Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Five of Queensryche's Greatest Songs

Certainly, Queensryche is one of the bands that flies under the radar when you talk about heavy metal and hard rock from the 1980s. But the cerebral Seattle quintet shouldn't be overlooked. During their original lineup days (1981-1997), they produced some outstanding albums including Operation Mindcrime, which sold millions of copies. After guitarist/founder Chris DeGarmo left in 1997, the band was never really the same and have since gone through a bitter breakup involving former lead vocalist Geoff Tate and who controls the band's naming rights. But before all that, their catalogue of classic albums like The Warning, Rage for Order and Empire boasted some amazing tracks. Here are five of Queensryche's best songs:

The Whisper (Rage for Order, 1986)

Written by guitarist Chris DeGarmo, "The Whisper" is the epitome of where the band was at recording the Rage for Order album. Geoff Tate's vocals were screaming and soaring, and it features a fantastic groove with drummer Scott Rockenfield and bassist Eddie Jackson firmly in the pocket. The melodies are incredible and the chorus is about as good as it gets. "The Whisper" is definitely one Queensryche's best efforts, and one of their most underrated songs as well.

Take Hold of the Flame (The Warning, 1984)

For teenagers back in the 1980s, "Take Hold of the Flame" was likely their first exposure to Queensryche as the power ballad found some airplay on MTV and MuchMusic in Canada. It was the second single released from the album, backed by a video recorded live from a concert in Tokyo. It's a song, written by Tate and DeGarmo, that showcases Tate's amazing vocal range, as well as the band's ability to write phenomenal melody lines, as evidenced by the verses and the bridge, which is a calling to all angry youth: "Throw down the chains of oppression that bind you, with the air of freedom the flame grows bright. We are the strong, the youth united. We are one, we are children of the light".

Suite Sister Mary (Operation Mindcrime, 1988)

A song that shows how much the band matured when writing for Mindcrime, "Suite Sister Mary" is a 10-minute theatrical opus (or mini rock opera) set to music. Again co-written by Tate and DeGarmo, the track features the fine vocals of Seattle's Pamela Moore as Mary. Overall it's a progressive song with several time changes anchored by the grinding chorus. The religious overtones and choral accompaniment add to the feel of this great song.

The Mission (Operation Mindcrime, 1988)

The only song (with lyrics) not involving Tate's writing, "The Mission" is a DeGarmo contribution. The riff is as groovy as it gets, backed by a solid Jackson baseline that pounds away in the pocket. Tate's vocals here are exceptional as usual, but he seems to add an extra edge that really carries the vocal arrangements, especially after DeGarmo's solo.

Eyes of a Stranger (Operation Mindcrime, 1988)

The most-played song live by Queensryche, "Eyes of a Stranger" closes out the Mindcrime record in sonic style. Written by DeGarmo and Tate, it starts off sounding similar to Pink Floyd's "Empty Spaces" on The Wall, but after 39 seconds, it's classic Queensryche. The three verses all feature different vocal melodies and the chorus is one of their finest. The strings and keyboards add a nice ambiance to the chorus, but they're not so up in the mix as to dominate. "Eyes of a Stranger" features some amazing beats from Rockenfield, arguably the most talented musician in the band.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Recording Blizzard of Ozz & Diary of a Madman

It's a long way back in time now, but the man who helped Ozzy Osbourne record two of the greatest albums in metal history still has a pretty good memory of how they were made back in the early 1980s.
And, just prior to starting the recording of Blizzard of Ozz in March 1980, producer Max Norman, admits he didn't recognize Ozzy.
"I didn't recognize him at first. I thought he was a roadie," said Norman on a recent Eddie Trunk podcast. "I didn't say much and he really didn't say much. The rest of the band showed up and the equipment showed up and we got started."
In fact, Norman - the de facto producer of Blizzard and Diary of a Madman - wasn't even supposed to be the guy behind the board on those first two Ozzy classics, which featured the late, great guitar virtuoso Randy Rhoads, bassist/songwriter Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake.
Chris Tsangarides (UFO, Thin Lizzy, Judas Priest) was originally brought in to produce the Blizzard of Ozz album, but it wasn't working out with Tsangarides, so Ozzy asked Norman if he could engineer the record, which was laid down at Ridge Farm Studio, located in the village of Rusper, near the Surrey/Essex border. Norman had helped set up the studio and became the in-house engineer, so he was very familiar with the layout and equipment.
"The first mistake (Tsangarides) made was he put the drums downstairs in what we called the stone room," said Norman. "That was because of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" with his big drum fill. At that point everybody was trying to make stone rooms .... to make this big huge drum sound. Unfortunately this stone room was too small. It was only a 7-ft ceiling and it was parallel to the floor, so it was a bad idea to put drums in there. It was almost impossible to make it sound good. It wasn't sounding that good and Chris would just pull all the faders down and just rebalance, and he would keep doing that all the time. But that kind of infuriated me coming from a live background, you never wanna pull the faders down and start again. You can't do that because you've got people listening. You learned to incrementally improve the balance that you have. And that's the way I'd always learned, so that was a little foreign to me that he would keep doing that."

Norman Finds Right Sound For Blizzard of Ozz

Having helped build the studio, Norman wanted it to be successful and sound good, so he rebalanced the board when Tsangarides was out of the room, hoping the producer would notice it sounded better. But Tsangarides never did, so Norman stopped rebalancing. Then the band would come into the control room, listen to some takes and they realized Norman had been cleaning up the sound. From there, they took Tsangarides out of the picture and asked Norman to take over because they liked the sound he was getting much better.

Randy Rhoads and Max Norman at Ridge Farm

The basic tracks were recorded live, including a guide [track] with all four people playing (Ozzy singing) in the same room. As long as they had a good bass and drum track, they would take it from there.
At first Norman didn't realize just how amazing Rhoads was on guitar. But over time he came to realize the kid from Santa Monica was pretty damn good.
"At the time it was a bit like slowly unfolding flower," recalled Norman, who is now retired from the music business. "As Randy started to play I'm like 'Oh, this guy is good' because you're always relieved when you're in the studio that somebody can actually play what they're supposed to be able to play. He was a very quiet guy. Very self effacing and worked hard all the time. It took a little while to realize what Randy was because at the beginning you're working on the rhythm and backing tracks."
Norman was sold when it came time for Rhoads to record his guitar solos. When it came time to lay down the solos, Rhoads would be in the studio alone with a two-track remote to record when he wanted to, as Norman would make a two-track mix and run 15 copies of that onto a two-track recorder.
"He would sit on the studio floor with a couple of big speakers and just roll it back to the beginning, hit play and start practising doing these (solos). We would go up to the pub and have a couple of beers," said Norman, adding Rhoads recorded the actual solos in the control room.
Rhoads was meticulous. He would systematically work through the solo, write down stuff and make notes.
Once he'd gotten a solo down, Rhoads would want to double track it. Norman was awed, given how complex some of the solos are, but Rhoads would say not to worry and then double the solo. Then the guitar virtuoso would triple the solo - note for note in exact replica. In fact, every guitar solo on both Blizzard and Diary of a Madman is triple tracked by Rhoads, which is very uncommon.
Every guitar solo on both Blizzard and Diary of a Madman is triple tracked

Blizzard of Ozz at Ridge Farm in 1980

Norman recalls that after the initial solo was constructed and recorded, Rhoads would usually quickly play the other two copies.
Interestingly, Rhoads did have some first take solos and Norman said those are generally the outro solos on the long fading Ozzy songs like "You Can't Kill Rock and Roll" from Diary.
And all of Ozzy's vocals are double tracked as well.

Diary of a Madman Brings Fuller Sound

Fans will know the big difference in the sound from the first album to Diary of a Madman in 1981. They had more time to record the second album (Blizzard was done in three weeks), and the studio had some better equipment, including a Lexicon 224 Reverb and more memory in the AMS delay so they were able to "expand the space" on Diary.
"Everyone thought that Blizzard was a good record, but it was very rough and ready. Just sort of, you know, almost like a bunch of rough mixes. In fact a couple of the songs are rough mixes," noted Norman. "So with second record, I knew how Randy was going to work. I knew how Ozzy would do the vocals, so we knew it was a better dovetailing of being able to work with each other. We had a few more toys to work with, so we wanted it to be more grandiose. It had forethought as far as production, whereas the first one was basically 'hit the record button', you know."
Many fans wonder if there are any leftover songs or recordings from those first two albums and, as far as Norman knows, there are none. However, Daisley has what he calls "The Holy Grail" - a treasure trove of recordings from band rehearsals covering the period from December 8th, 1979 to March 23, 1981. Look for him to release these one day.

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