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Queensrÿche were a very unusual band back in 82/83, in a number of respects. Perhaps something a lot of people don’t know is that they were signed to EMI on the strength of this EP alone, without playing any live shows at all. Sure, the members had all gigged extensively in different bands, but with Queensrÿche, they relied on magazines like Kerrang! (yes, they actually did care about real metal once) and the rest of the European press to create a buzz. Thanks to that, they were able to sell 60,000+ copies of this EP independently (on their label 206 Records, which was created for that purpose) and those were numbers even a major label like EMI couldn't ignore. So, how many metal bands can say they had their first demo released as an EP by a major label?
But what was it about Queensrÿche that so captured the attention of metalheads in the first place? Well, an obvious answer is frontman Geoff Tate’s impressive set of pipes. In this day and age, an operatically trained metal singer isn’t too uncommon, but in 1983 it was unheard of. Sure there were vocal giants like Halford and Dickinson and Dio, but despite undeniable natural talent their focus is undoubtedly more on a rock & roll-style raw delivery than the smooth, precise one favored by opera. Tate even predates operatic metal mainstay Messiah Marcolin, whose doom-stomp wasn’t even close enough in 1983 to start glasses of water ominously vibrating. As far as power, range, and emotion go, Tate can rattle the rafters with the upbeat, speedy “Queen of the Reich”, and still lay it on smooth with the power ballad “The Lady Wore Black”. Along with his immediately identifiable tone and a healthy dose of charisma, he quite literally set the standard for the white-collar USPM vocal delivery; while John Arch may have taken a slightly different approach, you can hear Tate’s direct influence in bands like Crimson Glory, Screamer, and Dead Calm, and a little further afield in Helloween and Dream Theater. Simply put, Tate belongs in the same category as the vocal giants I mentioned before; he’s just that good.
But moving on, I feel the instrumental side of the band is often given short shrift, being dubbed simple NWOBHM worship or worse, derivative of the same (albeit everyone still seems to agree it’s good). Frankly, this is a load of crap, as I hear far more Judas Priest on this EP than Iron Maiden, and the Maiden comparison becomes even more suspect when you take into account that this EP was recorded in the late summer of ’82, not even five months after the release of “The Number of the Beast”. Who knows how much earlier the songs were actually written? Beyond that, I simply don’t hear a lot of the rough, exuberant, bouncy Di’Anno-era Maiden in Queensrÿche’s polished, classy sound. Now, I don’t mean to say that NWOBHM played no part at all in ‘Rÿche’s sound, but the elements that do actually factor in are often grossly overstated, not to mention the genuine influence is leavened by a fair amount of Americanisms as well as Queensrÿche’s own ideas. Any idiot can say “this riff sounds a little like that Priest/Maiden riff” or “this dual-guitar lead was influenced by NWOBHM”, but fact of the matter is, the number of songs that went for this overall cumulative effect in 1982/3 can be counted on your fingers; this EP covers four of them. So what is that cumulative effect? Well, it’s essentially what white-collar USPM bands like Crimson Glory (yes, them again) and Queensrÿche themselves would later expand upon; expressions of mental anguish and existential angst, tempered in the lyrics by a healthy dose of traditional metal fantasy and horror (*blank* evil entity is coming for you!!!), which would be replaced on the next album by something more appropriate to the music and mood. NWOBHM did little but dabble in such things.
“Queen of the Reich” is often touted as the best track on this EP, but frankly I find it to be a bit weak compared to the rest. Sure, the opening is fantastic and that main riff slays, and sure the chorus is catchy as fuck; but the song is a little two-dimensional, riding that main riff and catchy chorus a bit too long for comfort. Still, it’s a good song. The two middle tracks, however, step things up a notch, perhaps thanks to being penned by Michael Wilton rather than Chris DeGarmo. Regardless, I tire of neither as I do with the opener, and both hint at greater things to come on The Warning. “Nightrider” sounds like a speedy Judas Priest song with added complexity and a dash of Queensrÿche-brand melancholy, while “Blinded” sounds even less like Priest and more like Queensrÿche themselves, along with an excellent “Murders in the Rue Morgue”-style dual-guitar lead (yes, that’s a bit of Iron Maiden influence I think we’re safe in assuming).
Finally we have the power ballad “The Lady Wore Black”, which showcases Tate’s softer side to great effect. The clean intro crafts the haunting, otherworldly mood perfectly, setting the stage for Tate’s tale of a man’s hopeless, cursed love for the ghost of a woman. Of course it gets nice and heavy under the chorus with a great riff, but unfortunately this DeGarmo track suffers the same problem as the last DeGarmo track; its otherwise good ideas are spread just a tad too thinly. However, the strong atmosphere and emotional delivery do alleviate this problem somewhat.
Overall these are four very strong songs with just a couple of flaws holding the EP back from being a definite classic. The first and last tracks are a bit simplistic, but of course by The Warning all such complaints disappear. Back in ’83 it simply blew metalheads away, and despite only showing inklings of the power/prog of the next release, I can say without a doubt that this was one of the most historically important metal recordings of the early '80s. Who would’ve guessed that after getting signed to a major label so quickly, their first full-length on it would be less accessible, and what’s more, even better?