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Queensrÿche: Lifting People’s Hearts & Making Us Think for Over 40 Years

Queensrÿche is sharing a couple of milestone moments with fans on their current tour, and the faithful cannot wait to celebrate.  (The Origins Tour stops at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey, on April 30, Glenside, Pennsylvania’s Keswick Theatre the following day, and The Paramount in Huntington, New York, on May 3.)

Right now, this legendary heavy-meets-progressive metal band is performing their classic debut EP (originally released in 1983) in its entirety.

Four decades later and the album holds up for Queensrÿche, who are also playing The Warning, their 1984 debut full length, from head to toe on tour. The Seattle-based rockers are commemorating that record’s 40th anniversary, too, and fans are thrilled be reliving that era with the band that still stands tall.

When The Aquarian spoke with founding guitarist Michael Wilton, he said that he has seen fans coming out to this tour – appropriately named The Origins Tour – and they are tearing up over hearing classics like “Queen of the Reich,” “The Lady Wore Black,” and “Take Hold of the Flame.” There’s a ‘wow factor’ to those classic performances, much like “Blinded,” “Before the Storm,” and “No Sanctuary,” which are tunes that haven’t seen the stage for many years… until now.

Queensrÿche today consists of Wilton and fellow founding members Eddie Jackson (bassist), Todd LaTorre on vocals, Mike Stone (guitarist), and drummer Casey Grillo. A truly unique outfit, Queensrÿche announced itself with EP opener “Queen of the Reich,” a band hallmark that features a blistering and immediately captivating riff alongside former vocalist Geoff Tate’s high-octave scream. In addition to flexing their musical muscles, the band was quick to showcase its ability to shift gears even back then, as “The Lady Wore Black” followed suit on EP, which is a slower, haunting number.

On that first big LP, Warning, Queensrÿche continued to evolve its progressive bent with the heed title track, the rousing anthem “Take Hold of the Flame,” the epic “Roads to Madness,” and the futuristic “NM 156.” All of these songs featured the challenging music and foretelling lyrics that led to fans proclaiming Queensrÿche as the Thinking Man’s Metal Band. 

The EP and The Warning include more than just iconic Queensrÿche songs that put them on the map; they are timeless staples within the entire heavy metal and progressive rock genres. When Michael Wilton spoke with The Aquarian about Queensrÿche’s early days and tours, including the current one, it was key to speak on the the genesis of the compositions that fuel such Origins. 

What was the impetus for The Origins Tour? 

It came about last year. A promoter asked, “Have you ever thought about doing the EP and The Warning in their entirety”?” We said, ‘Well, let’s think about it,” and it just kind of blossomed. We said we’d do it at this Hell’s Heroes Festival in Houston, then ticket sales were through the roof. We thought, “Hey, this would be a good thing to do.” It was born out of that and our manager put it together and then our booking agent put it together even more. All the venues were highly interested in it, so for us, it was, “Ok, let’s get it going!”

It’s pretty amazing to go back and play those songs. We’ve played a lot of them, so there were only a few we had to kind of relearn. It’s all challenging, progressive, and heavy music. At our age now, we’re still crushing it!

You were fairly young when the band wrote the EP songs. Can you take us back to that time? 

When you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, and with the technology back then, we were just making demo cassettes and jamming on them. Before Queensrÿche, we were called The Mob. We were playing roller rinks. We were performing everywhere, playing Judas Priest, Dio, AC/DC, Iron Maiden. Then we decided to write music on our own. We kept hammering out riffs and ideas and songs. We got to a point that we could afford to go into a studio at that time.

When we recorded EP, we could only afford the graveyard time. We had day jobs, so we were recording the album at night. That’s when Geoff came in and things just went from there. We took a mastered cassette to our management at the record store. They played it and people in the record store were going, “Who the hell is that? Oh my God, that’s killer!” It was a slam dunk. 

We put out the [record label] 206 record, which was released by our management at the time who owned the record store – 206 was the area code of where we lived. After we sold 50,000 to 60,000 of those records, the record companies were knocking on our door. EMI offered us a six-record deal. We said, “Ok, let’s do it.”

Songs from the EP and The Warning – “Queen of the Reich,” “The Lady Wore Black,” and “Take Hold of the Flame” – are more than Queensrÿche classics now. These songs are classics in the several genres to which the band has been ascribed.

It’s great. A lot of our music people really don’t know how to describe it. Some people call it metal, some people call it progressive, some people call it just rock, some people call it hard rock. We don’t know what it is. It’s just music. We’re just a guitar-oriented band, so it was supercharged, but a little different. People loved the songs; we just played what fit the music and we nurtured that. 

We were growing as individuals and growing as musicians and as songwriters. It was a natural progression. We were heavily influenced by the progressive metal bands and the invasion from the UK and Europe. It was about searching and finding our identify in this huge mass of heavy, progressive music.

Do you marvel at Queensrÿche’s longevity? 

I think through years and years of touring, we just garnered fans. We’re a touring act and a dual guitar band… so you build a following. We’ve made this longevity and it’s a treat that we’re doing this tour. You see the people out there who remember these albums and it’s mind-blowing. You’ve got the kids going and saying, “Wow!” It’s so reminiscent. The offspring are diehards and the youth are curious, so, it’s a double win. Then you’ve got your long-time original fans who are as old as we are and there are tears in their eyes. 

Did Queensrÿche write The Warning while touring for the EP?

First, we went on tour with the EP, and after these tours we would be back writing riffs and songs. Eventually we were touring where we needed more songs in the set, so, we had those songs ready because we always kept writing. We were playing songs from Warning even before the album came out. Our Live in Tokyo video was filmed before the album was released!

On your first tour with singer Todd La Torre, the band opened with “Queen of the Ryche. Was that intentional? You arrived on the scene with that song. Were you now introducing a new era of the band in the same way? 

Todd wanted to do it.  It’s not an easy song to sing, but his vocal range was right in there. You open up with that and it wakes people up. 

“The Lady Wore Black” off the EP is another iconic Queensrÿche song that wowed people from the start.

[Former guitarist] Chris DeGarmo had that riff and Geoff had some old lyrics that fit in. It’s kind of a haunting lyric. It’s interesting – that’s the song that we thought back in those days would be played on radio, which at that time was very Top 40 oriented. Then all of the sudden the local radio station said, “We’ve got this EP from this local bad. We’re going to play a song for you. He played “Queen of the Reich” and he told us the phones just lit up.

“Take Hold” was another song that Chris had and it became kind of the more ‘accessible’ anthem from The Warning. To this day people always scream that song, yelling “Play ‘Flame!'” It just lifts peoples’ hearts. 

When the band wrote these songs, did you think to yourself that you had something special? 

It’s not like we were trying to write hits or songs that were accessible. There were different ideas and different paths of songs and you really don’t know which one is going to be the hit. Usually when a band tries to pick the hit, it’s not the one that’s the most popular with the fans. You just don’t know, but if the direction we’re going collides with popular opinion… hey, lucky us. It’s more about five guys in a room writing music together; all different ideas from everybody that all believe in the same thing. It was timing too. It was back when record companies had the money to nurture bands. We just kind of rode the wave.  

You’ve been called the Thinking Man’s Metal Band. In those days, that was evident in songs like “NM 156.” That one can be seen as foretelling the explosion of AI.  

It’s very lyrically relevant for today. A lot of the songs we’ve written are that way. Again, it’s reflections traveling and just living and ingesting ideas. It’s interesting; I don’t think we’re scholars of any sort, so to be actually called that? Like I said before, we write lyrics that are thought provoking and honest. That’s part of life. That’s how they label bands that don’t write about fast cars and hot girls. 

Which songs did you have to wipe the dust off for the tour? 

With this rendition of Queensrÿche, we play a lot from The Warning. We only had to go back and learn two songs: “Before the Storm” and “No Sanctuary.” From the EP it was “Blinded.” 

“Before the Storm” is so tricky to play. We’ve been playing “Nightrider” and “Blinded,” and those are more metal oriented, more heavy and pounding in your face. “Before the Storm” is just tricky. It’s just progressive and there’s some weird time signatures in there, and it’s a challenge to sing.

There’s some great melodies in there, unusual stuff. That one I think has opened a lot of eyes so far on the tour. The audience is like, “Oh my God! I haven’t heard this in so long.” I go back to those songs and relearn the solos. I soloed different back then from what I do now. I had to go back and figure out how I played those! It’s like going back to school. It’s challenging, but back in the early eighties, mid-eighties, we were playing all those songs, at least until we came up with Rage for Order.

You opened for some heavy hitters at that time, including Iron Maiden and Dio. That type of early exposure must have been critical.

That’s how we learned the business. You learn the business by being out there in it – the good and the bad. It’s very easy in the music industry to be taken for a ride. Ronnie Dio was so informative and such a nice man. He introduced a lot of ideas. Being on the road you learn where you fit in the industry. We’ve had problems, obviously, with business dealings and certain things. Every band goes through it; they’re just road bumps. Even when we opened up for Bon Jovi for a few weeks, [Jon] was the nicest guy. He showed us how he really did things. It’s all about absorbing experiences that you have out there. 

We opened for Metallica on the And Justice for All Tour. They had a dedicated audience that only wanted to hear Metallica, so we had to take our punches and earn the respect of their fans. Eventually we did, I think, to a certain extent. At least they stopped throwing things at us! The Metallica guys were so much fun.

How long do you see The Origins Tour extending past this year?

I think we’re possibly going to have a couple of legs of this tour. It’s catching on, it’s doing really well. Hopefully we’re going to try to reconnect that bridge to Europe and the UK at some point. We haven’t been there in four years. We don’t want them to forget about us. It’s good to be busy. So far, this idea has really blossomed, and for a Queensrÿche fan, it’s important to see and hear it. I think people really enjoy the show.