May 5, 2017

Did Single Choices Derail Promised Land?

By Brian Heaton

Numbers don't lie. From sports and entertainment to business, numbers define success and failure. And with a drop in album sales from almost four million with Empire, to one million with Promised Land, many would consider the latter a major disappointment for Queensryche.

But in this case, numbers don't tell the whole story. Twenty-three years after Promised Land's release, the album is heralded by hardcore fans, who still generally cite "timing" as why the record didn't resonate with the mainstream. Empire came out in 1990, when hard rock was at a high point, whereas when Promised Land hit the shelves in 1994, the so-called "grunge" era was in full-swing, and Queensryche's brand of "thinking man's metal" wasn't in style.

While timing is certainly a factor, as it had been four years between album releases, it isn't the smoking gun in the case of why Promised Land failed to live up to the hype. Consider that Queensryche maintained a dedicated following thanks to a decade of hard touring and grassroots activity throughout the world. After the support tour for Empire concluded in January 1992, the home video Building Empires was released to critical acclaim, and in 1993, "Real World" became a successful single from the Last Action Hero soundtrack. Both helped keep Queensryche in the media and in front of fans. It wasn't as if the band vanished as some claim. In addition, the Queensryche's record label, EMI, spared no expense with the summer 1994 print, radio and TV advertising leading up to the release of Promised Land in October.

So, what went wrong? The singles. Choosing the wrong tracks to represent Promised Land doomed the album from the start.

"I Am I" was picked as the lead single off of Promised Land. While a good song, the tune also has a very rhythmic, Middle Eastern and tribal-like vibe to it, which was very different for Queensryche at the time. The accompanying music video was also pretty unconventional from a visual standpoint, with Geoff Tate's head spinning in circles. Quite frankly, both the song and video were weird, and definetly not what was expected from Queensryche after Empire.

The title track from Empire was that record's lead single – a mid-tempo, heavy riff song with an intense socio-political vibe to it. Promised Land has a musically-similar counterpart, albeit with a more introspective message: "Damaged." Arguably, had the band released "Damaged" as its lead single, and followed the marketing pattern of Empire, the MTV audience and fringe fans likely would have embraced the song more readily, setting the stage for a more successful promotional campaign.

I think EMI realized this, and introduced "Bridge," an acoustic-based, personal song, very much akin to Empire's "Silent Lucidity," as Promised Land's second single and video. It was an obvious attempt to connect with as many crossover fans as possible. Predictably, "Bridge" performed better than "I Am I" on the charts, which led to a make-it-or-break-it call on the third single.

Unfortunately, Queensryche made another error. Instead of going with an up-tempo cut like like Empire's third single, "Best I Can," the band released "Dis-con-nec-ted," another "off-kilter" track, featuring a shuffle beat and spoken-word vocals. I'm not sure what the marketing team at EMI or Queensryche was thinking here, particularly when there were more obvious single choices for radio available to them, such as "My Global Mind," or if they wanted a bigger chorus and hook, "One More Time." Both of these songs would have arguably garnered more interest from traditional hard rock and metal listeners.

Even Promised Land's final (promo) single, "Someone Else?" was a curious choice, given the completely un-radio-friendly piano-vocal version on the record, and the length of the "full-band" version that was released as a b-side.

Speaking of b-sides, there was one waiting in the wings from Promised Land that could have been a savior: "Dirty Lil Secret." Leaving it off the album made artistic sense – it didn't have nearly the same introspective vibe the rest of the songs did. However, it's chorus and witty lyrics were a natural fit for radio, and could have given Promised Land, and Queensryche, a big shot in the arm.

Releasing b-sides and soundtrack songs as singles was and is a regular practice. Queensryche did it with "Last Time in Paris," a similar cut from the Empire days, which did very well as a single from the Ford Fairlaine soundtrack. I can't help but think "Dirty Lil Secret" would have done the same for Promised Land.

I don't hold it against Queensryche for creating a record that had its own unique flavor and sound. It was a bold move and resulted in a phenomenal record. However, I do think the decisions made on what songs would represent Promised Land to the masses were monumental mistakes. Sure, hindsight is always 20/20. But time has shown that those choices doomed Promised Land to obscurity and the lack of success likely played a significant factor in Queensryche's fracture just a few years later.

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