Queensrÿche always seem to work best in high concept. Who can argue that Operation: Mindcrime was one of the greatest metal concept albums of all time -- and arguably one of the finest that rock & roll in general ever produced. When they revisited it with OMII, in order to finish the story, they went back to use '80s production techniques to give the album a sense of continuity with its predecessor -- and it worked like a charm. Rather than conspiracy and control, this time out Queensrÿche -- vocalist Geoff Tate, guitarist Michael Wilton, bassist Ed Jackson, and drummer Scott Rockenfield -- turn their attention to another high concept setting: American soldiers in harm's way. But rather than simply politicizing their subject from an outsider's point of view, they place the stories firmly in the camp of the subjects. This set is a hard-rocking, loosely woven story about war from the point of view of those in the United States Armed Forces. The 12 songs on American Soldier reflect on every perception of war from the inside -- Tate read dozens if not hundreds of accounts of servicemen, from WWII through Vietnam and both Gulf Wars. Songs are interspersed with recorded voices of servicemen relating their stories in either brief samples or slightly longer interludes. Musically, the album is more melodic than any Queensrÿche set in recent memory. Tate channels his inner David Bowie to full effect -- but not affect. Tunes such as "At 30,000 Feet" walk a thin line between rock ballad and power-chord anthem. "Sliver," the set's opener, charges out of the gate but with one major difference: producers Jason Slater and Kelly Gray allow for a muddier sound here, even with the various atmospheric overdubs. "The Killer," in the middle of the disc, is written from the point of view of a returning Vietnam vet who is encountering cries of "baby killer" in the streets of his neighborhood. The chanted refrains, multi-layered guitars, and popping snares add anthemic weight in the chorus, but the rest of the track sprawls with haunted vocals by Tate.
American Soldier is sometimes difficult to come to grips with musically. It's not a lack of focus per se, but more a purposely ambitious ambivalence on the part of the bandmembers trying to pack as much as they can in the mix, even when it's too much. Most cuts are equal parts hooks and heaviness, but quizzically, never at the same time. Each track functions as its own rock & roll puzzle that sprawls as much as its hones in. The one track that flat-out doesn't work is the album's only ballad, "Home Again." It begins with a reminiscence by a soldier trying to relate his experience, and gives way to Tate in Bowie storytelling mode with a duet vocal by Tate's daughter Emma. The tempo is pure drama, and with its reverb-heavy atmospherics, lilting acoustic guitars, and narrative structure that offers a series of exchanged letters, it falters under its weight. Ultimately, though, that's a small complaint for such an ambitious project. For the most part, these guys have a solid sense of their strengths as a band, and it must be said that Queensrÿche keep the preaching to a minimum while still managing to relate hard truth in a populist way. This is a very fine album that takes on a very hot and noteworthy -- as well as timeless -- topic that no one else has had the guts to take on in such a grand scale thus far.