Sweet Oblivion – Relentless (Album Review)

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If there’s one thing the Italian label Frontiers Records can be credited for, it’s giving rock acts of yesteryear more runway for extending their career and releasing new music in a style that the winds of time would otherwise have buried long ago.

For those of us who came of age in the 80s and have a sweet spot for melodic hard rock, Frontiers has unearthed some diamonds (as well as some rubble) that can be either dismissed or praised for their ability to preserve a fading art form.

Often dubbed a “thinking man’s metal,” Seattle based Queensryche emerged in the mid 80s with a sound that stood out in the crowd thanks to a couple essential elements—one of which of course was the distinctive, soaring vocals of Geoff Tate.

Leading up and through 1990s “Empire,” the band released a string of four remarkably solid studio albums that managed to evolve the sound of the band while retaining its identity, and most importantly, its listenability. In 1994, they released “Promised Land,” a mixed bag that pushed experimentation and introspection, often at the expense of accessibility. And then the band suffered a massive identity crisis that would plague them for nearly two decades. The enigmatic Chris DeGarmo departed, leaving a gaping wound that would prove impossible to heal.

In the ensuing years, the band released a series of disappointing studio releases that never even came close to recapturing the magic of those first four records, and along the way, a legendary rift developed between Tate and his bandmates, and what followed was a mess. Tabloid-worthy live performances featuring a combative and dismissive Tate backed by a band going through the motions, culminating in Brazil when Tate spit on and punched fellow band members.

The lines were drawn and a legal battle began between Tate vs. the rest of the band over the rights to the name. Adding to fan confusion, for a while two versions of Queensryche were out on the road. And the two versions each released a record in 1993 under the Queensryche moniker. Tate put out the remarkably awful “Frequency Unknown” with juvenile artwork highlighting “FU,” while the rest of the band recruited Todd LaTorre to take over lead vocals and released the refreshingly strong return to form simply called “Queensryche.”

There was no way to escape picking a side, and while Tate is arguably an essential element to the classic Queensryche sound, the songwriting, production and performances of the LaTorre led group was vastly superior, in part because they sought to recapture the sound and spirit of those early records. A court ruling granted Tate’s adversaries the band name, and despite forming “Operation Mindcrime” and releasing a trio of concept studio albums, Tate has struggled to find a way to return anywhere near the heights of the band’s heyday. The voice was often there, but the songs and sonics weren’t.

This sounds like a job for Frontier Records. And in fact, it is. Sweet Oblivion is a project created, overseen and directed by Frontiers President Serafino Perugino, which, whether stated openly or not, is an attempt to reunite Tate with the classic Queensryche sound and songwriting style. And that’s pretty much what it does.

The self-titled debut, written and produced by DGM’s Simone Mularoni, caused a stir for its remarkable ability to restore that missing element in Tate’s previous efforts. Sad but true, it was the best thing Tate had been involved with since 1995, with aggressive riffs, melodic choruses and a platform to Tate to sing like its 1988. While there were some modern touches in production, it was a highly successful return to form. And quite possibly a difficult act to follow.

Relentless” now has the challenging task of maintaining that new standard, while featuring an all-new cast of characters. At the helm this time around is Aldo Lonobile (Secret Sphere, Archon Angel, Timo Tolkki’s Avalon), who provides production duties, songwriting and guitar work. The classic Queensryche blueprint already exists. And a new home had been successfully built by another team. The question is, could Lonobile do the same? The honest answer is, “Yeah, pretty much.”

This second installment of Sweet Oblivion sounds a little bit darker and more theatrical than its predecessor. But not dramatically so. What really has to be said is that when listening to this release, it sounds very familiar. And that’s because Lonobile has done such a good job of analyzing the sound and structure of those early Ryche records. The tone of the bass, performed by Luigi Andereone, is a spot-on match for the rollicking and distinctive bottom end initially laid down by Eddie Jackson. In fact, there are many spots where you hear the angular low end punch and think, “this is a lot like ‘Jet City Woman.’” That may lose points for originality, but the point of this project is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And that’s just one example of how the best of Queensryche is being channeled. The drums, pounded here by Michele Sanna, truly resemble the sonics and style of Scott Rockenfield. And then there’s that classic twin guitar chorus that Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo did so well in classic tracks like “Another Rainy Night” and “Breaking the Silence” that Lonobile has dutifully recreated. It’s actually a fascinating exercise to listen to new material and find bits and pieces from records now 35 years old buried in something new. Also pretty well recreated is the songwriting style, which apparently Tate had a heavier hand in this time around. The verses sound energized, the choruses have hooks and the guitar solos have some fire—all things previously lacking on Tate’s Operation Mindcrime releases.

But what about the vocals? Can Geoff Tate still deliver? After all, he has gone on record many times saying he’s not interested in singing like the early days, and that his musical tastes are not still in metal. The simple truth is, Geoff Tate is at his best when he’s singing as if on the edge of a nervous breakdown. There is a quirkiness and an urgency that comes out in his performances with more dramatic, metallic music, and while nobody likes to be defined or restricted by the past, honestly this is the sand box he plays best in. While there are expected signs of aging in his voice, Tate stretches himself and delivers a pretty strong performance. His multi-layered harmonizing is still signature, and the anxiety laced lines work with the material here. And that’s key—there is better material here for him to sing. Like it or not, Geoff Tate is best when working with those who know how to craft better songs and make better sounding records.

The first single, “Strong Pressure,” is a good representation of the record, with all of the aforementioned elements coming together to sound like something that could have been released on “Empire.” “I’ll Be the One” has a “Silent Lucidity” vibe with its more acoustic approach in a decidedly electric collection, and the lyrics make it a touching ballad that stand outs from the rest of the record. “Aria” also distinguishes itself on the record as being a rocker that’s sung in Italian. I wish there was a version of the track in English, as well, but I suspect it will find a particular place of appeal with Frontiers home country listeners. The balance of tracks are pretty consistent in quality and tone, with some audio candy in vocal and sound effects, layered upon a bedrock of that classic Queensryche sound.

So while it’s all not terribly original, it is well executed, and for anyone who has been disappointed with the middle segment of Queensryche’s catalog (most of the fan base), as well as Tate’s solo efforts, will very likely find the second chapter of Sweet Oblivion pretty sweet indeed, and well worth multiple listens.

Released By: Frontiers Music srl
Release Date: April 16th, 2021
Genre: Rock

Musicians:

  • Geoff Tate / Vocals
  • Aldo Lonobile / Guitars 
  • Luigi Andreone / Bass 
  • Antonio Agate / Keys 
  • Michele Sanna / Drums

“Relentless” track-listing

  1. Once Again, One Sin
  2. Strong Pressure
  3. Let It Be
  4. Another Change
  5. Wake Up Call
  6. Remember Me
  7. Anybody Out There
  8. Aria
  9. I’ll Be The One
  10. Fly Angel Fly

7.5 Very Good

This project merges Geoff Tate with the classic Queensryche style and sound, which despite being tied to the past, results in the strongest final product Tate has been delivered in the past 25 years, aside from the Sweet Oblivion debut.

  • Songwriting 8
  • Musicianship 8
  • Originality 6
  • Production 8
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