Queensrÿche has endured more drama over their 36-year life span than you’d see in a typical season of your preferred Mexican soap opera. The plot lines look quite similar too. You have the full-tilt diva, the long-suffering but loyal compadres, the insidious temptations of cash and fame, and of course, the inevitable implosion, breakup and resulting legal morass. That said, things have been pretty stable in camp Queensrÿche since Geoff Tate bailed and the band recruited Todd La Torre to man the mic. They’ve released two solid albums faithful to the band’s core sound, and apart from some snipping with their embittered ex-frontman, there’s been little to focus on but the quality music. The Verdict is the third album featuring La Torre, who not only handled the vocals but also manned the drums this time when original drummer Scott Rockenfield was unable to perform. After 2013s impressive self-titled release and 2015s even better Condition Human, momentum was clearly on the band’s side and hopes were high for The Verdict in the House ov Steel. Perhaps too high in retrospect.
While this isn’t a terrible album, it is a much different beast than the earlier La Torre era releases. Where those were in the vein of vintage albums like Operation Mindcrime, The Verdict hews closer to lackluster 90s releases like Promised Land and Q2k. That means things are more laid back in temperament and introspective in mood. There’s also a noticeable grunge undercurrent present. None of these are necessarily bad elements, but when teamed with the least inspired writing of the band’s new era, it becomes problematic. Things feel off right from jump, as opener “Blood of the Levant,” for all its nostalgic throwback charm, comes across as flat and phoned in despite La Torre’s stellar vocals. It never feels like the song locks into high gear and you’re left unsatisfied by song’s end. Things do improve on the far more urgent “Man the Machine,” and especially on album highlight “Light-years,” which blends restrained prog rock with a dark mood, approximating Parallels era Fates Warning mixed with the melancholy vibe of Empire. Elsewhere, “Bent” feels like a long-lost cut from Rage for Order, and La Torre gives a killer performance steeped in Tate-isms.
The band runs into trouble however when they attempt to strip down their sound too much in favor of rock and grunge influences, as on “Propaganda Fashion,” which sounds like a cast off Warrior Soul song circa 1992, with trace elements of The Foo Fighters in its mutated DNA. Likewise, “Dark Reverie” tries forcing catchy anthem rock idioms through the Queensrÿche filter with limited success. Other numbers have a solid traditional approach but fail to deliver memorable moments, with “Launder the Conscience” being Exhibit A. The Verdict seesaws back and forth from decent to underwhelming numbers, losing and gaining momentum in turns. The more I spun this, the more it occurred to me that it sounds like a really talented Queensrÿche cover band (we’ll call them The Rÿche Stuff) trying to write original material based on what they thought their heroes would have done.
Todd La Torre has been a godsend for Queensrÿche. Since coming on board he’s been a real shot in the arm, providing badly needed energy and copious vocal talent while making the band relevant again. He can channel a young Geoff Tate, but doesn’t spend all his time trying to be the Ripper Owens of prog metal. He sounds great and continues to provide a crucial spark here, but the material doesn’t give him as many moments to shine as the last few albums did. Too much of this is low energy prog-lite, forcing him to keep his golden pipes idling. His drumming is surprisingly solid, and the man can definitely rock the kit. Had I not known it was him, I would have assumed Rockenfield was still in the backline doing his thing. Guitarists Michael Wilton and Parker Lundgren manage to keep the band’s core sound present even as they attempt to move things in new directions. They’re a talented tandem, and even when I’m less than thrilled with the writing, they’re still interesting to hear.
The Verdict is an unsuccessful attempt to expand the Queensrÿche sound, dubiously taking it back toward the rock/alt-rock oriented space it occupied during the band’s steady decline throughout the 90s. They’re talented enough to make it work at times and there are a few good songs, but overall this feels like a misfire lacking in direction and confidence. It might appeal to fans of restrained prog rock, but lovers of the past few albums likely won’t be enamored with the shift. Looks like the drama is back.