It was April of 1990 and I was yet again making the hour-and-a-half drive to Charlotte, N.C., to see a band. I was just finishing up my freshman year in college, and the past seven months had exposed me to an array of new music that was well beyond the punk, metal and mainstream "alternative" that made me feel special in high school. So when I told my friends I was road tripping to see Fates Warning, the blank "I thought you were cool" stares they responded with burned a hole through my hipness. Five weeks later, I'd drive to Charlotte to be in a crowd of 25 people to see a band from Seattle called Nirvana; I got the same stares for that one.
The '90s functioned under a collective delusion that metal had become a vacated style. Yet the lack of commercial attention afforded it ended up doing the genre a world of good. After all, if there's not crazy money to be made, why bother making bullshit heavy metal albums when you can make bullshit grunge/alternative/rap-rock albums and get paid? Why? Because you actually believe in the music you're making.
"For us, it really has been about the music all these years. We're definitely not rock stars," says Queensryche singer Geoff Tate. Queensryche is now nearly 20 years into the game and though the group briefly flirted with mainstream popularity (thanks to the somewhat less-than-typical "Silent Lucidity" single), their reputation was built upon literate and thematically dense recordings that expanded the boundaries of heavy music. Incorporating the epic sweep of progressive rock into tight, aggressive songs on albums like "Rage for Order" and the concept-driven "Operation: Mindcrime," the group's sound endeared them to late-'80s metal fans who were looking for something more substantial than "Unskinny Bop." The thoughtfulness that informed those albums has been a major factor in the group's double-digit lifespan.
"We spend more time talking and communicating about things than we do playing music," says Tate of the group's continuing process of inspiration. "We discuss topics, look at themes and try to think about how we'd interpret those things musically."
Since the 1983 release of their self-titled EP, the group has only lost one member -- guitarist Chris DeGarmo -- and even he showed up to contribute to the recording of "Tribe." Unlike the rotating lineups and litigation-prone antics of their pop-metal contemporaries, Queensryche does indeed play out like the cliché rock band "family."
"There's always this tendency in an organization for conformity -- you know, conform to the standard of the organization -- and once you start doing that too much you lose your individuality and you don't want to be part of the organization anymore. So, we try to let everybody be themselves."
Similarly, Dream Theater has managed to keep their creative juices flowing during the group's 15 years by "allowing" the members to explore outside interests. All of the band's five members are involved in extracurricular projects, both together (drummer Mike Portnoy and guitarist John Petrucci play together in Liquid Tension Experiment) or separately (OSI is a recent -- and stunning -- collaboration between Portnoy, ex-DT keyboardist Kevin Moore and Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos). Though so much outside work could detract from the quality of the "main" band's work, the stimulation has invigorated the members and kept their sizable fan base attentive.
"We're able to do this for a living and we're doing pretty well," says Portnoy. "And I attribute it solely to our fan base. It can't be attributed to radio or mainstream media like MTV or, to be completely honest, our label can't even take credit for it. So many bands come and go with trends, and our entire career has been based on being anti-trend. But we've got longevity because our fan base can count on us, regardless of what's going on around us."
Given the somewhat technical nature of DT's sound -- Portnoy and Petrucci are consistent readers' poll winners for their instrumental proficiency -- it might be easy to ascribe the group's fanatical following to obsessive geeks. But that would diminish the powerful appeal of the band's music. Sure, their most recent album ("Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence") was a double-CD release with a 42-minute suite and three songs clocking in at over 10 minutes each. But amid the arpeggios and drum fills is a strong sense of powerful melodicism and intelligent songwriting. The band's heavy and smart accessibility has been a key to their worldwide success. That and the fact that they tour their asses off.
"Ever since 'Images and Words' came out 10 years ago, we haven't had a break," laughs Portnoy. "Every time an album comes out, we hit the road for a solid year."
Likewise, Fates Warning has been able to survive for nearly 20 years in the metal underground thanks to a devoted fan base. And though founder, guitarist and primary songwriter Jim Matheos is the only remaining original member, the group has maintained both its integrity and reputation along the way by expanding metal's lexicon. Since their 1984 debut, "Night on Brocken" (which, thanks largely to ex-vocalist John Arch's singing style, owed a serious debt to Iron Maiden), through '80s landmarks like "Awaken the Guardian" and "No Exit" and full-on prog-metal behemoths like 1997's "A Pleasant Shade of Gray," Fates has maintained a small but loyal audience.
"If we made the same record over and over again, we'd just get bored," says Matheos. "At some point, we might lose some of the old fans and gain some new ones, but that's just part of the process. We're not going to revisit the past."
But that's exactly what Fates -- and Queensryche -- did recently when both bands had early-career albums remastered and reissued. For Matheos, revisiting the era of Night on Brocken and "The Spectre Within" meant a somewhat self-deprecating reunion with the original members of the band.
"We all got together over at John (Arch)'s house and listened to songs and looked at goofy old pictures," says Matheos. "Listening to a lot of that stuff, it does seem like another person and another band. I don't disown that past, it's just that I wouldn't be doing that now."
Tate agrees, viewing the remastering process that went into the reissuing of all of the band's EMI albums (from the self-titled EP through 1997's "Hear In the Now Frontier") as something akin to looking at an old high-school yearbook.
"It's interesting to see where your head was at," he says. "Some people ask me why we don't do this song or that song live anymore and all I can say is that I don't think the same way anymore. Listening to some of that material and trying to wrap my mind around what I was thinking and what my motivation was ... sometimes it's difficult to relate to."
As difficult to relate to as some of the somewhat tragic haircuts that adorned your head in the '80s?
"That's one thing I've gone through a lot of: different and interesting haircuts," laughs Tate. "One section of the [Experience Music Project; Paul Allen's rock museum in Seattle] is dedicated to Queensryche. My oldest daughter is 13 and she went with her school on a field trip to the museum. I got home a little after she did that day, and my wife said 'You need to go talk to Miranda. She's really upset.'
"I go upstairs to her room and she's sitting on her bed with her head in her hands. 'Honey, what's wrong? Did you have a bad day at school?' And she says, 'Well, we went to the museum and all my friends from school were there and we walked into this one area and there's a giant film screen and there you are on the screen ... and you're singing ... and ... and ... and you're wearing tights. Why'd you have to wear tights?'"