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April 23-29, 2009Sacrifice
Prog-metal rockers Queensrÿche explore war
through the eyes of soldiers
by Alan Sculley
Throughout his life, Geoff Tate of the band Queensrÿche had wanted his father to tell him about his experiences serving in the U.S. Marines in the Korean War and the Air Force in the Vietnam War. But it was always a subject his father never would share.
That all changed one day three years ago.
“I was on tour at the time and had a day off. So I was visiting him where he lives in Oklahoma,” Tate said in a phone interview. “We were just sitting on the back porch talking, and kind of out of the blue, he started talking to me about Korea. Luckily I had my camera with me and I recorded the conversation.”
Not only did that conversation start to give Tate a window into his father’s wartime experiences, it planted the seeds for the new Queensrÿche CD.
When all was said and done, Tate had interviewed soldiers that had served in most every military conflict since World War II and turned their stories into the new Queensrÿche CD, American Soldier, a CD that explores what it means to be a soldier from the perspectives of the soldiers themselves.
“It really got me thinking about the soldiers’ experience and what is it,” Tate said of his conversation with his father three years ago. “It just kind of piqued my interest. So I started doing kind of impromptu interviews and questioning different soldiers I came across in supermarkets and gas stations and airports, and that kind of led me to more structured interviews as time went on. It was kind of like the more questions you have, the more answers you’re looking for. And the more answers you get, the more questions you have. The whole thing kind of evolved into something quite a bit bigger than what it started out being.”
That Queensrÿche would make a concept album like American Soldier, won’t be news to anyone who has followed the Seattle-based band throughout a career that began in the early 1980s. The band’s third CD, the 1988 release Operation: Mindcrime, was a full-blown concept album that became a signature album for Queensrÿche and inspired a 2006 sequel, Operation: Mindcrime II. Other CDs, such as 1994’s The Promised Land, have also had strong thematic elements, although they stopped short of having the story-like structure of the Mindcrime albums.
Tate, though, said American Soldier was a notably different challenge than the group’s other theme-centric CDs.
On a musical level, the subject matter forced the band to write specific kinds of music to fit the lyrics.
“We tried to find melodies and musical themes that helped support the lyrical content and helped propel the story along,” Tate said.
“Really that was the goal for us, was doing that. It was very much focused on trying to paint the picture of what the lyrics were talking about.”
And while the band had written music to fit a story line before with the Mindcrime CDs, American Soldier called for a certain discipline and restraint that was new to Queensrÿche, which in addition to singer Tate, includes guitarist Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield.
“We really tried to treat it with respect and dignity and a sense of delicacy,” Tate said. “We didn’t want to make light of their situation.
“We didn’t want to demoralize or try to diminish the contributions that these soldiers have been part of. So we tried to make the music uplifting at times, depending on the subject matter. We tried to make it very intimate at times and really not get in the way.”
The musical result is a CD that still has elements of the progressive metal sound Queensrÿche has often displayed on its albums, but the music is fairly direct and hard-hitting. But the album also has its moody moments, such as during the saxophone solo on “Middle Of Hell” and in the darkly hued rocker “A Dead Man’s Words.”
As the band’s lyricist, Tate found he had to take a different approach to writing the American Soldier CD.
“This is the first record that we’ve ever conceived that isn’t about our points of view, our feelings or our perspectives or our observations,” he said. “It’s completely and utterly about other people and what they experienced and what their lives were like. And we were acting, in a sense, like a biographer in telling their story and composing music to surround that story.”
In creating American Soldier, Tate and his bandmates crafted 12 songs that each examine a different aspect of the soldier’s experience. Some of the subjects seem pretty obvious. “The Killer” is about dealing with the reality that as a soldier, one has to kill or be killed and make life-altering decisions at a moment’s notice. “At 30,000 Ft” describes the somewhat detached perspective pilots get when seeing the horrific damage one of his bombs can inflict on his target. “If I Were King” explores the guilt a soldier feels after a friend dies in a firefight and he was unable to save the friend’s life.
Other songs explore the wider impact of being a soldier. “Remember Me” addresses the struggles soldiers and their wives or girlfriends face when a soldier is away on duty. “Man Down!” offers a look at the difficulty a soldier returning from war has reconnecting with civilian life.
In visiting with the soldiers and then writing the songs, Tate said he gained a whole new appreciation for the bravery, sacrifice and commitment that soldiers display.
“We don’t have to worry about defending our patch of ground because somebody else is doing that,” Tate said. “The soldiers are standing in the gap and watching our backs so the rest of us can live our lives and do as we want to do. I think it’s just human nature.
You get used to that and you don’t think about that and you take it for granted. Veterans Day comes around and that means there’s a sale at the department store. It doesn’t mean to you what it means to other people who have been there and done that.
“I know for me I was very affected by this project and walked away completely humbled by the soldiers’ ability to sacrifice for somebody else other than themselves,” he said. “They lay down their lives for a belief system or a sense of honor and duty that a lot of us can’t even imagine.”
On tour, Queensrÿche is taking a unique approach to presenting music new and old. Its set is divided into three song suites, one devoted to American Soldier, a second to the 1984 album Rage For Order and a third to the 1990 CD Empire (which sold three million copies and included the hit single “Silent Lucidity”). The band has created two separate set lists for the tour.
“What we tried to do was satisfy old fans and new fans and also present our new record, which we’re very excited about,” Tate said. “So we chose Rage For Order and Empire to present because those are albums our fans have really requested a lot of songs from.
“We’re going to alternate back and forth between these [two] set lists,” he said. “That way people can see and experience and hear all of the songs from the three records.”
On the Bill
Queensrÿche performs at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 28, at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Pl., Denver, 303-623-0106.
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