Lethal // Programmed
Released: 1990 via Metal Blade Records
In light of the ongoing soap opera/meltdown/shitshow that the Queensryche and Geoff Tate (pronounced by me as Gee-off Tot-A) relationship has become, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the best Queensryche album since Operation Mindcrime. Oddly, it wasn’t recorded by the Queenie Ones, but by the upstart Kentucky act Lethal. Programmed popped onto the scene in 1990 with little fanfare and it didn’t garner a whole lot of attention. However, it was and is a pristine example of that classic Queensryche style of dramatic, old school metal. Ironically, it’s stood the test of time far better than most of the latter-day Queensryche platters, so I think it’s high time to give Programmed it’s freaking due! Led by the powerhouse vocals of Tom Mallicoat, Lethal essentially took the sound of The Warning and Rage for Order, added a touch of Crimson Glory, a bit more heaviness and BOOM goes the dynamite! Programmed offers track after track of over-the-top, vintage metal with crunchy riffs and majorly soaring vocals. Due to Mallicoat’s striking similarity to Mr. Tate, it’s easy to write them off as a clone act, and that’s certainly valid to a point, but the fact is, after Mindcrime, these cats were the only game in town if one wanted more of the classic Ryche material. While Queensryche was one my all-time favorites, and I remain a huge fanboy of their old stuff, I spin this thing a helluva lot more than Empire and the dreck that followed in its limp wake. Ignore that crap-tastic cover. If you, like me, feel Queensryche blew their musical wad far too soon, this will partially ameliorate that sense of being denied more quality material.
From the start of “Fire in Your Skin” you can tell you uncovered a hidden gem. The guitars hit on the perfect blend of The Warning and Rage for Order dramatics and Mallicoat blows the roof off with his Tate-meets-Midnight vocals. What’s more, the song is expertly written and executed to wring the maximum of power, emotional and energy from the structure. The chorus pops and everything is instant and immediate while reeking of classy, golden age metal. Before you recover, they up the heaviness for the ripping title track, which is like a juggernaut of classical metal. Heavy riffs blend with masterfully overwrought, but killer vocals and a HUGE chorus you shan’t forget anytime soon, if ever. If there was ever a song meant for a fake sing-along, this is it. Just don’t try to ACTUALLY sing along or you’ll get a torsion from those high notes (trust me but don’t ask how I know).
From there you get clubbed with a succession of very high-level songs in the same mode. My personal favorites include the hair-raisingly huge, over-the-top emotion of “Another Day” (the vocals at 1:33 onward still flatten me), the slick power of “Obscure the Sky,” lead single and video track “Immune” and the hook crazy “Killing Machine.” Not one song falters and nothing comes remotely close to filler. This is one of those albums you play for the first time, shake your head and play again right away. It’s fucking good, people!
Since Lethal based their entire style around early Queensryche, the vocals are obviously the major focal point and they have a real winner in Mallicoat. He may sound a lot like Tate at times, but he manages to inject his own personality enough to avoid comparisons to a cover band singer (a.k.a. Tim “The Ripper” Syndrome). He sings his balls off (without getting a torsion) on every track and makes Programmed a lesson in how a charismatic and talented vocalist can elevate material to new levels. What makes things work so well, is that the material itself doesn’t need elevating. These are all excellent songs and this would probably be a great album even with a lesser throat at the mic. The guitars by Dell Hull and Eric Cook (R.I.P.) rip and tear on every song and they ply the listener with big, heavy riff patterns and engaging, fluid solos. It just works on every level.
So by now you might wonder why Lethal didn’t get more traction with such a winning release. Frankly, I just don’t know. Everyone I played this for ended up loving it and hunting it down. I even fooled some big Ryche fans into thinking it was an old recording by their beloved band. I suppose the major reason was the lack of a follow-up until 95’s Your Favorite God EP (which was heavier but good) and the weakness of 96’s Poison Seed. Still, I’m at a loss why this thing didn’t get them more exposure. Regardless, this is one of those unheralded jewels that you may have missed. Better late than never though, right? If you love that band from Seattle that redefined the metal concept album, you need to hear this. Steel Druhm has spoken.