Best I Can -- (DeGarmo)
B-sides: Scarborough Faire, Last Time in Paris (appears on soundtrack for Ford Fairlaine, and released as a single in 1990)
Key Tracks: Empire, Anybody Listening?, Jet City Woman
Fresh off the success of Operation: Mindcrime, Queensr˙che did a 180-degree turn from the path of metal and and concepts, and went commercial hard rock (at least Queensryche's version of it) with Empire. Instead of having a lyrical theme(s) (such as The Warning or Rage for Order), or be connected musically and lyrically with a story (Operation: Mindcrime), Queensr˙che focused on writing standalone tunes. There was a deliberate eye toward gaining a broader audience, but the band maintained a firm grasp on its musical integrity.
Released on Aug. 20, 1990 (U.S. date was Sept. 4, 1990), Empire was a true crossover record for Queensryche, and EMI Records marketed the hell out of it, shooting videos for the album's six singles: "Empire," "Silent Lucidity," "Best I Can," "Jet City Woman," "Another Rainy Night (Without You)" and "Anybody Listening?" The strategy paid off in a life-altering way for Queensryche, as the group went from a cult metal band to hard rock icons in just over six months. Simply put, it was the right record at the right time: Empire ultimately sold 3.5 million copies worldwide.
Metal fans at the time were a little taken aback by the more polished sound from Queensryche, particularly of the songs after "Empire" that were "less heavy." Although some judged the band a sellout for the shift, a closer examination of the record quieted many of those initial fears. Queensryche also continued championing its mantra of never repeating itself from record-to-record – a wise public relations statement that also had a ring of truth to it and helped the group sustain a fan base as it continued to evolve.
Empire was recorded in spring 1990 in two different locations: Vancouver Studios in Vancouver, Canada, and Triad Studios in Seattle. In addition to the production and engineering duo of Peter Collins and Jimbo Barton, Paul Northfield, and Tom Hall were also involved in the recording of the Empire album. Orchestration was once again handled by Michael Kamen, who took care of the strings on "Silent Lucidity." Finally, former Tate bandmate Randy Gane leaves the voicemail message prior to the start of the "Empire" song, forever immortalizing him as the "two ton, heavy thing" guy.
Despite its crossover appeal, Empire is distinctly Queensryche in every regard. While the songs stand solidly on their own merits instead of being linked together, the lyrics were carefully crafted to tackle various political, societal, and personal topics. These include gun control (Best I Can), America's drug problem (Empire), environmental issues (Resistance), personal relationships (The Thin Line, Jet City Woman, Another Rainy Night, Hand on Heart, One and Only), and homelessness (Della Brown). The mostly serious bent on the lyrics further cemented Queensryche's nickname as the "thinking man's metal band."
Musically, the band's sound is noticeably warmer and more enveloping than the harsher and more metallic sound of previous Queensryche records. The songs are still progressive (to a degree), but they breathe more. In an interview in 2002, Tate and DeGarmo remarked how it was a big change for drummer Scott Rockenfield, who on Operation: Mindcrime perhaps played the most aggressive of his career, and with Empire, was tasked to slow everything down.
Seattleites have often said you can hear the essence of the Emerald City throughout the songs on Empire, and as someone who spends a lot of time in Seattle, I can hear it and tend to agree. It's more of a vibe and feeling, but it is certainly there to my ears. While DeGarmo and Wilton's trademark twin guitar work is still present throughout Empire, the songs have a more streamlined and open feel to them, providing a lush soundscape for Tate to embrace his mid-range vocals and deliver haunting, yet beautiful melody lines.
One of the finest (in this writer's opinion) example of this is the epic closer, "Anybody Listening?" The intro-verse-verse-chorus-solo-verse-chorus-chorus-outro solo format is fairly typical, but the combination of acoustic and electric guitars, with the rhythm section coming in during the choruses helps punch forward Tate's inspiring lyric lines and powerful melody to create a dramatic and memorable tune.
The oddball song on Empire is ironically its biggest hit, "Silent Lucidity." Originally, the song wasn't even going to be on the album. DeGarmo had written it, but initially hesitated to submit it. It tells a timeless story, not just about dream control, but the relationship between a young child and their parent and protector at a young age. The influence of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour on DeGarmo shines through on the song, but the band didn't think it fit with the other songs on Empire. Producer Peter Collins and engineer/mixer James "Jimbo" Barton heard the potential in the cut, however, and made sure the track made the album, and it went on to become Queensryche's most famous song.
Empire had a few b-sides as well. Some may remember a tune called "Last Time in Paris," that the band played live during one stretch of the tour in support of the album. That song, along with "The Thin Line," were submitted to those producing the movie The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, starring Andrew Dice Clay, for possible inclusion on the soundtrack. The producers were told they could pick one of the two for the film, and they selected "Last Time in Paris," noting (according to DeGarmo) that "The Thin Line" was "too dark." So, "Last Time in Paris" became a soundtrack song, and a fairly popular b-side for Queensryche (it still gets played on Sirius/XM's Hair Nation channel regularly).
Queensryche's cover of "Scarborough Fair" by Simon and Garfunkel, which was recorded during the Rage for Order sessions, was finally released as a b-side (on the "Empire" single) on this album cycle. There weren't any other original completed tracks from the demo sessions. There were some instrumental jams and the usual slightly different initial versions of the songs, but for the most part, all the tunes the band completed for the record were used.
The one gem most fans get a kick out of hearing is the demo version of "The Thin Line" that includes Tate playing the saxophone. The arrangement and lyrics to this version are a bit different, and reminiscent of the Rage for Order time period. Tate takes a lengthy sax solo at approximately the same basic spot where the twin guitars of DeGarmo and Wilton have the solo on the album version.
Interesting note: "Another Rainy Night (Without You)" marks the songwriting debut of bassist Eddie Jackson. This was the first song he was ever credited on with Queensr˙che. In addition, the band made not one, but two different versions of the video for this song.
Empire was originally issued on vinyl, CD, and cassette. Empire was remastered and re-released on CD with three bonus tracks in 2003. This version, however, is mastered very hot and is red lined. From an audiophile perspective, it is suggested that those without a copy of Empire, or simply need a replacement, seek out the original 1990 version. The three bonus tracks consist of the aforementioned "Last Time in Paris," "Scarborough Fair," and a song called "Dirty Lil Secret."
Note: "Dirty Lil Secret" was not recorded or written during the Empire sessions. It is a b-side for Queensryche's next studio album, Promised Land. It is this author's opinion it was simply added on to the Empire remaster for space reasons (and it has a similar vibe to "Last Time in Paris").
In addition, a 20th anniversary edition of Empire was released in 2010. It contains two discs. The first is the 2003 remastered version of the record. The second features live tracks from the Empire album, recorded at Queensryche's 1990 performance in London, along with the gig's encore (including a rare live version of "Hand on Heart" that was dropped from the set after November 1990). The centerpiece of the show, the performance of Operation: Mindcrime, is available on the 25th anniversary edition of the Operation: Mindcrime album.
Empire was also released in DVD-A format, featuring a 5.1 mix of the album. Various vinyl editions of Empire also exist, with the recent ones featuring the poor 2003 version mix of the record.
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