Tales from a Metalhead: Chapter 35: Take Hold of the Flame

Tales from a Metalhead logo

This chapter is part of a book called Tales from a Metalhead written by Metal Express Radio’s President Stig G. Nordahl. The chapters will be posted one at the time and you can find them all here.

We got talking over a few beers that maybe we should get together and play. So we met in Scott’s, our drummer, basement and we’ve been there ever since! – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 1988.

Queensrÿche logoProgressive Metal? Thinking man’s Metal? I dunno, and who really cares. It’s freakin’ Queensrÿche! The band never liked the “thinking man’s Metal” term anyway. Like “A man goes into a store asking if they have some thinking man’s Metal albums…” Some smart reviewer probably came up with that description after listening to Rage for Order or Operation: Mindcrime. Probably the latter since the concept story makes you think a bit. You know, what happened to Mary? Ah, let’s get back to that later. These guys had that progressive touch from the start, and while some call them Progressive Metal, I think the genre was invented after they released their massive albums. But hey, it’s not about labels; it’s about the mind-blowing musical skills these guys had. Queensrÿche was simply superb and managed to create their own unique sound without ever being repetitive.

We’re sort of known in some circles as a Progressive Metal band, you know? – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 1988.

Man, their first albums are pure gold! Not that some of the later stuff isn’t great too, but these are the albums I will always come back to. From the headbanging Heavy Metal on the self-titled EP to the conceptual masterpiece Operation: Mindcrime, they never ceased to amaze. And let’s not forget the amazing lineup; each member played a vital role in creating their magic. Eddie Jackson’s pumping bass (that tone though!), Scott Rockenfield’s groovy intricate drumming, the delightful guitar dueling between Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, and, of course, Geoff Tate’s mind-blowing multi-octave expertise. Top-notch production and well-written lyrics; it’s a recipe for greatness, my friend.

If you read chapter 5, “The Hands“, you already know that I had a quite intriguing experience connected to Queensrÿche, but the band has been an absolute favorite since they showed up on my radar.

The EP and The Warning avoided my radar though. I first learned about the band when they released Rage For Order in 1986. It actually took some time before I got just how brilliant that release was. What unfortunately stood out the most to me was the cover version of Dalbello’s “Gonna Get Close To You,” that was released as the first single. Dalbello appeared on a Saturday night talk show on Norwegian television when her album was released a couple of years earlier. She was crawling around on the studio floor miming to the song. I thought it was stupid and didn’t like the song at all. So naturally I thought it was a very dumb track to cover. That fact overshadowed my interest in checking out the rest of the album. I have changed my mind about the song over the years of course, about both versions really, but the Queensrÿche version is obviously the one I’d listen to. I later heard that Queensrÿche did that cover because the label wanted them to go in a more commercial direction. It had a negative effect on me, but I always seem to think labels  release the wrong singles first.

The good thing was that the outstanding DeGarmo composition “The Prophecy” was put on the B-side and on several rereleases later. I got it and the B-side of my “Empire” maxi-single too. I always wondered why it never made it to one of the first albums before the rereleases. It would have been perfect for The Warning in the first place. Too Metal for Rage for Order probably. Maybe they had to leave it out to give room for that cover song. Anyway, the whole album is pure magic from the brilliant opener “Walk in the Shadows” to the more mellow finale “I will Remember.” I have seen Geoff Tate performing the whole album (along with Empire) twice recently. Both times he said that “Chemical Youth” is a song that doesn’t fit the album. “It’s not that I don’t like it, but…” Well, he wrote the thing so his opinion must be respected. I couldn’t imagine the album without that captivating piece anyway. The album boasts a top-tier production quality that distinctly set it apart during that era, especially in contrast to their debut. The futuristic ambiance is masterfully executed, and it resonates exceptionally. A precursor to this sound can be traced back to “NM 156” on the debut album. Well done Neil Kernon!

Queensrÿche band photo.
Pretty boys, right?

The band picture on the back cover is hilarious though. It’s like the label had this grand vision and decided to blow a massive chunk of their budget on styling and hair spray. I mean, seriously, it’s as if someone forced every 80s Heavy Metal act that wasn’t your typical Hair Metal band to use enough hair spray to poke another hole in the ozone layer!

Savatage and Dokken come to my mind; they had their “hair-raising” moment too. But wait, there’s more! The award for the most side splitting one goes to the Celtic Frost album The Lake. Oh boy, you gotta see that cover! It’s hairspray madness at its finest! Especially if you saw pictures of the band on their first albums.

It’s sort of a definite idea we have on trying to make each release stand on its own as sort of a marker in our history. – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 1988.

For most Metalheads, it’s undoubtedly unanimous that the band’s pinnacle is Operation: Mindcrime, a sentiment I wholeheartedly concur with. Immersing myself in the album, it becomes evident that perfection has been attained, an achievement equally echoed when I indulge in Rage for Order. There’s an ineffable quality shared between the two. However, I can’t overlook the profound admiration I hold for their debut album and the Queen of the Reich EP. These works resonate deeply with me. Regrettably, a dark cloud of frustration looms over the memory of my Queen of the Reich vinyl copy being snatched from my car post-radio show, along with all albums played on my show that night. Curses upon the individual responsible for that lamentable incident!

Note to self: never leave a plastic bag with albums in an unlocked car overnight!

“Queen of the Reich” is such an ass-kicking Heavy Metal track. Back in the late 80s when I aimed to be a new Yngwie Malmsteen (for a few months), I bought a guitar magazine with the guitar transcriptions for the track “Queen of the Reich.” Well, I had to give up when it came to the solo part. It probably says the most about me as a guitarist, but the guys have some stunning solos. It’s cool to see that Geoff Tate started doing the song live again during his shows. He nails it! I bet the guitars are tuned down a bit of course, but still. Years later I also learned another Queensrÿche track on (acoustic) guitar: “Silent Lucidity.” Funny, because I am not a ballad guy in general. I played performed it once and it didn’t turn out good at all. Okay, there was a woman involved and we got married anyway.

The band needed to come up with a distinctive name after writing the track “Queen of the Reich.” They cleverly played with words and settled on “Queensrÿche,” even adding the umlaüt for added visual flair. This trend of incorporating umlauts into band names, like Mötley Crüe, Blue Öyster Cult, Motörhead, Crashdïet, and many others, was and is quite popular. Recently, this trend has extended to song titles as well. However, managing a radio station becomes a bit challenging due to the technical issues caused by umlauts, as they often disrupt the way titles are displayed on players.

Interestingly, I was unaware of the correct pronunciation of “Queensrÿche” until my encounter with Geoff Tate the first time. Prior to that, I had been saying it as “Rich,” similar to the German word “reich.” Although he didn’t correct me, I did pick up on how he pronounced his band’s name. Even now, I still come across people who mispronounce it. Nevertheless, it remains an intriguing and cool band name!

Signed poster showing Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime album cover.

When Operation: Mindcrime was released in 1988 Queensrÿche toured Europe with Metallica, who were touring in support of their new release …And Justice For All. I was asked to do an interview with Queensrÿche before the show. EMI sent me a promo copy of the new album just a couple of days before. That is definitely not enough time to digest an album like this. They didn’t include an info sheet either so I didn’t really know what I was in for. Maybe it would have described the album as a Rock Opera? Some still do. That term always made my nose wrinkle. I can listen to some Opera, but it shouldn’t be mixed with Rock. Operatic vocals, usually performed by female vocalists in Symphonic Metal bands gives me a rash. I just can’t stand it! That trend came way later of course. Does the term make me think of musicals? I dunno. If Operation: Mindcrime is a Rock Opera, then I must like the genre anyway. I totally dig Savatage’s Streets: A Rock Opera too. I prefer the term concept album though.

It deals with social issues and sort of a love relationship between Nicky and Mary. – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 1988.

Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche) backstage with Stig G. Nordahl (Metal Express Radio)
A chat about the new album Operation: Mindcrime in 1988

Operation: Mindcrime was a slow climber and didn’t take off before MTV started rotating the video for “Eyes of a Stranger.” I don’t know if the video was out at the time, but I didn’t have MTV anyway so I hadn’t heard a note from the album at that point. I became a super fan of the album after having spent some time with it, but that was unfortunately after the interview. There’s a certain irony, or perhaps even a touch of intrigue, in the fact that the magnificent musical composition titled “Suite Sister Mary” didn’t quite capture my attention during its initial moments. However, as time unfolded, it revealed itself as one of the most remarkable gems adorning the album. A phenomenon reminiscent of Dream Theater’s “Metropolis Pt. 1,” which unfolded a couple of years later. It’s a testament to the idea that certain songs demand patience and perseverance to fully appreciate, an attribute I perceive as indicative of their inherent quality.

I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with Geoff Tate, but I wasn’t very experienced as an interviewer at the time. The interview is a far cry from my proudest moment listening to it 35 years later. What annoys me is that I didn’t show more appreciation for the first albums and that I hadn’t had time to understand what a fantastic album the band had just released. And questions like “Are you nervous before the show?” Geeeez… it makes me cringe. In case you are wondering, the answer to that was: “Not really, I usually drink coffee to stay awake.” We talked a bit about the concept of the album and about his inspirations, but I really wish I was capable of doing an in-depth interview with him that day in 1988 when this classic album was new. Actually, when I read the transcribed version of the interview it’s not THAT bad after all. Anyway, here is the audio version:

Some years ago I wanted to digitize all my analog cassette tapes with interviews since cassette players were hard to find. The new hip format at the time was MiniDisc so I recorded everything over to a few of those and threw the tapes. Some time back I had a Metal podcast that kept it going for a couple of years. One of the episodes focused on the Operation: Mindcrime album. I knew the old interview wasn’t worth playing, but I thought the part where Geoff Tate explains the story would be a killer to use. Now the MiniDisc format is of course old fashioned, but I managed to locate a player and even the interview. At least half of it. The last part, the one that I was looking for, was erased to make room for a stupid interview I did with a band called Hoobastank. Man, I hate MiniDiscs! You already know if you read the first chapter. There was a solution to my problem though. Geoff Tate had a show coming up just outside Oslo, where he would be performing Rage for Order and Empire in their entirety. The coolest thing would be his voice from 1988 talking about Operation: Mindcrime, but I could definitely do with an older version of Geoff too. I messaged the promoter that I needed to see Geoff before the show and he said he would arrange it. I brought my gear (no MiniDisc!), but never heard back from him. I ended up explaining the concept in the podcast myself. At least Geoff put on a good show! A year later I found all the tapes I thought were long gone. Now I am in the process of putting them on our YouTube channel.

This is the first time I’ve ever heard Metallica’s music in the last couple of nights! – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 1988.

Back in 1988, I had scheduled an interview with Metallica as well, but the band was late. While waiting I went into the arena to have a look as the crew was preparing the stage for the show. As the statue of Lady Justice was rigged (the goddess on the artwork for …And Justice For All) I thought it would be cool to take a picture. It turned out to be a bad idea. As soon as I pressed the shutter button some dude with a crew shirt and “all areas” pass grabbed my arm and dragged me out to the entrance zone. It’s a bit funny really, I have been thrown out by security guards twice in my life and both times are connected to Metallica. The second incident is mentioned in the Metallica chapter. I was just happy the crew guy didn’t take me all the way out to the street. I would have missed the Metallica interview (which unfortunately I did anyway) and most likely the show too as I didn’t have a ticket. Some nice bloke noticed what happened and came over to ask if I was okay. That guy turned out to be Queensrÿche guitarist Chris DeGarmo. We ended up having a nice chat. What a great guy! He would later be dearly missed from the band.

Stig G. Nordahl (Metal Express Radio) with Chris DeGarmo (Queensrÿche)
Chris DeGarmo, guitarist and rescuer.

Too bad I never got to see the band headline on that tour. The Operation: Livecrime DVD is brilliant so I surely know what I missed. For years Queensrÿche had supported all the major acts. After this tour their time as a support band was over.

Speaking of Queensrÿche live; once I became a fan, I couldn’t resist ordering their Live In Tokyo concert video on a good old VHS tape via mail order. Oh boy, did I watch that tape a hundred times! The performance was simply stellar, and I was hooked from the start. What’s interesting is that this live show was recorded even before they released their debut album. Yet, the Japanese audience seemed to be having a blast, even with all the unreleased tracks being performed. And let me tell you, those songs were standouts! They even played “The Prophecy,” which took a long time before it finally got its spot on an album. The audio production was pretty good overall, but there was one thing that struck me as odd. When Geoff Tate spoke between the songs, it sounded very different. The audio quality seemed to suffer a bit during those moments. I’ve been curious about it ever since, and it makes me wonder if the whole thing was somehow dubbed. One of these days, I really need to dig deeper and do some research on this. It’s an enigma I’d love to unravel!

When Empire hit the shelves in 1990, the anticipation was sky-high. I was eager to see what Queensrÿche had in store for the fans. The band took a more commercial direction with this album, and it wasn’t just about a single; the entire album had a more mainstream appeal. And boy, did it pay off! Empire became a massive and well-deserved success for the band.

While Empire boasts some incredibly strong tracks, it’s an album that I personally don’t find myself playing very often these days. But then again that’s the beauty of Queensrÿche; they never made the same sounding album twice. With each release, they managed to maintain their unique sound while exploring different musical territories. It’s something I genuinely admire about the band.

Geoff Tate has been relentlessly touring and performing the old Queensrÿche albums from start to finish. I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing him perform Empire a couple of times too. However, if I had a choice, I’d love to see him tackle The Warning next time. That’s just a personal preference, as The Warning holds a special place in my heart, and I’d love to experience it live in all its glory.

Queensrÿche - Promised Land album cover
Promised Land album cover

Ah, Promised Land, the album that left us hanging for what felt like forever. It was 1994, a time when the winds of change were blowing through the world of Hard Rock with the rise of Grunge and all that stuff. You’d think the sweet smell of success from Empire would have the band sticking to their winning recipe, but no! They decided to venture into uncharted territory with this one.

And boy, Promised Land demanded a lot from its listeners. No easy-peasy hits like “Jet City Woman,” “Empire,” or “Silent Lucidity” there. Nah, they took a more daring route. But wait, hold your horses; there’s something that needs to be mentioned, and it might ruffle some feathers. Geoff Tate, the man with the golden voice, decided to whip out a saxophone on this album. Yes, you heard it right; a saxophone! Now, I love me some saxophone tunes, but it’s a bit like taking “Careless Whisper” and trying to fit it into the realm of Metal. Not the easiest match, if you ask me.

So, picture this; I catch Queensrÿche performing at a festival a few years down the road. Geoff had gone all Bruce Willis on us, shaving his head like a badass, which I totally respect. But then he goes and throws on a bowler hat and a vest. A vest! Now, don’t get me wrong, vests can be pretty nifty, but when you’re belting out Metal tunes, it’s like showing up to a sword fight with a butter knife! And just when I thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre, he whips out that darn saxophone on stage. I mean, come on, Geoff, we came here for face-melting guitars, not a smooth jazz session.

I had to make a tough choice that day. Do I stick around and try to make sense of this unexpected turn of events, or do I seek solace at the bar? Guess what won? The bar it was, my friends.

But hey, credit where credit is due; Promised Land did pretty well for the band. It might not have been my cup of tea at the time, as I was busy exploring other musical realms, but it definitely has some hidden gems that deserve a bit more love.

Now, brace yourself for the saga of their albums Hear in the now Frontier, Q2K, and Tribe. You see, I went from being a devoted fan to completely losing my marbles when I heard those promos. Queensrÿche going Grunge? It’s like mixing oil and water; it just doesn’t work for me. The music took a sharp left turn from the Queensrÿche I knew and loved, and my heart couldn’t handle it.

Sometimes, bands need to evolve and explore new avenues, and that’s commendable. Queensrÿche were always good at that. But let’s just say that these particular albums weren’t quite my cup of Metal tea. And that’s putting it mildly.

You know, we just weren’t interested. The band has always been more into studio work and recording and that’s really where our interests lie. A live record just never really was an interesting project for us, really – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 1988.

In 2001, despite what Geoff Tate told me back in 1988, the band surprised us with their second live album (and third concert video) titled Live Evolution; a double album spanning their entire career. The thought of hearing the old tracks played live could have been intriguing. However, I have to admit, my excitement wasn’t through the roof. Maybe it was because Chris DeGarmo had left the band by then, and his absence was felt.

I had the chance to catch up with Geoff Tate again to discuss this new release. I remember the interview vividly, and truth be told, he didn’t seem all that thrilled about it. He admitted he hadn’t rehearsed with the band before the show and had no idea if they had overdubbed anything in the studio. But you know what? Looking back, I think his nonchalant attitude was kind of cool. After all, a true live album shouldn’t be pitch-perfect musically, and Live Evolution embraced the raw essence of their performance at the time.

I’ve got a few weird spots in it but it’s actually a full live performance for me. I don’t know about the other guys, if they fixed anything or anything as I haven’t spoken to them or I wasn’t around for the mixing or anything either. – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 2001.

QUEENSRŸCHE - Live Evolution
Live Evolution cover.

The other day, I stumbled upon an unwrapped DVD version of Live Evolution sitting on my shelf. I guess that speaks volumes about my level of excitement back then. Instead, I find myself reaching for the live broadcast from Dallas, Shock Doctrine from 1989.That old gem captures the spirit of Queensrÿche in a way that resonates with me more.

During the interview, I couldn’t help but sense that the band members weren’t as close as they used to be. And as time went on, that feeling proved to be true. Sometimes, bands go through ups and downs, and it seems like Queensrÿche was navigating its own path in those years. But hey, Rock ‘n’ Roll is never a straight road; it’s a wild ride with twists and turns. And just like their music, their journey continued to evolve. The Three Tremors project with Geoff Tate, Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson unfortunately never saw the light of day. Instead we got Tim “Ripper” Owens, Sean Peck and Harry Conklin using that very name. We all know which version we’d prefer of course. Geoff talks about the the status of that very project in the interview.

Ah, the burning question after the epic Operation: Mindcrime; did Nicky really kill Mary? Well, in 2006, the band finally quenched our thirst for answers with the release of Operation: Mindcrime II. Some may call it a bold move, and indeed, trying to top the legendary 1988 release is like trying to climb Mount Everest with one hand tied behind your back. Queensrÿche went for it!

We followed some of the same musical ground rules that we set with the first one, like we went back to standard A440 tuning for this record, and I love that. I mean, everything sounds in tune to me now. I never did like that whole drop tuning thing. – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 2006.

I must admit, I was a bit worried they’d venture into uncharted territory, sounding completely different from the original masterpiece. But fear not, my fellow Metalheads! They rocked hard again, and Operation: Mindcrime II had plenty of nostalgic nods to its predecessor. It is of course not close to the standards of part 1. Would that even be possible?

And guess who made a grand comeback? Pamela Moore as Mary, stealing our hearts once more! And who else but the legendary Ronnie James Dio himself taking on the role of Dr X! Talk about a dream team!

Stig G. Nordahl (Metal Express Radio) backstage with Geoff Tate (Queensrÿche)
A chat about Operation: Mindcrime II.

The label was clearly pumped about the release, and they let Geoff Tate embark on a promo tour to get us all hyped up. I had a great time at the Grand Hotel in Oslo while doing the interview, but it also brings back some memories I’d rather forget. If you’ve read the chapter, you know exactly what I mean. But hey, at least Nicky didn’t kill Mary! Phew!

Ronnie was always the choice for Dr. X. – Geoff Tate to Metal Express Radio, 2006.

After two less-than-memorable albums and a good ol’ fist fight, Geoff Tate bid adieu to the band. Now the classic lineup seems like a distant dream, but fear not, my Metal-loving friends, because we’ve got the best of both worlds now!

Enter Todd La Torre, the man with the vocal prowess to make the Metal gods themselves jealous (not THE Metal God of course)! Fronting the current version of Queensrÿche, he’s like a bolt of lightning, electrifying their sound like never before. Those albums they’re churning out? Oh, they’re stronger than the Hulk after a double espresso, believe me!

Geoff Tate with OPERATION: MINDCRIME (Live At Trillians, Newcastle, U.K., January 16, 2018)
Geoff Tate, a vest and a hat. Photo: Mick Burgess.

You know what’s a real shame though? Todd was all set to take over the mic in Crimson Glory, but destiny had other plans. They never got around to recording anything together. Bummer, right? But hey, silver lining! We still get to bask in the glory of Todd holding the Queensrÿche torch high, and he does it with an exuberance that’ll leave you headbanging for days! I can hear the repetitive Blabbermouth choir in the distance: “No Tate, no Queensrÿche!” Get out of here!

Now, here’s where it gets juicy. Geoff might not be part of the current lineup, but he’s got the rights to perform the classic albums, and boy, does he milk that privilege! I mean, I even caught him once, decked out in a Chinese restaurant, belting out the old Queensrÿche classics with an Irish folk music backing band. Talk about a fusion of flavors! It was a rollicking good time! No kidding, you should’ve seen the crowd’s faces; a mix of surprise and delight as the tunes we know and love took on a new twist. Kudos to Geoff for keeping it fresh!

But hold on, here’s the funny part. I do like Geoff’s solo material under the Operation: Mindcrime banner that leans more towards the era I didn’t quite vibe with in Queensrÿche. Isn’t that a hoot? Sometimes life just loves throwing these little curveballs!

Geoff Tate's signature with the words "Rÿche -n- Roll" over the signature.A reunion with the old guys will most likely not happen. Not with all the lawsuits and arguing over the years. These days Scott Rockenfield is suing the original guys that are still with Queensrÿche. It’s just sad when it ends that way. Anyway, IF a reunion happens I will be there in the first row!

That concludes my brief account of Queensrÿche. Rest assured, the comprehensive narrative awaits in Geoff Tate’s upcoming self-biography. There, you’ll delve into the complete tale!

Rÿche’n Roll!

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  • Stig G. Nordahl

    Stig is the founder and the president of Metal Express Radio, based out of Oslo, Norway. He has been around doing Metal radio since the mid-eighties. In fact, running Metal Express Radio takes almost all of his time. Is it worth it...? "Most times, yes," Stig says. "My philosophy is to try to give all Metal releases a fair chance to get promoted in one way or another. As you can imagine, it can be an arduous task to listen through about 20 albums every week! Still, I know we have the best METAL dedicated radio on this planet, and that is a reward in and of itself. I hope one day the whole Metal community can and will make listening to Metal Express Radio part of their daily rituals! Yeah, right..."

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