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October 20, 2020

Down on the Rycheside

By Brian Heaton

When Queensryche released Hear in the Now Frontier in 1997, it was viewed as a departure for the band. Featuring songs that experimented with alternative rock, the band stripped away its signature lush production in favor of a rawer sound. While change from record-to-record was certainly a hallmark of Queensryche back then, this shift felt different.  

Instead of drawing from the band's classic influences to write the record or shutting out the noise and isolating to come up with material, at the time it sounded like Queensryche jumped on the grunge-era bandwagon. Over the years, I've changed course on that and come to view Hear in the Now Frontier as a natural evolution of Chris DeGarmo's writing. But it's hard to deny the impact the mid-1990s Seattle scene had on the album, particularly Soundgarden's Down on the Upside.  

Released in 1996, Down on the Upside was a sea change for Soundgarden. The emphasis on metal guitar riffs in the songs was downplayed, the tunes were brighter (for Soundgarden) and the band went for a live feel on the album. It focused on melody and experimented with other instruments such as the mandolin. Does any of that sound familiar, fellow Queensryche fans?  

It should. One listen to Down on the Upside's first few tracks should be all you need to hear to get the connection. Crank “Pretty Noose,” “Rhinosaur” and “Zero Chance” and then start listening to Queensryche's Hear in the Now Frontier. It should signal to you that Soundgarden's work in 1996 was likely a major source of inspiration for DeGarmo.

Admittedly, there's no definitive proof that DeGarmo siphoned some creative direction from Down on the Upside, but I think it's more than likely he was certainly listening to what his friends were creating. The Seattle music community is tight-knit, and smaller than most people realize. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise to know DeGarmo and Cornell were friends and the Queensryche guitarist is well known and liked by many of the musicians that hailed from that era of Seattle music.  

As most Queensryche fans know, DeGarmo guested on “Drone,” a track from Alice in Chains' last record, Rainier Fog. Back at the turn of the century he was a touring member of Jerry Cantrell's solo band and a guest on Cantrell's Degradation Trip album. And then there was Spys4Darwin, DeGarmo's project with Alice in Chains' Mike Inez and Sean Kinney. DeGarmo was also a key part of Alice in Chains' reunion, performing with the band at its 2005 Tsunami Benefit gig.  

DeGarmo's involvement with Soundgarden is more limited, but that's to be expected, since the band was on hiatus from 1997-2010. DeGarmo penned some commentary for Soundgarden's super deluxe edition of Badmotorfinger that was issued in 2016. In a nutshell, DeGarmo's got history with the Seattle musicians who followed in his footsteps from Pioneer Square to headlining arenas.  

Comments from both DeGarmo and Cornell about their respective records back then show the songwriters shared a creative goal with their work at the time.  

Cornell, speaking with Spin in 1996, had this to say about Down on the Upside:  

“What we've lost in sonic precision we've gained so much in terms of feeling. We aren't worried about it being the perfect guitar sound or the perfect vocal sound; we're worrying more about giving the performance we feel, the one that's really close to us.”  

DeGarmo echoed those thoughts in discussing Hear in the Now Frontier about a year later in an interview with Guitar magazine:  

“[T]he songs were written pretty quickly for it, and they weren't over-rehearsed…[w]e wanted to make it feel more like you're there as we're writing it. It made for a minimalistic approach.”  

To these ears, it is undeniable that Down on the Upside had a direct correlation with the direction DeGarmo steered Hear in the Now Frontier. But don't take it from me. Put these albums on and hear it for yourself. The trip down memory lane is well worth the time to listen to some of the most creative guitar work to come out of the Pacific Northwest.

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