rocking power combo of “Breaking the Silence” and “I Don’t Believe In Love” making for yet another highlight moment. The set concludes with album closer “Eyes of a Stranger”, another powerhouse tune that sparkles with electricity here at the Fillmore.
The band exits the stage for a moment before returning for an encore segment that opens with the Pink Floyd-ian flavor of “Silent Lucidity”, the smash hit from 1990’s Empire, the album that followed Mindcrime and which launched the band to arena headliner status. “Best I Can” electrifies the room, with Sarzo’s dynamic low end bringing the song to new heights and the audience singing in tandem with Tate on the “I won’t let go” pre-chorus. “Jet City Woman” is another crowd pleaser from Empire, a hit tune with a sonic similarity to “Suite Sister Mary” but with the thematic flip side of a romantic tone. “Empire” iself appropriately closes the show, a hard-edged tune where Tate alludes once more to the insidious nature of Uncle Sam’s quest for empire.
Queensryche’s combination of progressive metal and bold political lyrics stood out from the pack in 1988, and still do in much the same way here in 2013. Little has changed in the world over the past 25 years, so Tate and company continue to provide the music world with a much needed service that all too few are called to offer. The idea of someone else singing these songs in Tate’s place defies credibility at best, and is downright laughable at worst.