I’ve always been an anachronism. I was born in 1977, and thanks to some older cousins, I got into metal in the dying days of the 1980s, mostly through records and bands already well established – AC/DC, Scorpions, Ozzy, Metallica, Mötley Crüe… Growing up in the suburban South, I relied almost exclusively upon MTV and supermarket metal mags for any further exposure, and because I spent most of my time playing catch-up, I moved slowly on what was new. All that means that I was only tangentially exposed to the underground, and also, that my fandom blossomed into full-blown trad-metal obsession about a year before Nirvana scorched the earth and suddenly my Iron Maiden shirt wasn’t cool anymore.
But then again, I wasn’t all that cool anyway, so while all the kids at my school suddenly started wishing they were Eddie Vedder, I was still wishing I could be Bruce Dickinson. Or King Diamond. Or Geoff Tate.
Like about 75% of listeners, my first real exposure to Queensrÿche came with Empire – my cousins must not have cared much about anything before that – and when I heard it, I loved it. (And I still do, haters be damned.) From there, it was a quick trip backward to the Queensrÿche record that truly blew my mind, the godly Operation: Mindcrime. That one’s a Top Ten All-Timer for me, a desert island disc, one of those handful of favorites that never grow old.
But no one needs another in-depth discussion of Nikki and Dr. X, another summary of that impenetrable storyline as it relates (or related) to Reagan-era America; no one needs another praise-heaping word-ejaculation about the band’s balance of progressive metal ideals against the polished hard rock that would soon enough make them arena stars.
So I’ll do now what I always do: Keep going backwards. After Empire hooked me, and Mindcrime slayed me, within another few weeks I’d saved my allowance for a cassette copy of The Warning. (“Why that and not Rage For Order?” you were likely not about to ask. Simple: The Warning’s album cover is cooler.)
Released in the ominous year of 1984, The Warning is an odd record. It’s the transition point between the Euro-metal majesty that characterized the eponymous ‘Rÿche EP and the later, more-rock-than-metal mastery of Mindcrime. The Warning is also a record that is strongly disliked by its creators – the initial mix and sequence were changed by the label, against the wishes of the band, and by their own account, the members of Queensrÿche hated the final result.
Still, looking back on it now, as an impartial observer, The Warning is a strong record, the literal dark horse in the classic ‘Rÿche discography. And by that latter bit, I mean: Yes, the label-initiated new mix is dark, dim and somewhat cavernous. It’s the only real fault of The Warning, but if I may disagree with the band momentarily, it’s not a deal-breaker. There’s always been a stately almost-Gothic moodiness to Queensrÿche’s metal, and that Gothic pomp works in The Warning’s darkness, even at the same time that the edges are rolled off the band’s metallic foundation. Of course, I’ve not heard the initial version that the label rejected, and I’m sure it’s a better sonic statement of the ‘Rÿche’s true power – but Val Garay’s maligned mix doesn’t hurt The Warning as much as it should have, and certainly it doesn’t tank the album overall.
Of course, a large part of however much The Warning does succeed is simply because its songs are great, and the band is great, and both of those can overcome a crap production almost every time. The original version apparently would have opened with the robotic sounds of the sci-fi-inspired “NM 156,” but the commercial version we know now opens with the a cappella and delayed “Warning… warning… warning…” that leads directly into the title track, which is easily one of the ‘Rÿche’s most killer classic tunes. (Check out some great bass work from the ever-underrated Eddie Jackson.) From there, through the driving “En Force” and the moody “No Sanctuary” and “NM 156,” it’s a straight shot to the album’s greatest moment, the absolutely stellar “Take Hold Of The Flame,” with its gang-shouted background vocal hook and that glorious soaring melody. Wrap it all up with the brilliant nine-minute epic of “Roads To Madness,” and The Warning clearly points to where the ‘Rÿche was headed…
One by-product of the Val Garay mix is that it pushes Geoff Tate’s vocals further to the front, clear and powerful atop those dampened guitar tones and distant drums, which means that The Warning is a start-to-front showcase of his godlike pipes. The post-millennium Queensrÿche collapse and all the drama that came with it may have soured Tate’s image, but in 1984 (and up through about 1998), he was as great as Halford or Dickinson, one of the finest singers in metal, and this entire record is a grand reminder of that. His crooning outro to “En Force” is cornily dramatic, and yet perfect for the moment, and those soaring highs in “The Warning” and especially “Take Hold Of The Flame” are as good as he would ever get.
When I ran across The Warning, it was nearly a decade late, and now it’s twenty-five years past that. (God, I’m old now.) And I’m still listening because it’s still as great as it ever was. Sure, it has some notable flaws, but it’s still very much an unsung classic from Ye Golden Days of metal, and one that deserves a fairer shake than it’s often given. Queensrÿche would get even better over the span of a handful of records hereafter, through another decade or so, and then they began a marked decline that they’ve only recently redirected. The Warning was the starting point, more or less, the point where their metal started branching out, getting bigger and better and bolder…