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December 3, 2019
Promised Land’s Timeless Authenticity Perseveres
By Brian Heaton
History is replete with examples of timely, flash-in-the-pan music. From one-hit wonder pop tunes to distinct production styles, some albums are very much a product of the time, whereas others have a timeless quality to them. Queensryche’s Promised Land stands proudly in that latter category.
Released on October 18, 1994, the record sounds as fresh today as it did a quarter century ago. Of all the albums in the band’s catalog, Promised Land has aged the most gracefully, thanks in large part to the deeply introspective lyrics, mature songwriting, and overall enveloping sound captured by engineer and mixer James “Jimbo” Barton.
Structured as a personal diary set to music, the record contains tracks focused on coming of age, mental health, personal loss, sacrifice, remorse, and self-worth. While there are bits of social commentary sprinkled throughout Promised Land, the reflective journey sits distinctly apart from Queensryche’s previous works. This album was markedly personal for the original lineup of the band, particularly vocalist Geoff Tate and guitarist/songwriter Chris DeGarmo, who penned the lyrics.
Having reached the pinnacle of commercial success with 1990’s Empire, Tate and DeGarmo exorcise the personal demons accumulated through Queensryche’s decade-plus rise to stardom. It’s a surprisingly brutal and honest account from a band once regarded as deeply secretive. I’m not going to do a track-by-track analysis. The lyrics are in the liner notes, and what you get out of it is what they are about. But it’s clear the road to Queensryche’s success was littered with difficult choices, and a tinge of regret.
Musically, Promised Land was viewed as a huge curveball by most fans and critics. While the record was largely respected, many thought the darker mood, mid-tempo songs, and instrument experimentation (the sitar, saxophone, and piano all made significant appearances) were too self-indulgent, and frankly, career suicide after the more mainstream-oriented Empire.
Queensryche, however, along with the hardcore fans that were there from the early years, were always quick to point out that one of the band’s hallmarks was that no two albums from Queensryche sounded alike. That is certainly true, but the one aspect of the band’s catalog up until Empire was that while each record did indeed evolve, all of them contained elements of what was “in style” during the time period. Arguably, Promised Land put an end to that trend.
Sure, acoustic guitar was all the rage in the mid-1990s, and Promised Land featured it heavily, not surprising given the success of “Silent Lucidity” from Empire. But remember that grunge dominated the airwaves at the time, with looser arrangements and simpler chord structures being favored by the masses. To Queensryche’s credit, Promised Land didn’t “dumb down” the band’s musical integrity and give in to grunge. The lush soundscapes were still in full effect. Instead, the band’s emphasis was on writing for the album’s theme, trends be damned. And it’s a key reason why Promised Land is as vibrant today as it was in 1994.
The unsung hero of Promised Land’s sonic relevance is Jimbo Barton. The legendary sound man didn’t have an easy task. It has been well documented that the members of Queensryche were fairly disconnected during the time, dealing with their own personal issues during the band’s hiatus (see Chapter VII: Promised Land Era (1994-1995)), which obviously steered the record’s direction. When they finally reconvened and got on the same page at Big Log in the San Juan Islands, it was Jimbo’s job to get a record out of them.
The performances Jimbo captured from Queensryche were nothing short of breathtaking. Scott Rockenfield’s nuanced percussion, Eddie Jackson’s moody bass lines, and the restrained power and elegance of DeGarmo and Michael Wilton’s guitars are quintessential Queensryche, but with a desperation and realism often missed on other, more over-rehearsed productions.
Highlighting Barton’s work on the album is his recording of Tate. One listen to Promised Land’s title track shows a singer on the verge of drunken mental breakdown. Rumor has it, Tate couldn’t nail the vocal take he wanted for that song, so he and Barton got hammered, fired up the recording gear, and Tate delivered a truly authentic, gut-wrenching rendition that ended up on the record.
Looking back 25 years, there’s no denying Promised Land took the music world by surprise. But love it or hate it, it’s fueled by real life struggles that make it the most relatable and enduring record in Queensryche’s catalog.