If “transitional album” ever makes its way to Websters, Empire’s album cover should be pictured right next to the definition.
When Queensryche’s fourth album (fifth if you count their debut EP) dropped in August 1990, rock and roll was at peak hair metal. Poison’s “Unskinny Bop” was a top 10 hit, and Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” was lurking on the horizon. Old ’70s stalwarts like Aerosmith, KISS and Uncle Ted –now playing with Styx’s Tommy Shaw in Damn Yankees–were teasing their hair, stuffing their spandex, and rocking (“rocking”) the power ballads. Winger (“Headed For A Heartbreak”), Slaughter (“Fly To the Angels”), and Extreme (“More Than Words”) all released albums that year, too.
It wasn’t all bad news, of course: Jane’s Addiction’s classic Ritual de lo Habitual dropped, as did King’s X’s Faith Hope Love and Mother Love Bone’s Apple, but I’m veering from the point: 1990 was peak hair metal, and it was also peak MTV. In nine short years the cable network had become the most powerful selling tool in the music industry, and a byproduct of that was the standardization of that late ’80s rock star image. If you were a rock band and you wanted your clip played on MTV, you (or your label) teased your hair, glossed your lips, and stuffed your band into day-glo stretch pants. Yes, and you sang about chicks and booze and partying: Motley Crue had a hit that year with “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away).” Deep stuff.
Queensryche wasn’t immune to all of this. Six years into their career they still hadn’t broken out, so when management suggested the hair metal makeover in support of 1986’s Rage For Order the band agreed. It didn’t help much. What helped eventually was Queensryche being Queensryche: a group of smart, talented guys who had something to say. That came through loud and clear on 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime, a concept album that endeared them to headbangers with brains and earned the band their first gold record, no thanks to MTV.
That all changed with Empire. The album’s title track and its Pink Floyd-ish power ballad “Silent Lucidity” were in heavy rotation on MTV. The shredder guitars and cock rock moves familiar to glam metal fans were still there, but the teased hair, makeup, and goofy costumes were gone. More importantly: So were the goofy lyrics. This was music about something, being served to an audience gobbling up the empty calories of “Unskinny Bop.” It was metal with a brain, but more importantly with mass appeal.
Now, keep in mind that up through the end of the ’80s finding new albums–and by albums I mean vinyl–in a record store was getting more challenging, but it wasn’t exactly rare. You can see that my copy of Empire was purchased new at Tower Records, which was just about as mainstream as you could get in 1990. Regardless, cassettes were the big sellers followed by CDs, but most stores still had a vinyl section. For example: A big store might stock three vinyl copies of a popular album, 10 CD copies, and 50 cassettes. Vinyl was around, but the writing was on the wall. The media, just like the music it contained, was in transition.
The following year, everything changed. Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger were all released in 1991, and that was the end of hair metal. I’ll never forget walking into the Rainbow that fall and seeing a very famous hair metal guitarist wearing a flannel shirt, shredded jeans, and a chain wallet, his hair cut short and his forearms tattooed. That’s just how fast it happened, and after that no self respecting grunge fan would ever admit to liking Warrant or Poison, but Queensryche? Those guys were still cool.
Unlike Nevermind, Empire is a transitional album in many ways. Musically it wasn’t a complete upheaval of the status quo but more like an evolutionary step. In other words, Empire was the crack in the MTV-oriented marketplace that Nevermind shattered. It sat exactly on the fulcrum point dividing the hair metal ’80s and the grunge ’90s. In 1992, for example, one might like Slaughter and Queensryche or he might like Queensryche and Soundgarden, but no self-respecting Guy In Black T-Shirt Who Jams liked Slaughter and Soundgarden. Queensryche was sort of the missing link connecting the empty spandex that came before to the socially conscious heavy music that came next.
In terms of media, Empire sold significantly more on CD and cassette than it did on vinyl, but vinyl wasn’t so scarce at that point as to make it ultra-rare as is the case with Nevermind, released the following year when new vinyl was all but dead. As a result, this one doesn’t pop up at your favorite used record store very often, but when it does it remains an affordable “transition era” album (as is not the case with Nevermind). Empire has been reissued on vinyl in the last couple of years, but an original 1990 American pressing will run you 40-50 dollars. You can find a CD or cassette for a buck or two. Happy hunting.