Chapter V: Building an Empire
Queensryche saw some mainstream success with Operation: Mindcrime, and naturally, many fans assumed the band would write another concept album. Well, you know the old saying about assumptions. Queensryche went the opposite direction and wrote individual songs that stood on their own merits instead of a storyline to connect them to each other. The result was Empire, Queensryche's highest-selling album to date at more than three million copies worldwide.
In an approach spearheaded by guitarist Chris DeGarmo, Queensryche maintained its high level of musicianship and integrity, but somewhat shed its heavy metal roots, catering to a more mainstream hard rock audience. In stark contrast to Operation: Mindcrime, Empire featured much warmer guitar tones and a bigger atmosphere, appealing both to audiophiles and critics.
Numerous magazines and media outlets lauded Empire for maintaining Queensryche’s musical complexity and intelligence, but delivering something accessible. Promotion of Empire was heavily backed by EMI Records from the outset and the band publicly appeared quite satisfied with the recognition the album received. For some, however, Empire was a shocking shift in style. The more hardcore heavy metal fans were soured on Queensryche’s move away from aggressive guitar riffs and songs in favor of the more melodic style of hard rock that was popular at the time.
Although not known at the time, not everyone in Queensryche was happy and confident in what they had just produced. In September 2014, 24 years after the initial release of Empire, writer Malcolm Dome unveiled an unpublished interview with DeGarmo from July 1990 in England. Titled “Queensryche: The Dark Empire,” DeGarmo reveals to Dome his frustration with his bandmates and uncertainty about what they had produced.
“Whenever we finish a record, I think it's time to leave. Or we should split up,” DeGarmo told Dome. “I am drained, and fed up. I don't have the energy to deal with the other guys. I get annoyed with them all, because I feel they've let me down. But then, I also think I've let them down. Is that the way all musicians think? It's that love/hate thing we have, isn't it? Empire is maybe the worst album we've ever made, or the best. I can't judge it.”
Most revealing in the interview is that the reader can see the seeds for DeGarmo’s eventual exit from Queensryche are firmly planted. He relates to Dome that his father left him and his mother when Chris was young and wonders if he continues the same lifestyle of trying to be the best he can be, will he follow in his father’s footsteps.
When questioned by Dome about his future, DeGarmo admits he’s not sure what the next few years will bring.
“The way I feel right now, I don't know if I have a future, and I am not talking about just as a musician” DeGarmo said. “I am not suicidal. But I have doubts. Real doubts. I don't even know why I am talking like this – it won't make me feel any better. Probably by tomorrow, I will be upbeat and shiny again. But I always question whether I want to carry on as I am. Maybe I will pack my bags, walk out of this hotel, out of this life and start all over again. But I've not done that so far, so why would I do it now?”
DeGarmo continued on with Queensryche following the interview, his comments unknown to the general public at the time.
In total, the band released six singles from Empire: the title track, "Best I Can," "Silent Lucidity," "Jet City Woman," "Another Rainy Night (Without You)" and "Anybody Listening?" Each single had an accompanying music video and the songs received heavy airplay on MTV. “Silent Lucidity” went on to earn the band a Grammy Award nomination.
The "Building Empires" tour kicked off in Europe in November 1990, and didn't conclude until early 1992 – a span of more than 180 shows. The almost 2.5-hour spectacle featured the Operation: Mindcrime album performed in its entirety, along with a good dose of the Empire record and a couple of older tracks. Using a huge stage, laser show, synchronized video and other amenities, Queensryche concerts were no longer simple gigs. They were multi-media productions.
Once Queensryche got off the road, Empire continued to sell as “Anybody Listening?” was released as a single, including a promotional video. The band then turned its attention to performing various one-off gigs and award shows until June 1992.
Most notably, Queensryche performed an acoustic set for MTV Unplugged on April 27, 1992. The aired performance included renditions of “I Will Remember” and “The Killing Words” from Rage for Order, “Silent Lucidity” and “Della Brown” from Empire and “The Lady Wore Black” from the EP. Unaired footage of the show reveals multiple takes of all five songs, plus renditions of “Anybody Listening?” from Empire, Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” and a humorous teaser of “Suite Sister Mary” off of Operation: Mindcrime.
Queensryche also appeared at the Rock the Environment benefit show at The Gorge, in George, Wash., on June 6, 1992. The band played an assortment of material, including an electric version of “Anybody Listening” and, for the first time since 1989, a rendition of “No Sanctuary” from The Warning. They concluded the evening by performing in a jam session with members of fellow Seattle natives Alice in Chains and Heart.
-- Brian Heaton
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