As anyone who has ever done anything creative knows, there comes a point where you have to draw a line and say something is finished, because endless tinkering can no longer make the end result any better. It’s a difficult line to see, because it is not brightly lit, and it’s especially hard to discern when you are talking about your own work. But it exists, and it has killed many a project over the years. Think about an album like “Chinese Democracy”, which spent fifteen years being toyed with in studios. Did those extra years, and the little blips of sound that got plastered onto the skeletons of the songs, justify that amount of time? Did they make the album any better than if it was slightly more stripped down?
The answer is usually no, but it’s hard for an artist to ever be satisfied with what they have created, because they believe in their heart they can still do better. Sometimes, however, they really can’t.
Last year, I was one of the few critics who gave Queensryche’s “Frequency Unknown” a positive review. It wasn’t the result of picking sides, because up until that point I had never enjoyed a Queensryche album before. I gave it a positive review because I genuinely thought it was a solid record, even if the rest of the world seemed ready to use it to slit their wrists.
The main problem with the album was that it was horribly produced. Being rushed to get out ahead of the other (at the time) incarnation of the band, the mix the album came out with was dense and cloudy, and made the songs difficult to listen to. I had heard that version, and thought it was promising but a disaster. There was, in short order, a rushed remix of the album that showed the impact production can have on the music we listen to.
That version of the record was suddenly clear; the guitar had bite, the sounds were balanced, and you could hear every nuance (for good and bad) of Geoff Tate’s vocal performance. That version is the one I reviewed, and the one I still listen to a year later. Without that haze hanging over the songs, you can hear what is going on, and I still believe there is quite a bit of good material on the album. No, it is not a classic, and no, “Slave” and “Dare” are no better than they were back then, but the melodic and melancholy songs are still striking. It is clearly a better record than the album put out by the group that now owns the name, which was also marred by grievous sins in the production department.
I mention this because “Frequency Unknown” is being re-released, complete with a second disc that features yet another mix of the album. The label says there was not enough time at the original release to complete this mix and get it out, and judging by what I have heard of it, perhaps it should have stayed that way.
Instead of a simple remixing, this is a re-imagining of the record, with new focus and instrumentation added onto what we have already heard. Nothing of the effort makes the music an ounce better.
First of all, the sound quality of this new version is atrocious. The guitars are stripped of their heft, sounding thin and weak, and pushed well behind the drums. Geoff Tate’s voice is likewise drained of it’s energy, sounding like a demo sung by someone trying to sound like Tate. The whole package sounds cheap, flimsy, and not at all like the rock record is was supposed to be. This version is as much a beat-driven pop album as it is a Queensryche record. What’s worse, the added orchestration is obviously synthetic, and is slathered atop songs that were not written with room for such things to be added. They feel tacked on, because they are.
The first version of “Frequency Unknown” was terrible, and this new version is even worse. But the version in the middle, the rushed remix that very few people got the chance to hear, is the gem. It shows the music as it needed to be, and sounds fantastic. If that version of the album had been released to begin with, I honestly believe much of the criticism of the record would have been revealed to be petty gripes dealing with Geoff Tate personally.
What we learn from all of this is that making music is not as simple as writing a song and playing it while a microphone records it. There is an art to making a record, and the production of the music can kill an album before it ever has a chance to succeed. That happened the first time with “Frequency Unknown”, and it’s happening again this time. They got it right after the initial debacle, and now they’re forgetting all about that and shooting it to hell again.
For some people, good enough is never good enough. If they think they can do even a little bit better, they will try. Sometimes they manage to hit the mark, and sometimes they throw the first shovel of dirt atop their own casket.
I’ll let you figure out which one this case is.