music (2006-46)

Regal Rockers

Queensrÿche find a new generation of fans

Getting Metaphysical with the Princess of Psych-Folk

by Mike Gibson

To a certain sector of heavy metal fans, long-running Seattle-area rock act Queensrÿche occupies the same rarefied plane as Pink Floyd and early King Crimson and Tommy -era Who. Its platinum-selling 1988 album Operation: Mindcrime is Wagnerian opera recast for first-generation MTV, an Orwellian-themed concept record that fuses prog, power metal, and glam into heady, powerfully melodramatic heavy rock performance art fit for heshers and sci-fi geeks alike.

Perhaps it only makes sense that the band would wait until 2006 and the apparent reintroduction of classic metal sounds into the vocabulary of popular music to stage the Operation’s final act. Released in March, Operation: Mindcrime II offers a tragic conclusion to the story of Nikki, a heroin addict turned political assassin, running from the law and in thrall to the diabolical Dr. X.

“There’s a saying that if you stick around long enough, the circle returns,” says Queensrÿche vocalist Geoff Tate, speaking by phone prior to a soundcheck. Tate and company are touring now in support of O:M II , taking to the road with an epic-length show that includes performances of both Mindcrime albums in their entirety, accompanied by a multi-media stage production.

“Everything runs in cycles,” Tate continues. “A lot of ’80s fashion, a lot of ’80s music is becoming popular again. It’s kind of interesting. We have a lot of kids showing up at our shows now. They’re all wearing our T-shirts and they seem to know all the words to the songs.

“I’ve had a couple of conversations with young people after the show, like ‘Hey, is this your first Queensrÿche show?’,” he says with a chuckle. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, you guys are legends. We wanted to see you before you died.’”

They probably needn’t worry about Tate passing anytime soon. Now in his 40s, Tate is a veritable health fanatic compared to most of his metal contemporaries. He says he exercises regularly and eats right and eschews rock-star excess, practices that have allowed him to maintain his magnificent multiple-octave vocal range even after years on the road.

They have also helped him withstand the rigors of a nightly show that includes three hours of song and spectacle, a metal musical of sorts that incorporates actors, video screens, and shifting sets in addition to the band on stage.

“It’s not a typical rock sort of performance where the band is just playing the music,” Tate explains. “That’s only one element. There’s a show all around it. There’s a very interesting light show that takes the audience on a visual journey.

“For instance, sometimes there’s a musical section and the musicians will be spotlighted, then it will change to a lyrical part and the actors take center stage and the musicians fade into the background. It’s unique show, where the audience is constantly looking at something and following a path.”

When Queensrÿche entered the studio last year, Tate says the band was at pains to follow up its watershed epic with a record that was comparable to its predecessor in sound and reach, yet not so much so that the music seemed dated or rehashed. The effort mostly succeeded; O:M II has enveloping soundscapes and a driving energy that recall the first Mindcrime record, yet it still comes off as a fresh work, the product of a rejuvenated veteran metal outfit now firing on all cylinders again in 2006.

“We set some parameters to work in,” Tate says. “We tried to recreate some of the sound by using old vintage gear we used 20 years ago. We tried to give it the same feel in the musical arrangements, some of the chord choices, some of the melody choices.

“On the other hand we wanted it to be a story set in the present, so we had to straddle a line. We used multiple guitar and amp setups this time around, and two drum sets, as opposed to only one. And our musicianship is quite a bit more mature. Lyrically, I couldn’t have written the conclusion to the story in 1988, because I didn’t have enough life experience under my belt.”

Still, Tate—a modest fellow, by all indications—can’t help but feel a little strange when a new generation of dewy-cheeked Metal mallrats come scurrying up to pay breathless homage to Queensrÿche’s own version of classic rock.

“It’s always funny when that happens,” he laughs. “But what other people say about our work, or how they interpret it, that doesn’t have anything to do with us. We live for the creative moment. You try your best to get the idea across, then you share it with the world. They take it from there.”

Who: Queensrÿche

Visions of Joanna

by Andrew Clayman

"Joanna is not available for interviews right now,” says the nice lady from Drag City Records. They are politely shooting down my humble request to share seven cellular minutes with Joanna Newsom, the harp playing, baby-voiced folk singer who carries more whimsy with her than a theater troupe in Narnia.

“Bummer,” I respond, clearly lacking Ms. Newsom’s knack for the quick, poetic turn of phrase. “I bet she’d have a lot to say.”

At just 24 years of age, Joanna Newsom is about to release an incredibly ambitious sophomore album, Ys (pronounced “ees”), which finds her plaintive harp plucking backed by a full orchestra and carried to its analog fruition by the legendary likes of Van Dyke Parks (orchestration), Steve Albini (engineering), and Jim O’Rourke (mixing). It sounds like a big deal, and it is a big deal, but at the moment, mum’s the word from Joanna herself.

According to most media sources, the real Joanna Newsom has little in common with the bizarre, pixie-like persona she inhabits on Ys or her acclaimed 2004 full-length debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. A native of Nevada City, Calif., she has been a staple in the San Francisco rock scene, playing with far more modern sounding bands like Golden Shoulders, The Pleased, and Nervous Cop. In person, she is reportedly very approachable, plain spoken, and completely unpretentious. Unable to confirm any such information, however, I choose to believe that Joanna Newsom is, in fact… the half-Elven harpist princess of the enchanted forests in the kingdom of Etheralis—a land born from a child’s Crayola rendering of a dream.

Listening to Ys at 2 a.m. only manages to reinforce such suspicions, so I summon up a luck-dragon, and hitch myself a ride to the one place where I might still nab that elusive Newsom interview.

Upon my arrival, a giant chickadee informs me that it was here, in the mystical valley beneath Moonlit Mountain, that the five lengthy tracks on Ys were mixed and mastered—rather than at boring old Abbey Road Studios, as initially reported. On my way through the cerulean fields to meet Joanna, I wave a hello to Devendra Banhart riding by on his trusty two-headed steed. In the distance, those silly chaps from the Animal Collective are canoodling in the treetops. It’s a lovely day in the imaginary world of psych-folk.

When I finally find Joanna, she is playing her harp beneath the shade of a willow tree, with various friendly forest creatures dancing along to her tune.

“The meadowlark and the chim-choo-ree and the sparrow set to the sky in a flying spree,” she sings, which also happens to be the first line from “Emily,” the opening track on Ys. It might sound pretentious, or at the very least unusual, but Newsom’s exploratory poetry always seems to complement her music and bring forth a genuine, playful innocence—rather than a forced quirkiness. This is even more the case on Ys , as her voice has become more dynamic, straying a little from Lisa Simpson toward the more expressive realms of Billie Holiday and Björk.

“Hello, Ms. Newsom,” I say with an out-of-place journalistic professionalism.

“Well, what is this craziness? This crazy talking?” she coos backs, conveniently quoting another of her new numbers, “Only Skin.” “You caught some small death when you were sleep walking.”

I scratch my head, feeling a tad foolish. “Um, yeah. I suppose so.” I have no idea what Newsom is talking about. In fact, most of Ys is pretty hard to make heads or tails of, literally or metaphorically. Yet the words are exceedingly lovely to listen to, almost like hearing a poem in a foreign language and still getting the gist of it. 

I tell Joanna that my favorite song on Ys is actually the only track without the backing orchestra, “Sawdust & Diamonds.” She smiles and nods and begins playing the intensely beautiful melody.

“From the top of the flight of the wide, white stairs,” she sings. “Through the rest of my life, do you wait for me there?” The words linger like an ultimatum, and I realize that maybe it’s a good thing Newsom isn’t available for interviews right now. Sometimes, reality can just ruin a wonderful thing.

Who: Joanna Newsom w/ Alasdair Roberts

Q & A with Jason Day of Nova Delinquents

What do you play?

Who are the other band members, and what do they play?

What kind of music do you play?

Describe your sound.

How long have you been playing together?

How did you guys meet?

How was working on the cruise ship?

Where do you play, mostly?

What are you future plans?