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January 9, 2020

Queensryche: Truly Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

By Brian Heaton

When the average hard rock and metal fan hears the name Queensryche, they likely associate it with the band’s original vocalist, Geoff Tate. Admittedly, it’s hard not to. Back in his prime, Tate had legendary range and power reminiscent of the greatest singers in rock history, and a commanding stage presence to go along with it.

Queensryche’s guitarist, and sonic architect, Chris DeGarmo, is probably next in line. Justifiably so in this writer’s opinion, given that DeGarmo (by himself or in conjunction with Tate) wrote many of the band’s signature songs, such as "Silent Lucidity," "Eyes of a Stranger," and "Take Hold of the Flame." What often goes unnoticed, however, is that the contributions from guitarist Michael Wilton, drummer Scott Rockenfield, and bassist Eddie Jackson were arguably just as important in the development and rise to stardom of Queensryche’s original lineup in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As a songwriter, Wilton was credited on almost as many songs as DeGarmo and Tate through Queensryche’s formative years as a metal band. Break out The Warning and take a look—he wrote the music to the title track, “Child of Fire,” and “Before the Storm.” Wilton also co-wrote the epic closer, “Roads to Madness,” and the song Tate has given credit to helping find Queensryche find its initial musical footing with him—“NM 156.” Oh, and let’s not forget “Deliverance.” Wilton wrote that ripper of a track in its entirety, including the post-apocalyptic lyrics.

Wilton continued to write prolifically for the next several Queensryche albums, partnering with DeGarmo at times, but also with Tate, helping establish a sound that caught the ear of critics for being heady and distinctive in an era where popular hard rock was anything but. DeGarmo and Wilton had similar influences, but a closer listen reveals that the two had different strengths to their playing that helped define Queensryche musically.

Where DeGarmo’s strengths centered on melody, harmony, and emotive chords, Wilton had a penchant for writing and playing more aggressive riffs. Their complimentary approaches were arranged into a signature style of intricate and lush chord structures and progressions that became a hallmark of Queensryche. That was expanded on in their trade-off guitar solos, which spotlighted their individual differences before coming together to present a harmonized finale. Simply put, without Wilton, Queensryche’s trademark guitar sound would have never flourished in the manner it did.

Although Rockenfield was never a major songwriter in Queensryche’s original form, his self-taught drumming style, and the influence he drew from those such as the late Neil Peart from Rush were immediately recognizable. Like all drummers, there’s a feel and subtlety to Rockenfield’s cadence that developed over time. His fills and sense of timing are unique to him, and provided Queensryche’s music with a powerful, yet nuanced base from which to build on.

When you listen to the great Casey Grillo (who after leaving the progressive metal band Kamelot has taken over for Rockenfield in the current incarnation of Queensryche) play those classic Queensryche songs, he does a wonderful job. But his fills are different, and isolating on him, while the major drum parts are being replicated, you can tell it’s just not the same feel.

Finally, the unsung hero of Queensryche—bassist Eddie Jackson. Ed Bass’ role in the band’s early years might seem simple to some. He laid down a consistent groove and sounded solid in the pocket with Rockenfield. But as Queensryche developed, Eddie’s tone expanded quite a bit. One listen to Empire, particularly tunes such as “Della Brown” and “Jet City Woman” illustrate that. He has a fat growl to his playing that gave the band another dimension.

It’s not just Ed’s tone, either. As you listen to him play, pay attention to how some of his bass lines expand as a song progresses. The flourishes he puts in there are eye-opening. I think it’s safe to say that while Eddie isn’t Billy Sheehan, he’s probably one of the most underrated and taken for granted bassists in the business.

One of the key things for Queensryche is the era in which they debuted and evolved in. They were afforded a chance to develop and grow musically as group and as individuals over the span of 16 years. Once the early 2000s hit, and even through today, artists aren’t given the luxury of that long-term development. As a result, the primary songwriter(s) in a band generally get the spotlight when a song becomes a hit, with the other players often being thought of interchangeable components.

Queensryche, however, epitomized the phrase “greater than the sum of its parts.” Each person in the band brought something very unique and vital to the table that pushed the group’s chemistry to new heights. In some cases, like Jackson, the notoriety for his playing came later. But all five of Queensryche’s original members had a significant role in defining the group’s technical yet understated sound, and blossoming into one of the most respected hard rock acts in the industry.

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