There is no doubt that a decade and a half of war has dramatically changed the United States. In 2009, Queensryche decided to deal with their feelings by writing a concept album on the subject. It’s something that they do very well, and American Soldier, the finished product, was another ambitious piece of work. Although the album was mostly written by Geoff Tate and his friends Jason Slater and Kelly Gray, in reality it’s the last good album the band made with Tate.
The band interviewed soldiers for this album, and their words are a huge part of the record. The track “Unafraid” opens like this, creating a hauntingly serious atmosphere. At times, the music is toned down, allowing the dialogue to speak. It’s an interesting effect and certainly it works in creating the mood that the band were going for. I think it is also a token of appreciation to the soldiers who defended the country. They had a chance to speak their minds, and be immortalized in music. That’s pretty cool.
The end result is a good album that is not necessarily easy to listen to. There is no “fun” in this music, it is dead serious the whole way through. The intensity burns and you can hear that Tate was focused like a laser on this project. The songs are fine; not Mindcrime quality but I don’t think that anthemic progressive rock would have fit American Soldier. The single misstep is the vocal by Tate’s daughter Emily on “Home Again”. What was meant to be a dramatic, emotional focal point is instead distracting.
Among the best tracks are “Sliver”, a cool opener featuring an actual soldier (A.J. Fratto, a 14 year vet) barking orders with the music. Fratto ended up touring with the band in support of this album. Well done, sir! “Hundred Mile Stare” is slow and intense. The hundred mile stare in the song is a variation of the thousand yard stare — a distant look in the eyes a soldier gets after they’ve been in the field too long. “A Dead Man’s Words” is another complex highlight, middle-eastern in style and clearly about conflict in that region. This one is perhaps the most “Queensryche” of the songs, in the sense that you can hear their classic sound at play. This includes a Tate sax solo, something I wished he did more of with the band. Then, for choruses, I have to go with “The Killer”. For sheer intensity, it’s the soldier’s story on “If I Were King”. If you want heavy ‘Ryche, then “Man Down!” is the track for you.
One disappointing factor in American Soldier only hits you when you open the booklet. Great artwork aside, it’s really too bad that Tate relied so heavily on his buddies to make this album rather than his band. Drummer Scott Rockenfield has two co-writes, and that’s it. Damon Johnson from Brother Cane has just as many co-writes. The rest of the credits are variations of Tate, and producers Jason Slater and Kelly Gray. Queensryche were down to four members at this point, so Johnson and Gray subbed on guitars.
Although Promised Land was probably the most deeply personal Queensryche album, American Soldier is likely the runner up. At least for Tate and his collaborators, there is obviously a lot of their hearts and souls invested in this. Unsurprisingly, it is not an immediate album. It requires time, but it also requires space between listens. There’s no glory here, just stark reality, so take your time.