Queensrÿche - The Warning (1984)Release ID: 580
I am a massive fan of Queensrÿche's classic 1988 Operation: Mindcrime album, it is one of my top-rated heavy metal albums, yet inexplicably I have never bothered with any of their other releases. So I am only now getting acquainted with their 1984 debut for the very first time.
The Warning grabbed me from the off with it's strikingly melodic, yet powerfully delivered opening track, following it up with a Maiden-esque gallop through En Force and that opening one-two had me hooked and eager for more. If En Force was heavily derived from Iron Maiden's Steve Harris, bass-fuelled galloping style, then next track Deliverance is just as obviously influenced by Judas Priest's Sad Wings of Destiny. With No Sanctuary Geoff Tate introduces more progressive elements and variations in pacing. It is also at this point that I became aware that the album is presenting a coherent theme, the lyrics all relating to the search for freedom and the attempts by the strong and powerful to deny it, the speedy N M 156 attributing that oppression to the very machines we create to free ourselves from mundane labour.
Take Hold of the Flame seems to be everyone's favourite track (if RYM's track ratings are anything to go by) but personally it's the track I like least, sounding a little too AOR-oriented for my taste and possibly written with radio airplay in mind. Before the Storm is a decent track, but doesn't really grab hold of me like those on side one. Child of Fire once more heavily invokes Judas Priest, at least initially before it heads off in a more restrained and emotional-sounding direction, returning after a nice solo to the Dissident Aggressor-like riff of the earlier section.
And so to closing track, the almost ten-minute Roads to Madness, where Queensrÿche begin to properly explore a more progressive metal direction and in so doing turn in the album's best track. Geoff Tate's vocals on this track are fantastic and sound genuinely filled with emotion. This is the real precursor to where Queensrÿche were heading, I feel and is a great closer for an impressive, if not completely flawless, debut. Despite showing it's influences, Geoff Tate and co stamped more than enough of their own character onto the tracks and displayed enough songwriting chops and technical virtuosity to make The Warning a standout album in the early days of the US power metal movement.
Queensryche's debut album is certainly an interesting little beast for its time, indicative at times of the later heights the band would ascend to in Operation: Mindcrime, but definitely not at that point yet.
In an era dominated by doom merchants, emerging thrash and rough-n-ready classic metal, The Warning is a surprisingly melodic and even light affair. That's not intended as a critique, just a stylistic choice: if you want something dark or gritty, you're better off with Bathory or Slayer. Queensryche aren't a total departure, they still fit under the general umbrella of metal in the 80s, with soulful crooning that calls Rob Halford's vocals to mind (see "Child of Fire") as well as a melodic parade of sound not entirely removed from Maiden's works.
Still, as an album this does stand out as a band doing their own thing back in the day, and I have to give it props for that. These songs are comfortable shifting gears as they go, ramping up into something epic and dramatic at times, or dipping into something quieter at other moments. It comes at a time when many contemporaries took a more traditional approach to song structure. Queensryche aren't just belting out some solid riffs in standard verse-chorus structure, they're shifting and flowing as they go.
Geoff Tate's vocals are also a real highlight here. He's capable of rising into some impressively glass-shattering notes and wails, but doesn't rely on that as a crutch. Whatever style of delivery is used, it's always powerful and impassioned. Just listen to those soaring lines belted out in "Roads to Madness", leading seamlessly into the guitar eruptions that follow the high points. Headbanging rhythms are accompanied by epic shrieks, even if the song takes a little longer to get going that it needs to.
That said, the album as a whole is something of an acquired taste. For big fans of early progressive metal, this will likely be a vintage treat, as you can hear it laying the groundwork for later refinement. There's a skill and a willingness to experiment, but it's still formative. "No Sanctuary" is a perfect example: it has a pleasant enough melody and feels like it's rising into something, but it kind of just meanders along for 6 minutes. Only in the last 30 seconds does it really feel like it takes off, then it fades out just as it starts to get good. This is a pattern repeated elsewhere, not in the exact same way, but the same issue of good ideas or moments, but not quite pulled together into a truly satisfying whole, at least for me. It's a decent piece of work with plenty of future promise (a "warning" even, if you'll pardon the cheeky pun), but unless you're a real aficionado of the style, it might not come together fully.
Choice cuts: Take Hold of the Flame, Roads of Madness
My interest in Queensryche is limited to one album in their discography, Empire. This was of course the pinnacle of their accessibility, combining mass appeal, catchy tunes with strong storytelling based song structures. I have never really understood the appeal of the band at any other point in their career. Even the much lauded, Operation Mindcrime does little for me so the one dimensional and largely flat debut holds little of my attention whenever I bother to listen through.
Accepting this was their debut and the band had some craft to still learn and finesse there is still a massive amount of bluster here for very little effect in terms of memorable and powerful output. The bare bones of their more recognisable songwriting prowess was here at this point most certainly. The drama of their brand of theatrical, progressive/power metal apparent in the vocal style of Geoff Tate from virtually the opening track. But he sounds excessively nasal on this record (which could be due to the fact I can now only locate a remastered copy) and this makes the vocals sound forced unfortunately.
Notwithstanding the obvious credentials of DeGarmo and Wilton there is little in the way of anything remarkable from them here with Jackson and Rockenfield generally going through the motions in the background and it all makes for a very dull experience despite it being clearly geared towards being a prog metal record. There's no bite or energy to proceedings despite nothing much really being that bad or wrong with the playing. The album sounds like a band with an over-enthusiastic vocalist who joined a group of mates who just weren't that interested in pulling out anywhere near as many stops as he clearly was.
Even though it may not often be regarded as a truely classic release, Queensryche's debut full-length "The Warning" represents a significant point in the development of the heavy metal genre nonetheless because it gives us our first real signs of the progressive metal sound that we know so well today. The band's self-titled E.P. from the previous year had offered the odd proggy section here & there but still sat much more comfortably amongst more traditional heavy metal brethren like Judas Priest & Iron Maiden overall. Well hold on to your hats people because “The Warning” is an entirely different beast. 1979's “From The Fjords” album from US heavy metallers Legend & the 1980 debut record from Finnish heavy metal outfit Sarcofagus entitled “Cycle Of Life” were close enough to progressive metal to cause some conjecture around who was the earliest exponent but the difference here is that the progressive elements are so tightly entwined with the metal ones that they become one unified sound whereas those more obscure examples tended to have a prog rock track followed by a heavy metal one leading into another prog rock one if you know what I mean. The metal & prog weren’t unified before but Queensryche clearly had a very specific & well-defined sound in mind for their first album & it works as a cohesive unit. Plus, the production job on “The Warning” takes a direction that has a lot more in common with early 80’s progressive rock than it does with metal too & in doing so gives the album a completely different feel to not only Queensryche’s earlier material but anything the global metal scene had experienced to the time. It’s much spacier & shows a lot more ambition in its scope so I genuinely think that “The Warning” can be described as the root of the modern progressive metal sound. I mean the link to a band like Dream Theater is really obvious after listening to this album. It’s easy to imagine that Queensryche were probably their favourite band in their formative years. Coincidently, you’ll find plenty of interviews where the band say that they absolutely hate the production job on “The Warning”; that it ruined the record & that they can’t listen to it without cringing. Front man Geoff Tate has openly stated that the record label took total control of the way the album sounded & that the guy that they employed to do the mixing refused to accept any input from the band & had no prior experience with Queensryche or any sort of hard rock band for that matter. He also said that the album went $300k over-budget which is pretty astounding for a metal debut of the time.
For a bit of perspective, I googled Val Garay who was responsible for mixing “The Warning” & here’s a list of some of the artists he’s worked with: Kim Carnes, Mr Big, Bonnie Rait, Dolly Parton, James Taylor, Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Linda Ronstadt, Sarah Brightman, Kenny Rogers, Santana, Reel Big Fish, Joan Armatrading…. I’ve gotta say that I can see where the band were coming from based on that list but does the album really sound all that bad? Well it definitely doesn’t as far as I'm concerned but I can certainly see why Queensryche would have been dissatisfied given their NWOBHM influences. The rhythm guitars aren’t very up-front in the mix & the guitar solos don’t sound as shredding as we’d usually expect from a US heavy metal album of the time. Geoff Tate’s voice also dominates the mix which isn’t terribly surprising given his abilities & status. But all of these things aside I still really enjoy the sound of “The Warning”. You may have heard of producer James Guthrie before as he was the guy responsible for producing the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” for Judas Priest’s “Stained Class” record which impressed the band enough to score him the gig for their follow-up album “Killing Machine” which sounded great in my opinion. Well he’d certainly gone on to bigger & better things after that time with Pink Floyd’s epic 1979 double concept album “The Wall” & the subsequent follow-up, 1983’s “The Final Cut”, being the major feathers in his cap. And once you learn that, everything really does seem to fall into place because “The Warning” is a much more expansive undertaking than pretty much any metal album that had been released to the time. There are loads of production effects employed with beautifully constructed vocal harmonies, highly professional multi-tracking & the subtle use of keyboards all adding a lot of interest & contributing to a darker & more somber atmosphere than was ever hinted at on the EP. It’s really not all that hard to link these sort of elements to Guthry’s Floydian past actually.
Queensryche’s earlier material was definitely faster, heavier, & simpler than its younger brother which predominantly sticks to a mid-paced tempo which is a touch less riffy & a lot more melancholic. “The Warning” is a substantially more ambitious undertaking too with longer, more drawn-out compositions & a far more complex approach to the riff structures featuring the regular use of odd time signatures. The Judas Priest & Iron Maiden influences are still very obvious. Especially the Maiden one which has noticeably increased since the debut with a lot greater use of guitar harmonies; all performed with stunning precision. But the Rush influence is equally as important here too. Particularly in the outstanding drumming of Scott Rockenfield which is a real highlight here although I also love Eddie Jackson’s bass lines. The band is pretty amazing as a whole really & I can only wish that some of the guitar solos sounded a little more shreddy because I don’t think they have quite the impact that the ones on the EP did.
Singer Geoff Tate once again proves that there’s pretty much daylight between him & the rest of the field when it comes to sheer talent. His performance here is more theatrical & emotive than before with a greater use of his higher register. In fact he may even go a little too far with the theatricality at times but it’s hard to deny that most of the greatest moments on the album are centred around his soaring & perfectly executed vocal harmonies. He’s almost an enigma at this stage & the fact that the lyrics are all written around themes drawn from George Orwell’s classic novel “1984” only works further into Geoff’s strengths.
The tracklisting is very consistent with no weak tracks included but I do feel that it starts & finishes with some of the less impressive numbers which nullifies the overall feeling of quality just a touch. Tracks 4-8 see Queensryche hit a real sweet spot though. Particularly the double punch of “NM 156” & the single “Take Hold Of The Flame” which are amongst my favourite tracks from 1984.
Overall “The Warning” really works for me. The more ambitious & progressive approach has only been positive in my opinion, even though it’s clearly made for a less obvious listening experience that requires a greater level of attention & commitment from its audience. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that I sit right in the middle of the target audience that Queensryche had in mind for this record so I have to admit that I rate it slightly higher than the band’s more celebrated debut. It’s a very solid piece of progressive metal indeed.