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A progish USPM masterpiece; easily ‘Rÿche’s best - 97%

failsafeman, July 24th, 2008

Queensrÿche are often hailed as the founders of progressive metal, mostly on the strength of 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime, which is also generally considered the band’s masterpiece. Taking a look at the attention given to their releases, a casual observer might think Queensrÿche went right from their debut EP to Operation: Mindcrime and then promptly sold out (the prog rock crowd especially tends to overlook or downplay the significance of their earlier material). Of course most serious fans of metal are aware of The Warning, but unlike Rage for Order and Queensrÿche’s post-Operation: Mindcrime material this album doesn’t deserve in the least its position in the shadow of that ponderous prog opus. By 1988 they may have moved on, but back in 1984 Queensrÿche were still clearly pioneering the sound of white-collar USPM, along with comrades Fates Warning. Sure, touches of prog influence peek through and quite a few individual elements point back towards their NWOBHM roots (in what ways I’ll get to later), but their context, as with Fates Warning, Crimson Glory, and numerous similar bands, was within a distinctly power metal framework. In my review for Omen’s Battle Cry (also released in 1984) I touched on what white-collar USPM is about; here, I will elaborate.

As esoteric as the distinction between blue- and white-collar USPM may seem to some, many differences are immediately obvious; just put on a good example of the former, like Battle Cry, and follow it with The Warning. Right from the get-go you’ll notice the difference in vocal styles, with one being gruff, aggressive, and primal, while the other is clean, precise, and full of complex emotion. The overall mood of the music follows suit; blue is fast, aggressive, and violent, while white is slower, more melodic, and contemplative. Something that becomes clear after a bit more time is that the former tends to depend more heavily on riffs and percussive rhythms, while the latter de-emphasizes those somewhat in favor of vocals and guitar leads (though these tendencies are by no means without exception). Still, some bands mix these characteristics up, and it’s important to remember that blue- and white-collar USPM are not two separate categories, but rather two ends of the same spectrum, two sides to the same coin. With that in mind, it becomes clear that many of their aesthetic differences stem from a difference in approach to what is essentially the same subject, namely freedom and the constraint thereof, which of course includes many things but is ultimately always death (that may seem self-evident as those are two major themes of metal, but if you dig deeply enough into any subgenre’s ideology you will always find one or more of them; the differences spring from how these archetypes are dealt with). But, while blue-collar USPM focuses on freedom attained in fantasy, and death as a finish line to be fearlessly sprinted across in as glorious a fashion as possible, white-collar USPM focuses on the lack of freedom present in our society, with death as a premature end to an unfulfilled (and under the circumstances, perhaps unfulfillable) life. So, with little freedom and a death that comes too soon, is it any wonder that these angst-filled white-collar types often crack under the pressure and go mad by album’s end? Aside from this one, both of Crimson Glory’s first two wind up walking the road to madness in their final tracks, and I’m sure diligent metalheads could find more examples. Others seek hope in the possibility of an afterlife, but as John Arch finds in “The Apparition”, it is not Heaven or Valhalla but only nothingness that awaits. There are actually a surprising number of parallels to be made to Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”), the German artistic movement of the 18th century that sprung up as a backlash against the rigid rationality of the Enlightenment. It focused on the introspective exploration of emotional extremes; literary characters were often violent, either towards others or themselves (Schiller’s Die Räuber provides numerous examples of both). Without going too far off on a tangent (feel free to read more about S&D, there are many more similarities in addition to those I touched upon), suffice to say that white-collar USPM is most similar in that it portrays these extremes of emotion in response to constraint, without any kind of solution in sight, other than perhaps escape into madness or death. Like in Orwell’s 1984, revolution is discussed in The Warning but doesn’t ever appear to bring about any results other than more senseless, inglorious bloodshed. Crushed beneath oppression’s heel, feelings of helplessness pervade the album, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Anyone who thinks art always ought to have some constructive positive message can fuck right off. As O’Brien says, “if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face...forever.”

While The Warning is not a concept album in the strictest sense, it is nonetheless clear that this is more than a mere collection of unrelated songs; the whole album was inspired by Orwell’s 1984 (the coincidence of the release date is one of those fun quirks of metal history), and there is a definite arrangement of the track order. Little touches serve to make that transition between songs smoother, such as the lead-in to “Child of Fire” which starts at the end of “Before the Storm”, and the expository opening and epic, sweeping finale certainly wouldn’t fit anywhere else. The album also seems to flow as far as its mood goes too, so while it may not narrate a coherent story, it certainly feels like it does if you’re not following the lyrics.

If you’re new to the genre, or have been living under a rock, or are simply looking for another perspective, I’ll take the time to describe the main elements of Queensrÿche’s sound on The Warning. At the forefront is incomparable frontman Geoff Tate in all his operatic glory; if you thought he was good on the EP, he’s even better here, with an even more emotionally charged performance and a much more extensive and effective use of vocal multi-tracking. Almost every chorus has something neat going on, from the simple harmony of the title track to the rumbling repetition of the title beneath the main vocal line on “Before the Storm”. The melodies themselves, while certainly great and emotional on their own, are just taken to the next level by Tate’s delivery; take for example “NM 156”, with its transition from a robotically clipped delivery (“punch, punch, punch the data into code”) to the anguished cries of the chorus (“Have we come too far to turn around?”). Or how about the incredibly dark intro to “Take Hold of the Flame” that is followed by its chorus, perhaps the most hopeful and exultant part of the whole album? Along with “Deliverance”, that chorus is one of the very few bright spots on an otherwise unremittingly dark and oppressive album, a contrast that only emphasizes the latter quality (after all, what is fear of hell without hope of heaven?). Let’s not even get into the multi-part, choir-accented tour-de-force that is the epic closer. Seriously, no one equaled Tate’s range of emotion in metal back then, and even today you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone able to pull off such variation; the man can pretty much do anything he wants to with his voice, which luckily for us is powerful and complex emotion on this album. Later he’d descend into syrupy-sweet cliché (like “Silent Lucidity”, ugh), but here there is none of that. Despite sharing similar general compositional elements and an emphasis on melody over aggression and speed, it is this emotional complexity that fundamentally separates white-collar USPM from happy mindless flower schlock like Keepers-era Helloween or Rhapsody.

Instrumentally, things become a bit more difficult to succinctly describe. On the one hand there’s the obvious Judas Priest/NWOBHM influence, especially evident in the dual-guitar leads, though by this point even those NWOBHM trademarks were starting to seem more evolved than ever before; I certainly never heard Diamond Head or Iron Maiden even come close to the complexity of that lengthy twin lead masterpiece in “NM 156”. Listen to the range of emotions it flows through, how much of an integral component of the song it is, and then laugh at Helloween’s flashy but insubstantial power metal leads that have about the same emotional impact as a pie hitting a clown in the face. Anyway, listen to “NM 156” and you’ll hear what inspired Crimson Glory’s love of leads. On the other hand, some things have become a bit more difficult to identify. Naysayers love to claim that early Queensrÿche material is almost totally derivative of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, and even Def Leppard, citing individual riffs or melodies as “evidence”, but while elements do resemble older British models and compared to the EP or later material, The Warning does have more Iron Maiden influence, it’s like Queensrÿche took a bunch of castle Legos and used them to build a spaceship; a lot of the same building blocks are visible, but the context and result are totally new. Predecessors at best showed glimpses of Queensrÿche’s sound, but none actually put out an album focusing on it. Upon close listens it becomes clear prog rock was also an influence, though more a spiritual than a musical one, and not in the sense that “prog” has come to mean “harder to play”. Pink Floyd producer James Guthrie was chosen for The Warning, and while not a direct example this certainly supports my point. Less concrete but more conclusive is the album’s de-emphasis on riffs that I mentioned earlier; while there are certainly plenty of riffs of high quality, they’re more subtle and “behind the scenes” compositionally, rather than in your face as is usual for metal. As far as the identity of the songs go, they’re much more reliant on vocals than guitars; the latter do lay an essential foundation which peeks through at times, though, quite obviously on the title track with its marching main riff or the tension/release of the off-kilter one on “Before the Storm”. For the most part, though, they contribute more on a subconscious than a conscious level, and there are plenty of excellent clean sections without any riffs at all. Queensrÿche are almost in Manilla Road territory on this album in terms of their ability to write superb clean-picked guitar melodies. Any good metal band can write good heavy parts, but it takes a truly great one to maintain that quality and metal aesthetic without any heaviness, speed, or aggression to back them up.

One recurring element of the songwriting that bears mentioning is the little descending noodly bit Queensrÿche throw in at the end of a phrase with the guitars or bass; it’s present on just about every song if you listen for it. While I can’t say either band invented it, think the bass licks at the end of the main riff in “Children of the Sea” or the part in between repetitions of the riff in the fast part of “Hallowed Be Thy Name” for a few easy examples of precedent (maybe there’s some special term for it, but if there is I don’t know it). Iron Maiden really got their money’s worth out of the technique, and it is a good solid example of their influence on this album, though obviously here it’s within a much different framework. An interesting result is that the transition between riffs (or riff repetitions) is often more complex than the riffs themselves, a fact Queensrÿche are clearly aware of and even exploit, notably on “Before the Storm” where they accent the stop/start and tension/release with simplicity/complexity.

A final couple of points that bear quick mention are the drums and various effects. The former are truly excellent, and Scott Rockenfield really puts on a great show. His performance is interesting and varied, accenting the music at key points, but he does all that subtly, without getting overbearing or showing off to the point of being distracting or irritating. Needless to say I’m no drummer, but you can imagine how much ass he must really kick for even a layman like me to have noticed. The various sound and keyboard effects are another definite asset to The Warning, with little touches and flashes accenting just about every track. But don’t worry, they aren’t overbearing either, and live versions still hold up well without them. You can tell Queensrÿche had a giant fucking recording budget compared to most metal bands and made full use of the London studio EMI put at their disposal. From the obvious effects of “NM 156” to the subtler bells in “En Force”, to the barely noticeable but still effective addition of Tate screaming way in the background of the opening of “Deliverance”, it’s safe to say the album wouldn’t be the same without those touches. No, this is no rough gem here, but one which was expertly cut and polished with all the skill and resources money could buy; having gotten signed to EMI on the strength of the independent sales of their EP, I guess the label wisely decided to not try to fix what wasn’t broken in the first place, and let the band do its own thing.

I could go on for pages more about this album, and in fact I haven’t even delved into individual track analysis yet (suffice to say, they’re all excellent). But as with a city, I can talk about its history and culture and landmarks, but after a certain point the only thing left to do is just visit the damn place (or re-visit, as the case may be) and see it for yourself. With that impending trip in mind, I’ll just provide you with one last tidbit of information that will smooth the journey: it’s important to remember when approaching The Warning that it has a very specific mood, and as such requires a specific mood of the listener. Though dark and oppressive it isn’t really aggressive or quick at all, so if you’re looking for driving music or something to headbang to, keep looking. Though emotionally and ideologically complex it isn’t really technical or progressive, so if you want to listen to something that makes you feel smart, with time signatures and song structures like mathematical equations, pick something else. If, however, you’re in a pensive mood, ready to sit down and calmly give The Warning your full attention as it works its magic, you will be greatly rewarded.