If Geoff Tate is rattled by the recent upheavals in his musical career, you’d be hard-pressed to tell from his latest solo album ‘Kings and thieves’ which is imbued with the singer’s customary self-possession and clarity of thought with no hint of the turmoil which has embroiled his life elsewhere. The first thing to note is that ‘Kings and thieves’ lends a great deal of credence to Geoff’s recent claims that he has been the sole creative force behind the Queensryche machine for some years and, indeed, it is arguable that separated from the pressure of his erstwhile colleagues and the band’s lofty name itself, Geoff has been able to indulge in a musical exercise which calmly and capably outstrips most of Queensryche’s recent output, whilst not deviating too heavily from the musical blueprint that the band have been utilising pretty much since ‘hear in the now frontier’
Fans of Tate will be entirely unsurprised to learn that the emphasis here is far removed from the power-metal histrionics of early Queensryche, the music sitting far closer to the mid-tempo rock of ‘Promised land’ or ‘hear in the now frontier’; but where speed has been sacrificed, there is instead a sense of power, melody, groove and feel, not dissimilar from Geoff’s debut solo effort, and whilst the band play with the confidence you’d expect from seasoned professionals, there is an edge to the proceedings that suggests a seriousness of purpose and mutual respect between the musicians that elevates this above the ego-polishing so often found in solo efforts. As much as Geoff allows his fellow musicians plenty of space in the spotlight, however, it would be surprising if it wasn’t his voice that proved to be the star of the show, and so it transpires with Geoff’s rich warm tones sitting comfortably at the heart of the mix. His voice may no longer be the air-siren of yore, but when he hits his stride, as he does frequently on this record; his voice still has the power to send shivers down the spine. The music, meanwhile, is eclectic, well-written and immaculately recorded, neatly drawing upon Geoff’s thirty-odd years of experience in the music industry without sounding faddy or contrived.
Geoff may not employ the full-on metal attack that many long-time Queensryche fans would undoubtedly like, but this largely subtle release has plenty to offer his followers over the course of its eleven tracks. Opening track ‘she slipped away’ sets the scene nicely, with Kelly Grey’s rippling guitars reminiscent of ‘Empire’-era Queensryche covering classic U2, and, having missed Kelly’s more bluesy interpretation of Queensryche tracks since he departed the band following ‘live evolution’, it’s good to hear the talented guitarist allowed the space to indulge in his art on many of the tracks here. Aside from Kelly, Geoff has also employed fellow Seattle musician (and former Mother Love Bone member) Gregg Gilmore on drums, Chris Zukas on bass and long-time collaborator Randy Gane (with whom both Geoff and Kelly played in Myth) on keyboards. The band also features harmony vocals courtesy of Jason Ames and Emily Tate.
Having impressed with ‘she slipped away’, its warm, driving rock a perfect reminder of Geoff’s skill as a beguiling and intimate front man, the band kick into the chunky groove of ‘take a bullet’ with its funky bass line and keyboard stabs adding depth to Kelly’s heavy, grinding guitars. Geoff, meanwhile, sounds like he’s having a good deal of fun with the vocals, his voice, clear, powerful and enthused throughout. ‘In the dirt’ has a slinky riff that grooves and swirls in the dust, the feeling once again being that this would be the perfect soundtrack to an open-topped ride through the sand-strewn highways of America, the music evocative of grand landscapes and open spaces even as each track is a short, contemporary stab of melodic hard rock rather than the more lengthy, progressive jams of Geoff’s day job.
A great track with an immensely annoying title, ‘Say U luv it’ with its text-speak (and thus instantly aggravating) nomenclature is a slice of carefully constructed electronic-enhanced rock that comes off like a mix between alt-rock stalwarts Live and Nine inch Nails, whilst Geoff once again sounds like he’s enjoying the freedom to experiment with different styles and moods as the muse takes him. It seems highly likely that there will be Queensryche purists decrying the album, and this track, in particular, but the simple truth of the matter is that Geoff’s moved on from his early days of bombastic, progressive metal and, whilst his musical direction is certainly different, this is skilfully produced and passionately delivered mid-tempo rock raised one step above its competition thanks to its being delivered with great energy and enthusiasm by one of hard rock’s most enduring voices. ‘The way I roll’ opens with snatches of jazzy saxophone, played by Geoff himself, and a spoken word declaration that this is Geoff circa 2012 before Kelly’s guitar stabs and Gegg’s woozy tempos take the track once again in the direction of Live, recalling that band’s underrated ‘V’ album. The longest track on the album, ‘tomorrow’ marries up syncopated rhythms and a stripped-down approach that gives Geoff’s lyrics and vocals a chance to shine, although it is Kelly who damn near steals the show with a fluid guitar solo set to Eastern-influenced keyboards in the mid-section of the song. Having caught their breath, the band kick back into heavier pastures with the dark-hearted ‘evil’, Kelly employing the full power of the studio to craft a track that feels like a stark message to Geoff’s former band mates as he grinds out the lyric “Why don’t you say it to my face, you don’t move me, you don’t fool me, it doesn’t matter because what you give is what you get…” from between gritted teeth. It’s dark, dramatic, and utterly enthralling.
Moving into the final third of the album, ‘dark money’ moves a distance away from the night-time horrors of ‘evil’ and back towards the pop-infused rock of ‘she slipped away’. Interestingly one influence that unexpectedly raises its head here is David Bowie, with Geoff’s band laying down a heavier version of Bowie’s ‘station to station’-period soundscapes. ‘Those glory days’ has a frighteningly addictive groove to it, the guitars dispatched with a bluesy feel over Gregg’s taut rhythms. Perhaps most unexpected is the synth-led ‘change’ which alters the whole feel of the album, coming on like a spiritual sequel to ‘silent lucidity’, the piano and orchestration giving way to one of Kelly’s best solos on the disc. It’s very different to anything else found here, and possibly the closest in feel to Queensryche even whilst not being in any sense metal. The album concludes with ‘waiting’, another track that slips away from the more contemporary vibe found elsewhere into a more eighties ballad-style that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on ‘Empire’. It seems odd that Geoff would save the two most traditional pieces for last, but with its brave, bluesy fills and funky bass lines underpinning it, it’s far from a simple exercise in nostalgia and one must remember that Geoff has been crafting music in this vein for half his life – old habits, it would seem die hard.
‘Kings and thieves’ will do nothing to attract those fans who jumped from the Queensryche ship after ‘promised land’, nor, one feels, should it. Geoff is an artist whose integrity has always meant so much more than sales and he has always been explicit about his changing tastes and his desire to move his music in more experimental directions. For those fans who have enjoyed Geoff Tate’s varied output over the years (and there are many) this is Geoff renewing his contract with those faithful, showcasing the fact that he is far from lost without his former band mates. Keeping faith with Kelly Grey was an astute move, Kelly’s production work is second to none, and his guitar work on the album is also exemplary, his bluesy tone the perfect foil for Geoff’s warm, rich voice. Geoff himself, meanwhile, has excelled himself. Where his first solo album felt more like an opportunity to cut loose form the day job, this effort feels like the work of a consummate artist, comfortable with the form and style of his art and confident that this work is his best. Many people will judge this album without hearing a note; many more will write it off for not being heavy enough; but for those who enjoy varied, immaculately played and produced music, ‘Kings and thieves’ is a triumph that allows Geoff the chance to fully shine as the remarkable vocalist that he is. Crafted with the man’s customary lyrical intelligence and with nothing that could be called filler, ‘Kings and thieves’ is a melodic, hard rock triumph and hopefully signals a new fire burning at the heart of a man whose career has already taken more interesting turns than most.