I'm notably out of date with Queensrÿche, as this sixteenth studio album reminds me. I was aware that Geoff Tate had been fired, because I saw him live with his solo band a few years ago after his court case was settled and he didn't get the band name. However, I can't remember the last time that I heard the folk did. I must have heard something more recent than the heyday of Operation: Mindcrime and Empire, which is somehow three decades ago. Maybe it was Tribe, when guitarist Chris DeGarmo temporarily returned to the band, but that was still 2003 so almost twenty years ago. I guess time flies.
However horrendously out of date I am, this sounds much like I expect Queensrÿche to sound, with the caveat that it's nowhere near as theatrical as I remember for the most part. The openers are perfectly fine but they also sound acutely unsurprising. In particular, In Extremis is about as close to the Queensrÿche textbook as you can get without adding dramatic samples. Everything about it does the business, from the elegant riffing to the Bruce Dickinson vibrato, but it's been done a lot and often by this band. If you're a fan, you're going to love it. If you aren't, you're going to wonder why they're labelled as progressive when they haven't changed in three decades.
The first song that truly grabbed me was Sicdeth four in with its vicious riff. To be fair, it starts out a little differently and that's engaging too, because it shows that there is still a progressive vein in their collective body, but then the riff kicks in and vocalist Todd La Torre happily gets his teeth into it. In fact, it's more urgent generally and it sometimes feels like the entire band has captured something and they're surrounding it, each ready to pounce. It does lighten up at points but it's a more interesting song on every front. And maybe that's what I'm looking for. In Extremis is strong in many ways but it's not interesting to me. Sicdeth is.
And, as if the band had been waiting for a wake up call, Sicdeth prompts them to get interesting a lot more often. It's followed by Behind the Walls, one of two truly progressive songs here, and it's a highlight of the album. La Torre doesn't so much sing this one as act it out, crooning some lines, spitting others at us and changing his phrasing almost as a form of intonation. The other is better still, but we have to wait for it because Tormentum is the closer. With one exception, it's easily my favourite on the album, even if it seems to throw everything at the wall like a checklist. It's nicely done.
It's worth mentioning that these two songs are the longest on the album, even if they aren't that long by prog standards. Behind the Walls clocks in at just over six minutes and Tormentum almost reaches seven and a half. This sort of timeframe clearly gives the band enough breathing room to introduce something new and different and those elements elevate both songs. I realise that this album is an hour long, so there's plenty of music here, but I believe it would have been better had it been split into two separate albums, but with each song given more time to breathe. That's the point at which the magic shows up.
And, as if to underline that, my favourite song here is Nocturnal Light, under six minutes so hardly an epic, even if we can stretch that term to apply to Behind the Walls and Tormentum. However, it is the third longest song here, because nothing else but Lost in Sorrow even makes it past the five minute mark. Never mind the samples on Tormentum, it's Nocturnal Light that shows us an overt theatrical side to Queensrÿche and, while I knew that I'd missed that all along, I didn't realise just how much until this song delivered it. It's an elegant prowler of a song with LaTorre delivering yet again and the backdrop serving as an able spotlight.
I love the backdrop here. It has an interesting sound to kick off, almost an industrial beat but such an elegant one, as if the churning machinery we hear is hidden behind polished mahogany. That's evolved into a fantastic second half that's mostly instrumental and, as much as La Torre proves, if we needed justification, that he can fill Geoff Tate's admittedly large boots, I relished this chance to focus on the band behind him. And I don't just mean Mike Stone and founder member Michael Wilton on twin guitars here, we're treated to a whole slew of gorgeous lines from fellow founder member Eddie Jackson's bass, and touring drummer Casey Grillo shows us exactly why he's now a permanent member of the band. I must have listened to this song a dozen times, focusing on each of those instruments in turn. It's a progressive metal gem.
So this could have been a better album, in my opinion, if the band had played up their strengths a lot more, but it's still a decent album with some strong standouts.