Wednesday, April 24, 2013

REVIEW: Queensryche - Frequency Unknown

People are going to love this album...and people are going to hate it. Trust none of them. Including me. If Queensryche ever challenged us to think for ourselves then Frequency Unknown, more so than any other release in the history of the band, is the most blatant embodiment of that challenge. It has already proven to be extremely polarizing. I fear, however, that this polarization has resulted more from the drama surrounding the band than the music on display. My advice: listen to the record. Forget the context in which it exists. Chances are, you may find yourself wedged between the factions rather than firmly planted on either side.Then again, maybe not.

Frequency Unknown
is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. But, it's not the complete disaster some of the harbingers have predicted either. Musically, its very much akin to Operation: Mindcrime 2 and American Soldier. It's not the lovechild of Dedicated To Chaos and Kings And Thieves you may have expected. That being the case, and if not for the unfortunate events over the past year, we might very well have championed this album as a return to form had the original band released it. There's only one problem. Frequency Unknown is not a Queensyche album.

Frequency Unknown finds Geoff Tate as the lone remaining member of Queensryche's classic lineup. He is joined here by a veritable army of notable talent including Kelly Gray (Queensryche 1998-2000), Robert Sarzo (Quiet Riot, Hurricane), Rudy Sarzo (Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Whitesnake, Quiet Riot), Simon Wright (AC/DC, Dio, Rhino Bucket), Randy Gane, Craig Locicero (Forbidden), Jason Slater, Martin Irigoyen, Paul Bostaph (Slayer, Testament, Exodus), Evan Bautista, Chris Cannella, Ty Tabor (King's X), K.K. Downing (Judas Priest), Brad Gillis (Night Ranger), Dave Meniketti (Y/T), and Chris Poland (Megadeth). An impressive group of musicians, no doubt. But as one would surmise...a group unable to replicate anything approximating the Queensryche sound.

Having spent some additional time with first single and lead-off track, Cold, I'm going to update my original assessment of it. My view hasn't changed much. Only now, having heard the entire album, it's abundantly clear why this was picked as the teaser. It is arguably the most commercial and accessible track on offer here. Previously, I slammed the production on this, but having lived with the entire record for a few days I can honestly say this sounds the most "finished" of all the tracks. It also reminds me of Open, the first single from Tribe. Both songs utilize a deceptively old-school metal riff to hook the listener. Both albums then rarely, if ever, provide a riff as memorable again throughout their duration. Still, I've warmed to this considerably. My original rating was a 6 but I'm tempted to bump that to a 7. My only issue is that it seems to overstay its welcome a bit. I would have trimmed off the last 40 seconds, cut back into the main riff, and closed it out. I feel those last 40 seconds not only kill the momentum but they also begin to expose Geoff's diminishing vocal prowess which up until this point wasn't as noticeable. One more issue: the solo doesn't fit...but, I like it anyway. Go figure.

I can't understand why Dare was front-loaded on this album. At track two it has the dubious distinction of being the single worst song on the record. Already, the flow is botched. To begin with, the sonic shift from the opening salvo to Dare is jarring. It's obvious these songs were mixed by different people. That isn't something you want made obvious. Musically, this is dated and dull. The riff is browned out and boring. The lyrics are embarrassing. Geoff's tough guy attitude and use of the F-bomb do him absolutely no favors here. Let's talk about the hook: there isn't one. It goes nowhere. This is a stale leftover from Dedicated To Chaos...and nobody wants those leftovers.

Give It To You is next. I was relieved to discover this had no musical or lyrical similarity to Got It Bad despite my intuition telling me it would. Instead, this is a laid back modern rocker and a very different sound for Geoff. Again, odd placement on the record. However, I actually enjoy the main lick quite a bit. There's a distinct southern rock vibe to it. It reminds me of something on Tesla's last two studio albums. Robert Sarzo's solo on this is also a nice surprise. It's just unfortunate that Give It To You wasn't an instrumental piece because the lyrics and vocals ruin the entire thing.

Thankfully, things pick up with Slave. I was expecting to hate this track based on the 30-second sample but it has become one of the few that I feel actually works both musically and vocally. Firstly, it's in possession of a monster groove and Geoff sounds good over it. His sinister, whispered vocal on the verses is effective even if he begins to strain again during the chorus. While I think the track loses steam during the break down segment, I find it quite solid overall. My only major gripe...the awkward fade out. What happened there?

In The Hands Of God is my favorite track. This could have appeared on Operation: Mindcrime 2 or American Soldier. I wouldn't be surprised if it was originally written for either of those. This is dark, moody, and experimental. It's filled with those trademark Tate spoken-word passages you either love or think have become a crutch. There's definitely a nod to Gonna Get Close To You going on here as well. The most progressive oriented song on the album and the closest to the classic Queensryche sound.

When Running Backwards kicked in I was beginning to think the album had hit its stride. I legitimately dig the opening riff...but once again, the vocals and lyrics make it virtually unlistenable. Tate's tendency to scat his words here just ruins any impact the music may have had. As before, no hook to speak of. Just the title repeated over and over with no emotion behind it. Rushed and pointless.

Life Without You is a leftover from Operation: Mindcrime 2. I have no concrete evidence to back this up but I am convinced of it. Listen to this and imagine Nikki singing this to the now deceased Sister Mary. The music during the verses attempts that moody motif from Mindcrime. There's even a line about revolution. Regardless, this is second only to Cold as the most commercially viable track on the album. I'm assuming "second single" but my better judgement tells me I'm fooling myself.

Everything is yet another interesting musical idea marred by a sleepy vocal and inane lyrics. This track demands an intense, powerful delivery but what we get is one of Tate's most emotionless performances so far. He just sounds so bored by the whole mess. He clearly has no interest in this music at all. There's a nice little Queen-esque break at the two-minute mark but Geoff sings over it so, nevermind.

Fallen. See Everything above, but add "faceless modern garbage" to the description.

Weight Of The World creeps in with Geoff's increasingly shaky vocals over acoustic guitar. Nowhere is it more apparent just how far his instrument has deteriorated than it is here. Where once he was powerful, clear, and he's strained, nasally, and raspy. This is the album's closing piece and is clearly modeled after epics like Anybody Listening? and Someone Else? and The Right Side Of My Mind. It comes nowhere near the majestic power displayed on those classics. Those songs were sweeping, emotional, and beautiful. Weight Of The World is none of those things. It quickly devolves from such lofty aspirations into a brash conglomeration of under produced and poorly mixed nonsense. It's a six minute song. It seems like ten.

In regards to the four re-recorded classics that close the album: Listen to each of them one time to satiate your curiosity. Then, delete them. There's no reason to listen to these bastardizations ever again. There's no reason they should even exist. The re-recorded tracks are the biggest abomination imaginable and are an absolute disgrace to the originals. I am absolutely shocked Tate allowed these to ever see the light of day. Anyone with any respect for the legacy of the band would have never participated in the creation of these travesties. Moving on...

Frequency Unknown could have very easily been the best Geoff Tate solo album ever released. If Tate had started this project last summer, hired a competent producer, engineer, and mixer, fleshed out the lyrics, and dedicated some time with a respected vocal coach...the results would have surprised everyone. That may seem like a lot of work. It really isn't. All of those things could have been achieved within the past year. Instead, the album was rushed. Don't believe me? Listen to it. The proof is right there in the production, in the mix, in the vocals, in the lyrics, and in the songs. Again, there is much here I enjoy. Geoff Tate has always been eclectic in his musical tastes and influences. There are interesting musical ideas scattered all over this. However, the pieces are constructed with a careless, show-me-the-money attitude. That attitude translates directly to the finished project. You can hear it. Any commerical and/or critical potential this could have had has been suffocated by the desire to speed this product onto the shelves for a quick buck. Talk about irony.

Maybe Geoff's next project should be a concept album based around the story of the Tortoise and the Hare.


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