The Warning represents the height of Queensryche’s career, although it is for reasons that most people probably won’t agree with me about. Basically: the thing about Queensryche to me personally, is that their first two efforts – the debut EP and this album – are genuinely excellent. Then they kind of transformed into a band who thought too much about proving they’re a Thinking Man’s Metal Band – the basic concept being that certain bands become so concerned with being perceived as being Serious And Artistic, and try putting in the obvious signifiers that they are, indeed, such and become more concerned with being perceived as clever than anything else.
There’s a difference between being that and, well, actually being artistic; the latter is born of self-confidence, drive, and the desire to simply make the best music a group can and let the chips fall where they may. The former, usually, strives to achieve acceptance from the kind of people who already scorn and deride metal as a genre to start with; as such, it’s basically a self-defeating proposition. For reasons I’m not gonna get too far into: I’ve hated Rage for Order basically forever, and Operation: Mindcrime is basically a decent album bogged down by a concept that isn’t half as clever as it believes itself to be.
Before all of that, though, you have this record. The key to The Warning’s success as a record is a matter of balance, I think – it’s a more contemplative record, one that forsakes direct riffiness in favor of building atmosphere and mood. It uses those things to underline a running theme throughout the album, that of technological creep destroying the environment and man. Its handling of these things is surprisingly nuanced and not remotely as ham-handed as it had any right to be.
Part of what differentiates this album, both from the debut EP and most later prog metal, is that its aforementioned reliance on mood has the band forsake the business that came to define later prog metal. It isn’t an album that throws a bunch of riffs or sudden tempo changes immediately at you in an attempt to disclose your attention on the music. Rather, Queensryche showcase an unusual patience in composing the songs on this record – there are riffs throughout this record, and they are certainly excellent. However, what the band does is that they allow them to breathe in a way where the atmosphere is allowed to emerge as a natural consequence of the guitar and bass work driving things along, instead of hammering the point home with filler interludes. The band isn’t really afraid to ride a riff or a clean passage for a while if it allows the band to build up the aforementioned atmosphere, or simply uses them to frame Geoff Tate’s brilliant vocal delivery. They know and understood exactly what to get out of what passage before moving on, even if there’s definitely earworm hooks and melodies dotted throughout the album. Honestly, I defy anybody who’s heard this album before to get the chorus to “Warning” out of their head – that’s a damn near perfect combo of riff and vocal melody right there.
Regardless, this is an extremely understated record; it’s not blazing fast for the most part – if anything it’s fairly ballad heavy at times – and it isn’t super heavy in the physical sense either. It has riffs, and they’re certainly really well written and memorable, but it’s not exactly like you’d ever mistake it for something like say, Mercyful Fate or whatever. Rather, it’s a matter of craftsmanship and again, patience with the writing that really shines with this album, especially on subsequent listens. There’s a clear methodical sensibility to how they’re put together, how each part goes into the next one that shows a band who didn’t writing aimless songs, but weren’t terribly interested in barreling through them either. There’s an obvious level of care that was placed in between how the twin guitar work of Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton worked with Geoff Tate’s voice throughout. The song “NM 156” is testament to that, in particular – without being bland or rotely uninteresting either, and the rhythm section provides the drive to push forward when needed to, and when to lay off and let things develop instead of shoving in a bunch of unnecessary fills where the sun don’t shine. It’s a very talented band who, at this point, knew it without having to constantly remind you of the fact. Well, one notable exception to which the record wouldn’t really work without him.
The emphasis on atmosphere and mood throughout also meant that Geoff Tate had to carry a big portion of this record, which isn’t really an easy feat. He was more than up to the task, however – at this point in his career, about nobody could really touch him as a vocalist. Tate was the whole package, a borderline technically perfect vocalist who sang with clarity of conviction and passion through this record. Dude could hit any note he pleased and used that talent to convey the core emotion and mood any of these tracks went for. He’s never a try-hard about conveying it like many later prog and power metal vocalists were – rather, he knows he’s just that good and goes for it. Simple as that.
All nine songs of the songs on this record are excellent, as you’d guess. Whether it’s the driving gallop of the verses of “En Force”, the juxtaposition of robotic verses and jarringly human singing in the aforementioned “NM 156”, or the perfectly executed, winding build up to the climax of “Roads of Madness”, the band never forsake consistency or memorability. At the risk of siding with the majority of people when it comes to this album (I think?), the best cut here is “Take Hold of the Flame”. It’s rare for a ballad to be a highlight on a metal album, but it’s such a gorgeously executed bit of songwriting, between its central melody that it builds around, to the way it frames Tate’s voice before shit gets real 1:06. That note he hits is fuckin’ spell-binding, just the absolute effortlessness of a master. And that main riff! It’s one of the best metal songs of the 80’s, really.
In summation, The Warning works because it’s simultaneously confident, while being just understated enough to avoid coming off as greasy and overly pompous. There’s a difference between putting on airs about writing “mature music”, and then just going out and being that because you know exactly what you are, and what you want to do. It’s a lost art, especially with prog metal. But, well, you can always consider this album one of the true go-tos of the style. Phenomenal.
Favorite track: Take Hold of the Flame