By Martin Popoff
Seattle-based progressive metallers Queensrÿche have certainly seen much drama over recent years, culminating in a nasty split with original vocalist Geoff Tate which briefly resulted in there being two Queensrÿche's operating L.A. Guns- and Great White-style at the same time.
With that behind them, the band have settled into the Todd La Torre era, now with three fine records of hard-hitting, no-nonsense Queensrÿche music notching the bullet belts and effusively received by the base. I’ve always been one to say that the lead singer is usually 60%, 75% of any band’s meaningful identity, but if you have to make the change, the new guy better write, too. And then check back after a couple albums and let’s see if he’s carved a place—more than a place, somewhat of a throne, a carved throne! Well, not only does Todd La Torre check those boxes, but now he further earns our respect due to the fact that he drums the band’s album, The Verdict, in the mysterious absence of Scott Rockenfield, founding member and one of these drummers who has outsized importance within his particular band dynamic.
“Well, what happened was our drummer just decided to have a baby,” begins guitarist Michael Wilton, who, along with bassist Eddie Jackson, are the only classic lineup guys on The Verdict. “And he’s kind of gone by the wayside of that kind of life, that kind of path, right now. He’s just on a different wavelength. He gave his blessing, you know, on the album and the touring and everything. He needs some time and we’re respecting his privacy. But he wasn’t there and we thought he was gonna be. So that was a big problem—we were assuming.”
“Now Todd, actually, on the last two albums of this rendition of Queensrÿche, wrote all the drum parts for the demos,” continues Wilton. “So even though Scott played them on the last two, most of the parts were Todd’s. So naturally we convinced Todd to play drums on this album because we didn’t want to hire an outside drummer, because it would change the personality of the album and there’d be egos and all that stuff. So in preproduction, we just fired up a MIDI drum kit and wrote the songs, with MIDI drums. And Todd did a great job, an exemplary job. His influences are that of Queensrÿche and Iron Maiden, so it’s brilliant. He’s a drummer of 16 years; he’s been a drummer longer than he’s been a vocalist. So it happened by chance. And we just took advantage of his ability and it worked out great.”
Asked to clarify this odd method of writing, Wilton explains that, “We wrote them, for the most part, on a MIDI drum kit, in the sessions. And then once the songs were put together and everybody was happy, including our producer Zeuss (a.k.a. Christopher Harris—Rob Zombie, Soulfly, God Forbid, Hatebreed), then we had to learn them (laughs). We had to learn them for the first time, and then we had to record them! And at that point we recorded them with all the real instruments, including drums.”
The result is an album that fits well within the parameters of the tighter, more heavy metal Queensrÿche that the guys have been shaping, procuring, manicuring and curing since the bad reviews rained down upon the more alternative rock records that marked the tumultuous last few years with Tate.
“It’s not a concept record,” reflects Wilton, asked first about the title. “It’s a body of songs that leaves a big open gap for the listener to interpret. The Verdict, as a title, is a strong statement, much like our earlier album The Warning. It’s kind of fitting for the times, but it really leaves a nice big gap for the listener to listen to the music, interpret it and see what images are conjured up.”
But again, the big difference was in the making and baking. “Absolutely. With Condition Human (2015; the second with Todd after a self-titled debut in 2013), most of the demos were 100% done before we went in to record. When we went in to record The Verdict, we only had two song ideas or so, and maybe 80% was all riffs. So it was more spontaneous and more of a band effort. It was more of a full, deep, creative… you know, pulling the creative brilliance out of each person, attain the assets and build the songs—which to me was so much fun. Because it was like what we did in the early '80s, but at that time without technology. So this was very special, more on the spot, writing parts and building the songs, which was a lot of work. But you know what? It was so gratifying because you get to see the songs build and grow. That’s what’s cool about being in a band with a bunch of creative guys. You’re writing music like that, seeing how it transpires and how it ends up. It’s so much fun.”
Michael warns us that despite the discipline of the band at this juncture, and the respect paid to a brand that was beat up for a while in the 2000s, there’s definitely going to be a song or two that raises some eyebrows.
“For sure. Well, the song ‘Launder the Conscience’ is definitely in that experimental vibe. It’s got a lot of twists and turns and doesn’t go the traditional way that songs go, per sé. It’s something that we thought was going to be the last song of the album, but that was too predictable for us. So we put the song “Portrait” as last, which has a kind of Spanish caravan groove and is the complete opposite of the ending of an album that you expect from Queensrÿche. It’s not bombastic but it’s got a heavy groove. So those two are pretty wild. For people who’d heard the record before it came out, those were their favorite songs. But the whole album is full of gems, because this album was really thought-out, including the flow of it. It’s the next step in the evolution of Queensrÿche and it’s right on point.”
Queensrÿche tour dates are already set, spring through mid-August. Of course Todd La Torre won’t be drumming as well as singing—this isn’t Triumph or Exciter. “No,” laughs Michael. “We’re using the drummer that has been drumming with us for the last two years, Casey Grillo. He used to drum for Kamelot and now he does his own thing and we’ve got him to drum for us live. We contract him year to year, see if he’s available. But he’s worked out. He’s a good progressive drummer and he fits right in.”