April 5, 2017
Hear in the Now Frontier -- A 20th Anniversary Review
By Brian Heaton
"Has the captain let go of the wheel?" The line encapsulates not only the message of "Sign of the Times," the lead single from Queensryche's Hear in the Now Frontier, but also reaction to the album following its release on March 25, 1997.
Sales were poor (by standards of the day) and many listeners criticized the band's shift to a more mainstream, "grunge-influenced" sound. Hear in the Now Frontier has aged well, however. Now 20 years old, time has brought out the brillance of the once-maligned recording.
A fresh listen has revealed that the 14-track effort clearly has more bright spots than it is given credit for. While calling the album an underrated gem would certainly be a "Reach," (play on words very much intended) Hear in the Now Frontier provides enough ear candy to be fairly labeled as an underappreciated work not only in Queensryche's canon, but also within the hard rock genre.
Musically, Hear in the Now Frontier is chock full of great guitar playing. That may be a surprise to some, as it was released at the tail end of the grunge movement. Yes, the record features riffs in a loose and straightforward style that is very much a product of the mid-to-late 1990s. However, the lead work, both in solos and throughout the songs is emotive, quirky and deceptively technical.
"You" features a traditional harmonized solo between Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, with the duo exchanging parts toward the end. But the sharp, pulsing lead lines in some of the verses spruce up the song and make it stand out. "The Voice Inside" finds DeGarmo employing the slide guitar during the solo and throughout the song which gives the cut a uniqueness in the Queensryche catalog.
Finally, for guitar fans not as concerned with speed, the outro solo to "Hero" may be one of DeGarmo's finest moments as a guitarist. Channeling his inner David Gilmour with a more modern touch, DeGarmo takes a simple approach that drives home the emotion of the tune. The minute-and-a-half journey really epitomizes what makes his playing so special.
Lyrically, Hear in the Now Frontier may be one of the standouts of Queensryche's career. While the preceding record, Promised Land, was centered on introspection, Hear in the Now Frontier has a great lyrical balance of social commentary, personal angst, and uplifting moments. It's a roller coaster ride that runs the gamut of emotions, ala 1990's Empire release.
"Sign of the Times" is a snapshot of society in 1996-1997, as Queensryche chimes in about metal detectors being added to schools, hate crimes, and politicians continuing to profit off the American people. The commentary continues in "Cuckoo's Nest," examining major headlines of the day, and rallying for change. "The Voice Inside" straddles the line between social commentary and personal reflection, calling out to people to remember that they have an opinion and ability to be a force for change, and to trust it.
Going the completely opposite direction, "Some People Fly" centers on the importance of taking risks in life and being your own person. But some of the more personal tunes are more vague, such as "Saved." At first, it might appear to be written about a very personal relationship. But a deeper look into the lyrics reveals that the tune could be interpreted as an ode to the band's relationship with its audience.
Closing the record is "spOOL," a tune that ideally wraps up the multiple messages in Hear in the Now Frontier. It encourages the listener to examine history, but be wary of repeating it. The song suggests an alternate approach of being more open to different ideas to unite people and move forward.
Admittedly, Hear in the Now Frontier has its flaws – there's a reason it isn't as popular as some of Queensryche's other works. Some chances taken by the band on this album (namely DeGarmo taking lead vocals on a song instead of Geoff Tate, or penning a song about sexual desire – "Anytime/Anywhere") didn't resonate with many listeners. The production mix is also a bit dry and lifeless, which was a dramatic change for Queensryche.
However, while most good records don't require extensive digging to find gold, 20 years has shown that dismissing Hear in the Now Frontier is a mistake. The elements that made up the band's original lineup shine throughout the record, making it distinctly Queensryche, and an enjoyable listen.