April 12, 2021
Vocal Harmonies – The Missing Ingredient in Queensryche's Live Sound
By Brian Heaton
When guitarist Chris DeGarmo left Queensryche at the end of 1997, it inevitably affected the band's chemistry. His distinctive playing style and songwriting were crucial parts of Queensryche's DNA. The band has soldiered on for almost 24 years since then, releasing numerous albums and touring the world countless times over. There's no denying that Queensryche is a bona fide success story.
Despite the group's longevity and accomplishments, however, there is one thing Queensryche hasn't quite gotten a handle on since DeGarmo's departure so many years ago—vocal harmonies. The lack of which is arguably the most glaring difference in the band's live performances ever since.
Casual fans of the band, or those Rychers who did not get to see Queensryche live in its original form and don't watch bootleg footage, may not even realize what they are missing. But it was DeGarmo who typically took the high harmony lines, singing above Geoff Tate in certain sections of songs. That combination (along with Tate's range and power, obviously) helped create the signature vocal drama Queensryche was known for.
Consider “Take Hold of the Flame,” one of Queensryche's most popular songs. Coming out of the guitar solo, Chris and Geoff unite for an inspiring harmony: “Throw down the chains of oppression that bind you. With the air of freedom, the flame grows bright.” The pair sang together like this for years.
For example, watch this performance of the lines from the song from Queensryche's show on February 1, 1991, in Osaka, Japan. DeGarmo's microphone is lower in volume, but you'll hear his thinner voice singing just above Tate's. Now watch Tate sing the lines without DeGarmo in July 2001 and again with current singer Todd La Torre at a performance in Athens, Greece, on November 16, 2019. Notice the difference?
On The Warning, Tate sings the harmony parts in “Take Hold of the Flame” himself. Same with “No Sanctuary,” “Spreading the Disease” and so many other selections from Queensryche's catalog of songs. But while Tate recorded them in the studio, it was Chris who sang them live and brought them to life.
Most bands have the lead singer record harmony parts in the studio. It just makes more sense to have the main vocalist do it. The question is—can the musicians replicate on stage what they've done in the studio without the aid of a supporting vocal backing track? That's where the rubber meets the road for a band. For Queensryche, the answer was a resounding “yes” during the original group's run, thanks to the singing of DeGarmo and bassist Eddie Jackson. But replicating recorded harmonies live is not as common in today's musical landscape, when backing tracks help mask a band's shortcomings.
If you've only seen Queensryche on tours that happened after 1997, you missed what was once considered a hallmark of the band's live sound. Yes, Jackson sings. And in Queensryche's original lineup, he'd often compliment Tate and DeGarmo. But Jackson sang independent background vocals most of the time, and his call and response parts such as on “Screaming in Digital” from Rage for Order. After Chris left, the harmonies in Queensryche's show were simply dropped, leaving a gaping void in the band's live presentation.
Admittedly, singing harmony can be difficult, even for the most seasoned vocalists. To sing a harmony, you choose from the remaining notes in a chord that are not already taken by the melody. It sounds simple, but even the strongest melody singers can struggle figuring out where to put their voice. It takes talent, practice, and a great ear.
Rock groups such as The Beatles and The Everly Brothers made harmony singing a staple vocal technique in the genre. In the hard rock/metal arena, there have been some such as the late Layne Staley (now William DuVall) and Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains, and Doug Pinnick, Jerry Gaskill and Ty Tabor from King's X, who have done it from the start of their careers. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Sevendust perform back-to-back livestream broadcasts of two of their albums—Seasons and Home. All five band members sing, but it is lead vocalist Lajon Witherspoon and guitarist Clint Lowery who do the harmonies. The performance of Seasons was simply a master class in harmony singing by Lowery, particularly the song “Burned Out,” which spurred the idea for this blog.
When watching Queensryche these days, it's fun listening to the vocal acrobatics of La Torre. But while hearing him hit some stratospheric notes is always entertaining, I'll always miss the beautiful harmonies that Tate and DeGarmo sang. Between their two voices, songs became rallying cries and anthems, propelling Queensryche to another level of excellence on stage.