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June 14, 2019
A Vision Ahead of Its Time: The Three-Tiered Theme of Queensryche's Rage for Order
By Brian Heaton
Operation: Mindcrime is often lauded as one of rock and metal’s finest concept albums. Lost in the wake of that record’s plaudit, however, is what may be Queensryche’s most lyrically-complex work, Rage for Order.
Released in 1986, and structured as multi-layered theme, Rage for Order zeroes in on the term “order” in three different ways—personal, political, and technological. Each song on the album examines one, and sometimes more, of those three areas, with several twists and turns along the way. Even the album title is a contradiction in terms, pitting the word “rage” against its polar opposite, “order.” It’s no surprise why Rage for Order is often described as “ahead of its time.”
Before diving in for a critical discourse on Rage for Order, let’s be clear—it isn’t a concept album. Although opinions always differ on what defines a “concept,” I think it’s well established in 2019 that a concept album is a musical work that tells a story through its lyrics. A theme-based record, however, doesn’t follow a storyline, but instead touches on subjects that are loosely connected.
At a 30,000-ft. level, Rage for Order’s over-arching theme is, in this writer’s opinion, ultimately Queensryche’s questioning of the human need for and obsession with structure, and how Orwellian characteristics could ultimately impact society. Singer/ co-lyricist Geoff Tate has talked for decades about his disdain for figurative “boxes,” which supports this theory. The album’s lyrics, ripe with references to George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, along with the initial novels from Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, consist of social commentary, personal experience and fictional accounts that tie in with the previously mentioned sub-themes of order.
Simply put, describing Rage for Order as “complex” would be a tremendous understatement, and a disservice to the album’s intricate construction. To better appreciate the depth and brilliance of Rage for Order, the following paragraphs break down the record track-by-track, explaining (to the best of my knowledge) the meaning of each song, and which sub-theme of “order” it belongs to.
1. Walk in the Shadows
“Walk in the Shadows” is pretty straightforward. It’s about a relationship involving a vampire, and his obsession with a woman who left him, and the continuing observation of that woman and the desire to still have her in the darkness with him. (Personal Order.)
2. I Dream in Infrared
Another relationship song, with the perspective of someone longing for a person that he can’t have, and how the person will never quite relate to what they are dealing with. There are also some more vaguely sinister vibes from this tune, which Queensryche was always known to include in their “love” songs. Some have debated whether this tune continues the reference to the vampire in “Walk in the Shadows.” I think it certainly does, but like most Queensryche songs, it is open to interpretation. (Personal Order.)
3. The Whisper
Here’s where Rage for Order really begins to intermingle its sub-themes. Written completely (music and lyrics) by guitarist/co-lyricist Chris DeGarmo, the song at first feels like it is a continuation of the vampiric overtones. DeGarmo has said the song is about Charles Manson and his cult. You certainly can see how both are plausible.
Looking deeper, however, I’ve always believed that another interpretation of the tune could be about technology. Specifically, satellite observation.
“Cold is the viper
The “viper” is the satellite, which is “cold” (being up in space, and a machine, so it is “unfeeling”), which stalks through the night skies, seeking (in infrared) the heat of human signatures. Those signatures are people, and ultimately the victims which it reports on at specific times, providing data on its targets, line after line, time after time. Admittedly, it may be a stretch. But Queensryche (back then) was known for putting a ton of misdirection and subtlety in their songs, so you never know.
“The Whisper” may be about a vampire relationship, or even a relationship between a cult leader like Manson. But thanks to DeGarmo’s attention to detail, coming up with a singular, definitive sub-theme on this song is almost impossible. (Personal/Political/Technological Orders.)
4. Gonna Get Close to You
“Gonna Get Close to You” is the first (and only) cover song to appear on the official track listing of an album by the original lineup of Queensryche. Written by Lisa Dal Bello (also known as Dalbello), Queensryche’s video for the tune portrays a vampiric (courtesy of Tate and flashing red eyes) stalker, making this appear to be straightforward and in the “Personal Order” sub-theme.
Take another look at the lyrics however. It references technology (the phone), and curiously, repeats “it’s as plain as black and white” in the verses. “Black and white” can mean various things, but its also a term for a police car. Or more apt in this situation, law enforcement in general.
If you accept that the observer may not be some sort of potential rapist or obsessive peeping Tom, and instead is a representative of law enforcement or government (note the lyric “You think I'm a fool or maybe some kind of lunatic. Say I'm wasting my time, but I know what to do with it.”) you can make a case that the tune is referencing all three sub-themes on the record.
Interestingly, the other choice Queensryche had for a cover song was Dalbello’s “Wait for An Answer,” which went on to be recorded by Heart for Bad Animals. Looking at those lyrics, they also touch upon both the personal and technological sub-themes of Rage for Order.
Even if I’m reaching a bit on including the two other sub-themes when describing it, “Gonna Get Close to You” was an undeniable no-brainer, lyrically, for Queensryche to include on the record. (Personal/Political/Technological Orders.)
5. The Killing Words
This song meaning and its place on the record is clear. It’s a song about a relationship that ended, which (according to rumor) completely devastated Tate. In fact, although the song came out in 1986, Queensryche didn’t play it live until the MTV Unplugged show in 1992. (Personal Order.)
6. Surgical Strike
Written by DeGarmo and fellow guitarist Michael Wilton, “Surgical Strike” leaves behind the sub-theme of personal order, and firmly embraces the other two sub-themes. The song describes soldiers highly trained to go into battle, which in general, serves a political cause. But the way in which the tune describes the soldiers as leaving for war “with minds of steel,” and that “we’ve programmed the way,” “taught them not to feel,” etc., all adds up. But the second verse, particularly the last lines of it “At master control, assessment will not be by humans,” really drives home the technological sub-theme. Was it just soldiers who were enhanced with technology, or have they become slaves to technology? Interesting to ponder. (Political/Technological Orders.)
7. Neue Regel
Translated from German, “neue regel” means “new rule.” The song is political in nature, talking about a new way of doing things, an upheaval of the established order with something else ready to be embraced. Look closer, however. Notice the terms “circuit scream,” and “electric time shock.” Is Tate talking ONLY about a new type of government, or is he also referencing artificial intelligence playing a role in the new order? (Political/Technological Orders.)
8. Chemical Youth (We Are Rebellion)
A statement song if there ever was one, “Chemical Youth” sends a powerful message about all the different elements pushing to influence human existence. Specifically, it’s a rallying cry to cut through the clutter, stand together, and question how we allow ourselves to be led. Tate’s monologue in the bridge is not contained in the lyrics. But it talks about how one person can make a difference if they believe in something, and it doesn’t need to involve violence to achieve it. It’s clearly political in nature, but “praise me – our religion is technology” again shows how the rise of the digital age was very much on Tate’s mind during the time. (Political/Technological Orders.)
This is a very personal song about an experience Tate had in London while recording The Warning. Its meaning was highly debated among fans. To my knowledge, Tate has never really come clean about exactly what went down, but he has said that it was a mind-opening experience that permanently changed him. The lyrics clearly show it was about a relationship of some kind, and the words also revisit the vampire elements from earlier on the album. (Personal Order.)
10. Screaming in Digital
I could gush for pages about the incredible complexity and depth of this song, both musically and lyrically. Simply put, it is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard. The tune is a conversation between a computer with artificial intelligence and the human who programmed it. The human is referred to as the father, whereas the A.I. is the son. It’s a discussion back and forth between the two about life, experiences, and the son’s continued reliance on the father despite a growing desire for independence.
It’s interesting to note that the son and father, as the song progresses, talk over one another, with neither really listening. The rage builds throughout the tune, as the “son” develops further, determined to achieve the freedom that the father cannot, or will not, provide, concluding with emotional outburst of “no one can hear when you’re screaming in digital!” asserting the father’s will over the son’s…for now.
The other aspect of “Screaming in Digital” is the connection between it and “NM 156” from Queensryche’s previous album, The Warning. There has always been debate whether “Screaming in Digital” is a sequel or prequel to “NM 156,” which discusses the link between man and machine. The band has generally performed the two songs back-to-back when both were in the setlist. For instance, on the Operation: Mindcrime headline tour in 1989, “NM 156” led off the show and was followed by “Screaming in Digital.” On the Promised Land tour, abridged versions of both were played, but in the opposite order. No matter what you believe the correct order to be, put me in the camp of those who believe the songs are intrinsically linked.
Given the discussion above, it’s pretty obvious where “Screaming in Digital” fits in the theme of Rage for Order. (Technological/Personal Orders.)
11. I Will Remember
From a lyrical perspective, “I Will Remember” is a perfect follow-up to “Screaming in Digital.” It’s not that the songs are linked, but “I Will Remember” focuses very clearly references satellite technology. “Distant eyes,” “orbit survey finds…your mind,” “the star that came tonight,” and “knowing star,” are pretty direct references to it.
The second verse makes the song a bit more “human” however, painting the picture of a person reminiscing of times that were simpler, and more private. But then the person observes the satellite in the sky, realizing that it’s the same technology he or she uses to get information. “Nation’s eyes” was a nice addition to link all three sub-themes together. (Technological/Personal/Political Orders.)
The members of Queensryche have always recoiled at the group being called “the thinking man’s metal band,” but its easy to see why the moniker stuck, particularly when you take a critical look at Rage for Order. The lyrics are scholarly and progressive, expertly weaving literal and metaphoric references across a trio of themes that examine the human condition in the mid-1980s. And just think—this blog didn’t discuss the music, which heightened the impact of the lyrics, and took “progressive metal” into gothic-inspired territory and served as an influence for a whole new sub-genre of heavy metal.
If you’re reading this, chances are, you’re already familiar with just how under-appreciated Rage for Order is, living in the shadow of Operation: Mindcrime. But the next time you speak the word about Queensryche’s place in metal history, give Dr. X and Nikki the day off, and serve up a lecture on Rage for Order.