Note: The past two years I have made a list of my favorite albums from the previous year (click here for 2008's list). I still plan to do that this year, but in a change I will occasionally review some albums. Here is the first.
Queensryche has been one of my favorite bands for about fifteen years now. They have produced two of my favorite albums, Operation: Mindcrime (1988) and Empire (1990). Since the release of Empire, however, their quality of music has steadily gone down. Their follow up to Empire, 1994's Promised Land, was described by many critics as "self-indulgent," but I still thought it was good. Hear in the Now Frontier, released in 1997, was mediocre. After its release, guitarist Chris DeGarmo left the band. His replacement, Kelly Gray, was not very good, and the quality of the music for the next album, 2000's Q2K, was poor, resulting in what I consider the band's weakest album. In 2003, DeGarmo rejoined the band in the studio only, and Tribe was released that same year. The album is OK, but not great. Guitarist Mike Stone joined the band, and the quality of music increased dramatically. 2006 saw the band release Operation: Mindcrime II, a sequel to their seminal concept album. The album, again, is OK, and left me wondering if Queensryche would ever regain their old form.
Their latest album, American Soldier, represents their best album in almost 20 years. Like Operation: Mindcrime, it too is a concept album, but in a different way. For this album, the band interviewed American soldiers who participated in various conflicts from World War II to the present-day Iraq war. Their goal was to tell stories that were common to all the soldiers they interviewed. The themes represented include boot camp ("Sliver"), the experience of pilots ("At 30,000 Ft.), returning to the home front ("Man Down!"), and the experience of the soldier's families ("Home Again"). The best song on the album, "The Voice," is their strongest song in a long time.
What makes the album more than just a piece of music is that the band included audio clips from the interviews they conducted in the songs. This makes the album a piece of oral history as well. And we all know how much I love oral history!
Musically, the album is very strong. Vocalist Geoff Tate, once considered one of the greatest singers to come out of the Seattle area (the band was formed in Bellevue in 1981), isn't as good as he once was. But he sounds better than he has in a long time. Guitarist Mike Stone left the band shortly before recording began, and Michael Wilton is the only guitar player on the album. Believe me, if Michael Wilton is the only guitarist you have, you're in good hands. He's an amazing guitarist, and it really shows here. And the band also features possibly the most solid and reliable rhythm section in heavy metal, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield. They do an amazing job. Lyrically, the album features some of the best lyrics they've had in a long time. Geoff Tate isn't the greatest lyricist, and the writing has gone down since DeGarmo, who was very strong at lyrics as well as guitar, left. But this album is lyrically very sound (with a few exceptions).
Overall, this is an early contender for album of the year, and a good return for a once great band. Welcome back.
Click here to watch the video for the first single, "If I Were King."