Queensryche's lead singer Geoff Tate doesn't particularly like it when you refer to his group as a thinking man's metal band. His groan makes that perfectly clear.
That description is something he has heard again and again since the Seattle quintet first came to prominence in the late '80s.
"It's a silly cliche," he says, looking across the table of a Hollywood restaurant at guitarist Chris DeGarmo, who nods in agreement. "It doesn't begin to describe what this band is all about--the breadth and scope of our music."
But whether they like it or not, the term does fit. Rather than being rooted in the steamroller metal of Black Sabbath, KISS and Led Zeppelin, Queensryche's music is closer to British progressive rock and, to some extent, the theatrical arena-rock of bands such as Styx and Rush.
"We're not soft--which that 'thinking man's band' thing implies," insists Tate.
So maybe Queensryche should be lumped in with the Bon Jovis and Ozzy Osbournes?
"We don't play that basic head-banger type music either--though we've toured with a lot of those bands," DeGarmo explains. "Our music is literate but not phony-artsy. We've carved our own little turf. Our music has the kind of intensity that appeals to the metal crowd."
These days nobody wants a metal tag--thinking man's or otherwise. Radio is hardly playing metal, and it certainly isn't selling. Being considered metal has probably hurt sales of Queensryche's first album in four years, "Promised Land," which is sliding down the Billboard chart after a promising debut. At its current pace, it's unlikely to match the sales of its predecessor, "Empire."
In some ways, however, Queensryche feels lucky to have come back with another album at all. While riding high with "Empire" a few years ago, the band went into an emotional tailspin and called it quits for a while.
"We had reached the point where the music and a killer schedule had completely taken us over," Tate explains. "We focused so hard on the band that we'd neglected our lives outside of music--and it was coming back to haunt us. You need a certain amount of energy and drive to do this music. For a while we didn't have it."
Tate, 34, and DeGarmo, 31, aren't typical swaggering, slang-spouting hard-rockers. They're gentlemanly, articulate, mature and very low-key. Talking about the new album seems to put them in an particularly introspective mood.
"When you grind to a halt like we did, you start to ponder all sorts of lofty issues--values, life, etc.," DeGarmo says. "You need time off to reflect."
But what an inopportune time for a hiatus. With a lineup intact since the band started in the early '80s, Queensryche finally broke through in 1988 with one of the most literate metal albums of the decade, "Operation: Mind crime," which has sold more than a million copies. An even bigger hit, the 3-million-selling "Empire," followed in 1990, catapulting them into the big time. At their peak, the following year, they were headlining sold-out arenas.
"It seemed crazy to stop then, with all that momentum," Tate says. "People were saying we should do another album while we had the momentum, while we were in the spotlight."
In retrospect, that was sound advice. The spotlight was in the process of turning away from metal and toward alternative rock.
When they did regroup about a year and a half later, they were in an analytical mood. "We had all been going through some of the same things," Tate says. "We needed to express what we had gone through. In our other albums, we usually look at various aspects of life and love--mainly making observations about other people, not that much about ourselves. But 'Promised Land' is more introspective than any album we've ever done."
With such songs as "Damaged," "Out of Mind," "I Am I" and especially "Disconnected," it's easy to see that the band has been to emotional hell and back.
"We rummage through the muddier parts of our lives on some of these songs," DeGarmo explains. "I don't want to get into the gory details. When you start out in dysfunctional families, the way we all did, you're always struggling with certain things.
"We analyze some of own personal conflicts and look hard at the truths about ourselves. We arrived at some of these songs in the process of self-analysis, trying to figure out how we got to where we were--how we had really screwed things up. But our lives weren't always that messy."
DeGarmo and Tate were just 16 when they formed the band in Seattle in 1981, recruiting pals Michael Wilton (guitar), Eddie Jackson (bass) and Scott Rockenfield (drums).
"We were so innocent and ambitious then," Tate recalls with a loud sigh. "We were so into the music. Nothing else mattered. It would be nice to be able to bottle some of that passion and save it for when you really need it--like about 10, 15 years later when life gets so complicated it's hard to be creative."
By their late teens, they were polished enough to make an impressive four-song demo tape that became their first EMI release, the EP "Queensryche," in 1983. Through the '80s, they slowly accumulated a sizable audience with four solid albums and tours with such bands as Def Leppard and AC/DC. Mainstream radio and MTV finally kicked in with "Empire," which boosted Queensryche to the next level.
Staying there, though, won't be easy now that the tide seems to have turned against metal. Do they have any regrets about not recording "Promised Land" a few years sooner?
"Not really," DeGarmo replies. "We weren't up to doing an album then. If there's consequences, we'll just have to suffer."