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Screaming in Digital

A Blog on Classic Queensryche

May 5, 2017

Did Single Choices Derail Promised Land?

It's said that 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.

Twenty-three years later, however, the album is heralded by hardcore fans, who still question why Promised Land didn’t resonate the way Empire did. The simplest reason, and one so many people cite, is timing—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.

In this case, numbers don't tell the whole story. While it had been four years between album releases, 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. In addition, the band’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.

-- Brian Heaton


April 5, 2017

Hear in the Now Frontier – A 20th Anniversary Review

"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.

-- Brian Heaton


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