Chapter VIII: 1996-1997: Hear in the Now Frontier Era
By Brian Heaton
In 1996, Queensryche reconvened to work on songs for Hear in the Now Frontier. The sessions and subsequent album release and support tour marked the end of many chapters for Queensryche. Just as the band's seventh studio release hit stores on March 25, 1997, EMI Records closed its doors, leaving the band without a record label to do promotion and provide support. In addition, QPrime, Queensryche's management team since the late 1980s, also dropped the band.
Queensryche soldiered on, however. Hear and the Now Frontier's lead singles, "Sign of the Times" and "You," received a good amount of airplay on rock radio, as the tunes were much more accessible than some of the songs on Promised Land. The uplifting "The Voice Inside" and epic closer "spOOL" were also promotional singles from Hear in the Now Frontier.
Produced by Peter Collins and mixed by Toby Wright of Alice in Chains fame, Hear in the Now Frontier featured a stripped-down, simpler approach to songwriting, according to Queensryche at the time. Instead of demoing and tweaking songs constantly and continuing to add sonic layers, the band opted for a looser approach, writing the song, demoing it, and then recording it with minimal overdubs.
The drier production and refined songwriting process was a staple of some acts of the time. Lyrically, the album had the social commentary and intelligent bent fans had come to expect from Queensryche. Musically, while the band's long-time fans had a history of swaying with Queensryche's continual evolution over the years, Hear in the Now Frontier was not looked upon favorably by many fans that cut their teeth on the band's layered and dynamic songs.
Despite the label and management difficulties, Queensryche self-financed a large part of its tour in suppot of Hear in the Now Frontier, which started in June 1997. The stage was elaborate, featuring a giant inflatable ear as depicted on the Hear in the Now Frontier album cover. Although the band played a two-hour set, the same amphitheaters it had played in 1994 were now only half full or at times, even less. The sparse crowds were another sign that Queensryche's days headlining large outdoor venues were coming to a close.
To add injury to insult, vocalist Geoff Tate came down with a severe summer cold and blew out his voice in early July, forcing the band to cancel shows due to sickness for the first time in its career. Queensryche eventually resumed the tour and wrapped up in August, heading home to Seattle. There were no follow-up plans to tour Europe.
With no label, a short, self-financed summer tour, and an album that wasn't received well, one final change occurred during the fall of 1997. Guitarist Chris DeGarmo, who had formed Queensryche with Michael Wilton, Eddie Jackson and Scott Rockenfield 16 years prior, announced to his bandmates that he was leaving the band.
The situation likely got even more uncomfortable later in the year when Queensryche was contractually obligated to play a few shows in South America in December 1997. The band fulfilled their commitment with DeGarmo and as of September 2014, those South American shows continue to mark the last time that Chris DeGarmo played live with Queensryche (although Chris did make a public appearance with Wilton playing an assortment of hard rock cover tunes at halftime of a Seattle Seahawks game in 2011).
DeGarmo has stayed relatively quiet about his departure from Queensryche. While officially just speculation, some well-informed sources have said Tate's divorce and his subsequent marriage to Susan Tate significantly changed Tate's perspective on the band and ultimately soured Chris' working relationship with the singer, leading to DeGarmo quitting the group. DeGarmo toured with Jerry Cantrell on the guitarist's tour in support of his debut solo album, Boggy Depot in 1998. He's contributed to other artists in a songwriting and arrangement capacity over the years as well. But DeGarmo's primary job these days is as a commercial airline pilot.
Editor's Note: Queensryche went through a commercially unsuccessful period from 1998-2001 with Kelly Gray – Tate's former MYTH bandmate and a successful Seattle record producer – replacing DeGarmo on guitar. He was ultimately let go from the band after appearing on one studio record – Q2k – and one live album – Live Evolution. More on that later.
Hear in the Now Frontier
Title: Hear in the Now Frontier
Sign of the Times -- (DeGarmo)
Key Tracks: spOOL, The Voice Inside, Sign of the Times
B-sides: Chasing Blue Sky -- (Rockenfield/Tate), Tomorrow Begins Today (demo written by Wilton, never recorded)
Additional performers: Matt Rollings and Steven Nathan -- Mini Moog, Roland JD 900 and D50 keyboards on "spOOL." Rollings also performed the piano on "All I Want."
Notes: Hear in the Now Frontier continued Queensryche's experimentation with simpler song structures. The band went with more of a spontaneous approach, writing a tune and recording it fairly soon after, instead of making countless demos and refining the songs. The "less polished" approach was also combined with a noticeably drier mix and production values -- an attempt to sound more raw instead of Queensryche's traditional "grandiose" presentation.
The album launched with some early success on the strength of its first single -- "Sign of the Times." The tune received a good amount of radio play, as did the second single, "You." But as EMI Records folded, so did the radio support. Hear in the Now Frontier dropped like a rock on the charts, ultimately only selling about 325,000 copies in the U.S. (to-date). Two other songs -- "The Voice Inside" and "spOOL" were prepped as promotional singles, but never made traction on radio.
Hear in the Now Frontier Singles:
Fans were divided about Hear in the Now Frontier. The general consensus was that Queensryche's "stripped down" approach went too far, removing essential elements that made the band distinct. Although some songs (typically the singles and a couple of others) are widely praised, most fans believe Hear in the Now Frontier has an abundance of "filler" tracks that should have been left as demos.
Interesting facts: The sound effect of someone taking a picture at the end of "Get a Life" was misplaced. It was supposed to be at the beginning of the song. In addition, the ending violin part on "Sign of the Times" by David Ragsdale of Kansas was originally supposed to be accompanied by a final lyric -- "See it all burning to the ground." Geoff Tate explained the violin and lyric part of "Sign of the Times" to a South American reporter in Dec. 1997:
Tate: "Originally there was a lyric that ended the song. It was "see it all burning to the ground." The song is talking about how the level of decadence in our country, America, has risen to an extreme. So we thought, "see it all burning to the ground," and we were reminded of the story of Nero, who was emperor of Rome and he palyed a violin supossededly while Rome burned, and we thought a violin would sound great. So we brought in a violin. But then, after we put in the violin, we decided not to include the lyric line."
The Hear in the Now FronTOUR (1997)
The headline tour in support of Hear in the Now Frontier featured a healthy dose of the album, along with the standard hits Queensryche had been featuring in its set since the Building Empires tour. The band played mostly amphitheaters on the tour, with various radio station promotional stops along the way, which included acoustic performances. This tour was marred by Tate blowing out his voice in mid-July due to a bad cold, causing Queensryche to cancel two shows in Ohio and stop one show three songs in, due to Tate being unable to perform.
While Tate was recovering from his illness, the band played an abbreviated set, dropping "Get a Life," "Hit the Black," "Breaking the Silence," "I Don't Believe in Love" and "Take Hold of the Flame," subbing in "Della Brown." They also played "Walk in the Shadows" toward the end of the tour in August, and performed "The Killing Words" on July 29 in Buffalo, N.Y.
A typical setlist on this tour looked like this:
The Voice Inside