Chapter VI: 1990-1992: Empire Era
By Brian Heaton
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 In September 2014, 24 years after the initial release of Empire, writer Malcolm Dome unveiled an unpublished interview with DeGarmo from July 1990 in England.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.
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
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 touring keyboardist (Rage for Order) 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.
Title: Operation: LIVEcrime
I Remember Now
* - bonus track added to the 2001 remastered versions of Operation: LIVEcrime. Audio-only, songs appear as audio tracks on the DVD as well.
Notes: Operation: LIVEcrime was originally released on Nov. 5, 1991 as a box set documenting Queensryche's complete performance of Operation: Mindcrime on its tour in support of Empire. The recordings were taken from three shows: May 10, 1991 - Madison, Wis.; May 11, 1991 - Milwaukee, Wis.; and May 12, 1991 - LaCrosse, Wis. The original release contained a VHS and either a cassette or CD. The box set also featured a 44-page libretto. Operation: LIVEcrime was subsequently remastered and released on DVD in 2001. The re-release did not include the libretto.
Interesting fact: In interviews following the release of Operation: LIVEcrime, the members of Queensryche stated that there were only two mistakes made by the band over the three-nights they recorded: Tate flubbed the lyrics once, and Wilton broke a string. Otherwise, any of the three nights could have been released outright in its entirety.
Title: Building Empires
Notes: Following Queensryche's critically acclaimed world tour in support of Empire, they compiled all the videos shot for the record, along with live footage and various other videos and performances in a compilation to tide fans over until the next record. Building Empires has an approximate running time of 100 minutes, which includes commentary by DeGarmo, Tate and Wilton.
The Building Empires Tour (1990-1992)
With approximately 190 shows and promotional appearances across 18 months, the Building Empires tour was the longest-running album support run in Queensryche's history. Empire was the band's commercial and touring peak, with Queensryche reaching arena status in areas across the United States. It also marked the first time that the band would perform Operation: Mindcrime in its entirety, sandwiched between cuts from Empire and the back catalog. The show would typically last from 120-140 minutes each night.
During this timeframe, a Queensryche concert wasn't just a gig -- it was a full-on multimedia spectacle. The band had dual video screens and animations running behind them to accompany songs, an elaborate stage that included various ramps (including a basketball hoop Tate would take a shot on during "Best I Can"), and at times, guest appearances from Pamela Moore, aka "Suite Sister Mary."
For headline appearances, Queensryche took out Lynch Mob, Warrior Soul and Suicidal Tendencies at different points in time. Queensryche also appeared at various European festivals doing an abbreviated set. The tour formally ended in Jan. 1992, but the band played a number of award shows and other events following it. Of note is Queensryche's MTV Unplugged appearance on April 27, 1992, and a final festival show at the Rock the Environment benefit on June 6, 1992, in George, Wash., to close out support of Empire.
A number of shows on the tour were professionally recorded, including the May 10-12, 1991, shows in Wisconsin. Those recordings were later used for the Operation: LIVEcrime release. Other recordings served as footage for the Building Empires home video album, and others for the 20th Anniversary box set of Empire that was released in 2010.
Queensryche's setlist was very static during this period, with only minor changes, depending on the leg they were on. Songs performed periodically that differ from the example below, included "Hand on Heart" (first month of the tour at various gigs), "The Lady Wore Black" (made sporadic appearances as an additional encore), "Another Rainy Night (Without You)" (became a setlist staple in Oct. 1991 for the remainder of the tour), "Della Brown," "Last Time in Paris," and "Anybody Listening?"
The only significant deviations from the main set was the MTV Unplugged performance and the Rock the Environment gig. At the former, Queensryche did acoustic renditions of "I Will Remember" and "The Killing Words." The band also did acoustic covers of "Scarborough Fair" by Simon and Garfunkel and "Rockin' in the Free World," by Neil Young. During the Rock the Environment show, Queensryche dusted off "No Sanctuary," played "The Killing Words" again, and then participated in a jam session with Alice in Chains and Heart that included covers of "Revolution" by The Beatles and "Gimme Shelter" from the Rolling Stones.
The only song from Empire not performed live by the band on the Building Empires tour was "One and Only." Coincidentally, the original lineup of Queensryche never played it live. It was only performed in soundcheck during the band's first few shows in October/November 1990, according to Michael Wilton.
A typical setlist on this tour looked like this: