Think back to 2011. It was pretty hard to imagine anyone beyond Geoff Tate's immediate friends and family feeling particularly excited about the prospect of a new QUEENSRŸCHE album, and while "Dedicated to Chaos" was full of interesting ideas and strong melodies, even the band's most devoted fans must surely have been stifling a bemused yawn by that point. The fact is, toward the end of Tate's tenure, QUEENSRŸCHE didn't sound like QUEENSRŸCHE. Even worse, their live shows were increasingly dominated by new material, with classics from "Operation: Mindcrime" and "Empire" in short supply. Irrespective of what was going on behind the scenes, they seemed determined to alienate their entire fan base.
What a difference a few years can make, however. QUEENSRŸCHE's third album since the arrival of Todd La Torre arrives burdened with nothing more unpleasant than high expectations and a prevailing sense of relief that this legendary band once again sound, more or less, like they did when metalheads first fell in love with them. As they proved admirably on 2011's self-titled comeback and, with increasing confidence and verve, on "Condition Human" in 2015, founder and guitarist Michael Wilton and his resurgent comrades are experiencing a career renaissance for the ages. When you consider how fundamental Tate was to the band's early success and most celebrated works, La Torre's presence has barely caused a ripple of dissent. But then that's what you get when you give the fans what they actually want and be creative, rather than trying to drag the whole thing down a blind alley. A QUEENSRŸCHE show in 2019 is going to be brilliant fun: you will get all the hits alongside new material that fits with them. And La Torre will sing everything with hair-raising power and skill. Heavy metal doesn't need to be complicated, folks.
The best news of all is that "The Verdict" is a cast-iron keeper. As with the previous two albums, this belongs firmly in contemporary sonic realms, and is as heavy and dynamic as anything in the Seattle crew's canon. From the opening clatter of "Blood of the Levant" onwards, it's evident that QUEENSRŸCHE are enjoying the process of upgrading their classic sound, but also that their 15th studio album (and no, I'm not including Tate's post-split "Frequency Unknown"!) is inextricably linked to those revered classics. As La Torre's voice makes its first appearance, it's almost impossible to avoid sighing with contentment at the sound of a great band doing what they do best. "Man the Machine" is even more satisfying: graced with one of those slightly off-kilter chorus hooks that always set the 'RŸCHE apart from their peers. It's an exhilarating blur of groovy riffing and soaring melodies, all underpinned by an irresistible sense of drama.
There is no central concept linking these songs together, just an overwhelming sense of righteous fury at the state of the world. QUEENSRŸCHE's political edge has sometimes been overstated, but it remains an essential part of their identity as a band. On "The Verdict", it's the glowering, schizophrenic balladry of "Bent" and the seething, heads-down thump of "Launder the Conscience" that stand out as obvious thematic flashpoints: the former is the finest song here, a genuinely unnerving slow-motion diatribe against injustice and societal neglect that, sadly, hammers home how little has changed since "Operation: Mindcrime" imperiously pilloried political corruption 31 years ago. The latter is all angular riffs and spiky, "Rage for Order" harmonies, with La Torre in full fiery-eyed orator mode and an outro that revels in prog rock extravagance. Elsewhere, there is a strong whiff of WARRIOR SOUL's blitzed-out alt-metal in the mid-paced "Propaganda Fashion", and "Dark Reverie"'s deliciously overwrought crescendos are as sumptuously gothic as they come, but it all hangs together beautifully; classic QUEENSRŸCHE, but somehow bigger, bolder and more haughtily singular than they have sounded in decades.
QUEENSRŸCHE fans hardly need to be told that their favourite band is back on top form and gaining momentum, but there is still something quietly thrilling about the way this once imperilled institution has come back to life. "The Verdict", as you may have worked out, is that this is a magnificent piece of work.