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Going down the road of Progressive Metal will often introduce you to some rather sizable potholes, some being insignificant caprices of random thought that won’t have much impact, others being so well processed in their disorganization that they catch on and sell big despite lacking any musical coherence. Somewhere between the varied approach and expansive array of studio devices on this, Queensyrche’s 4th LP, the thing that truly gave their Progressive sound its metal edge was scuttled.
“Empire” is what one could call a stealth disease, a bit harder to catch than such obvious commercial fits of pandering as Metallica’s Load and Dokken’s Dysfunctional. It is presented in the same fashion as Mindcrime was, as a socially conscious opus with an interesting spoken intro, a collection of Progressive Metal Fanfares such as the title track and “Best I can”, and a good amount of experimentation. However, in the riff and production department, the balls of this former metal beast have been cut clean off.
The principle problem is the guitar sound, which has been processed and tweaked so much that the heavy aspect has been eliminated. A good analogy would be the overtly clean and high end distortion that Def Leppard began employing on Hysteria. Likewise, the drums have been boxed up nicely and sound so mechanical that I can’t tell if I’m listening to Scott Rockenfield or a drum machine. Geoff Tate’s voice is still pretty much on point, although he intentionally avoids getting a dirty sound out of his pipes of even flirting with the Halford range that he pulled off so masterfully on “The Warning”.
The best song on here is the title track, as it tends towards the dramatic yet steady approach that made “Breaking the Silence” and “Revolution Calling” from the last LP so exceptional. “Best that I can” and “Jet City Woman” are simple in their approach, but are cut from the same tree as the title track and rock quite hard. “Another Rainy Night” is obviously a radio friendly pop metal track, but it’s pulled off quite well and isn’t offensive to the ears. The closing track “Anybody Listening?” sounds a bit like a rehash of “Suite Sister Mary”, though without the theatrics and the powerful vocal performance to keep it interesting for 7 plus minutes.
Everything else on here enjoys an artful utilization of the once innovative feature of CD players known as the skip button. “The Thin Line”, “Resistance” and “Hand on Heart” are mediocre rock tracks that induce nothing but pure boredom, the riffs were interesting years before when Def Leppard presented them in a more contrapuntal fashion, but here its just redundancies galore. “Silent Lucidity” is a comical ballad that somehow tries to marry Rush’s sound with “I am the Walrus”. “One and Only” is another snoozer with a Def Leppard edge and one of the most annoying guitar drones I’ve heard featured during the verses.
However, despite the glowing gems of pop/rock mediocrity on full display in the lion’s share of this album, the true bomb that blows everything apart is the 7 minute Progressive blunder “Della Brown”. Aside from the pseudo-journalistic lyrics, which probably inspired every literary naturalist abomination Eddie Vedder ever put to verse, we’ve got the makings of a coffee house jam session. The same damned bass drone played for 7 minutes with little variation, no change in tempo, and some occasional spurts in dynamics due to some vocal effects. This could put a full blown crack addict to sleep in a single listen.
Empires come and go, so they say, and hopefully this one will soon be forgotten as it is musically quite forgettable. Killing heavy metal was a collective effort and Queensryche did their part 1 year before the Black Album came out. If you like over-processed pop/rock with some occasional fits of brilliance that don’t quite meet with the standard set by this band previously, I could maybe rationalize picking up a copy for $7. But if you want something by this band that really shines and doesn’t come up short in the metal department, their 80s catalog has a good deal more to offer.