Two Queensrÿches, two new albums, and one lawsuit for the right to use the band’s name. Rivals to the throne Michael Wilton and Geoff Tate tell Guitar World why they deserve to wear the crown.
Queensrÿche, the self-titled, 13th full-length studio album from the Seattle prog-metal vets, was released in the U.S. on June 25.
It came on the heels of another new Queensrÿche studio album, released just two months earlier, titled Frequency Unknown. That album was, ostensibly, their 13th studio effort as well.
The events that transpired to make this seeming impossibility a reality constitute one of the more bizarre band breakups in rock history.
On one side, there is the outfit behind Queensrÿche, which consists of three founding band members—guitarist Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield—who have spent 30-plus years with the group.
They are joined by guitarist and recent Queensrÿche player Parker Lundgren as well as new singer Todd La Torre, formerly of Crimson Glory.
On the other side is the Queensrÿche of Frequency Unknown, which features vocalist Geoff Tate, who has also been with the band since its inception in 1982.
That group is rounded out by a supporting cast of metal vets like guitarist Kelly Gray, who has also played with Queensrÿche in recent years, former Quiet Riot and Whitesnake bassist Rudy Sarzo, and onetime AC/DC drummer Simon Wright.
In addition to their new albums, both acts have been touring under the Queensrÿche name. It’s a situation that is “obviously going to confuse some people,” Wilton admits, speaking with Guitar World by phone from his home in Seattle.
How things got to this point is a matter of contention. Last year, while on tour in support of their 2011 studio album, Dedicated to Chaos, Queensrÿche became embroiled in a messy and quite public split.
Tate was ejected from the band, and accusations, as well as lawsuits, began to fly. The battle in recent months has coalesced around who owns the rights to the Queensrÿche moniker, a valuable brand with three decades of history behind it, as well as associated imagery such as the band’s familiar “tri-ryche” logo.
Last July, the Washington state superior court ruled that both sides could continue to use and benefit from the brand for the time being. A new court date is scheduled for November 18, at which time a judge will rule on which side will be the official Queensrÿche.
According to Tate, who spoke to Guitar World in an interview separate from Wilton’s, the lawsuit comes down to one thing: money. “It’s a corporate dispute,” he says. “And the judge will decide on the value of the brand and the corporation. There’s a formula to figure that out. It’s not about a moral thing or anything like that. It’s just a simple case of dollar exchange.”
In fact, money is a prime focus of the dispute. The original members in the Wilton-led version of Queensrÿche have alleged mismanagement of the band’s financial interests at the hands of their former manager—who also happens to be Tate’s wife, Susan. In his official court declaration, Wilton accuses Susan Tate of misdealings with merchandising companies, mishandling of tour and recording budgets, and running expenses for another of her acts, the Voodoos, through Queensrÿche’s accounts.
But it's the group’s numerous creative and personal difficulties, which have been brought to light since the split, that have most captured the attention of fans and the music press.
Regarding the former, the common narrative is that Queensrÿche retreated from the hard-edged, guitar-driven sound of their hit records, like 1988’s Operation: Mindcrime and 1990’s Empire, after Tate wrested creative control from his bandmates and took their sound in whatever stylistic direction he deemed appropriate.
According to Wilton’s court declaration, the singer was calling the shots, which included refusing to play much of the band’s classic material in concert, conceptualizing oddball live jaunts, such as the ill-fated 2010 Queensrÿche Cabaret tour, and employing whatever co-writers, producers and, in some cases, musicians, he desired to assist on recent Queensrÿche albums like Operation: Mindcrime II, American Soldier and Dedicated to Chaos.
To this last point, Wilton says, “As an artist, as a guitar player, it’s not too much fun when your parts are being replaced or you don’t even know if they’re going to make the CD of the band you’ve been with for 30 years. It’s a little disheartening, to say the least.”
Tate, however, suggests that his bandmates neglected to participate creatively in Queensrÿche’s projects. In recent years, he says, “There was me writing and coming up with directions and ideas and concepts, and then the other guys were contributing performances in the studio. So we had to find other people to work with us in order to make a record and make things happen.”
In Wilton’s estimation, the strength of the music on the new Queensrÿche answers any questions about his and his bandmates’ songwriting abilities. “We’re firing on all cylinders now,” he says. “Because our surroundings and the way things are being run are conducive [to writing songs]. When it’s just a one-person dictatorship and it’s, ‘Well, if I don’t like this song, it’s not gonna be on the record, and I’m not going to sing anyone else’s lyrics,’ it’s just not healthy.”
Interband tensions and creative frustrations, combined with the fact that the band’s last few records had sold only a fraction of the units they were moving in their heyday, led to a meeting in April 2012 at which Wilton, Rockenfield and Jackson decided to relieve Susan Tate of her managerial duties.
Wilton’s declaration states that they no longer felt she was working on behalf of the band as a whole. It also says Tate had been notified of the meeting through an email but declined to attend, citing a scheduling conflict.
When the singer confronted his bandmates about the firing a few days later, prior to a show in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a heated argument ensued. Allegedly, Tate physically assaulted both Wilton and Rockenfield and, during that evening’s show, repeatedly walked to the back of the stage to spit on Rockenfield as he played. From there, the behind-the-scenes turmoil boiled over into the public forum.
There was a tense performance at the M3 Rock Festival on May 12, where, according to Wilton, he and his bandmates remained practically stationary onstage, refraining from interacting with Tate for fear of inciting him, and later that month at the Rocklahoma Festival, where the singer told the audience, “You guys suck.” At the beginning of June, Tate was fired.
“There was a lot of tension in the band at that time,” Wilton says, “and the turning point obviously was when we did those shows and things just kind of blew up. The Brazil assault, the Rocklahoma situation—it just got worse and worse and worse.
We just said, ‘Wow, we can’t go on like this. Is this how we’re gonna live? Do we have to hire extra security? Do we have to stay in our little area on the stage?’ It just wasn’t working. You don’t even know. The stress it puts on you, the stress it puts on your family, the stress it puts on your fans… It was unbearable.”
Tate, who says he was blindsided by the decision, believes he was terminated for a different reason. “This is all about getting rid of somebody so that there would be more money to split between a fewer amount of people,” he says. “Queensrÿche is and was an incredibly successful business entity worldwide. And to completely dismantle it is an act of foolishness.”
As an example, he points to his bandmates’ decision after the split to carry on as Queensrÿche with La Torre. Wilton and the rest of Queensrÿche had initially joined with La Torre under the moniker Rising West, an outfit dedicated to playing songs from Queensrÿche’s Eighties and early Nineties glory days. The project, according to Wilton, was conceived as a reaction to Tate’s recording and touring behind a solo album, a move that in effect would have put the actual Queensrÿche on ice for an extended period of time.
“There wasn’t much going on in the Queensrÿche camp,” Wilton says. “We weren’t going to be doing anything for a year. And so I talked to the other guys and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got families, we’ve got mortgages, we’ve got the whole thing. Who makes this decision [for us]?’ So that, combined with wanting to play some of the older songs that the fans had been screaming about for so long, led to Rising West. And it was only going to be a few shows. The thinking was, Our singer’s going to do a solo tour, we’re not just gonna sit around idle and starve. We’re gonna go do something.”
“I was happy they were using the name Rising West,” Tate says. “I was fine with that. I was doing my solo thing. I was happy with what they were doing.” The problem, he says, began when Wilton and company decided to continue with La Torre as Queensrÿche.
“That’s where I said, ‘Hey, that’s not right. Nobody should use the name until we settle this.’ So I took them to court to try to get an injunction to stop them—and myself—from using the name. I didn’t want anybody to use it until everything was finalized. Unfortunately, the judge didn’t see it that way. So both parties have been granted use of the name until November.”
Until then, fans are left to determine for themselves which Queensrÿche to follow. It’s a surreal scenario to be sure, but one that, if viewed through a certain prism, reveals some positives. Case in point: In an effort to reclaim the Queensrÿche mantle, both sides have been on the road playing shows that cast aside the band’s recent—and at times ill-received—music in favor of more beloved early material: Tate with an Operation: Mindcrime 25th anniversary jaunt and Wilton’s lineup with the Return to History tour.
And, for better or worse, fans get two new Queensrÿche albums. As for which sounds more like typical Queensrÿche, it depends on what you consider the band’s most recognizable sonic characteristics. Frequency Unknown has Tate, whose voice and vocal style are hallmarks of the band, but the music behind him is thicker, harder and indisputably modern.
Queensrÿche, on the other hand, sports a strong if unfamiliar vocal from La Torre, but it also more closely nails the band’s classic sound, a refined take on metal that balances guitar aggression with proggy intricacy and hooky melodies, and laces it all together with plenty of sinewy dual-guitar harmonies.
Says Wilton, “We wanted to bring back some of that magic we had in the first decade and a half of this band. The album was a complete collaboration of all the members, and I think we were on 10 as far as the energy and creativity went. It’s just like any gang or company: if everybody’s happy, you’re going to get a better product in the end.”
And so both sides continue to move full speed ahead. Says Tate, “I honestly don’t concern myself with what the other camp is doing. They don’t even exist in my mind.”
“The fact of the matter,” Wilton says, “is that we’re very excited about what we’re doing, and as long as the fans still believe in us, we’ll keep churning out records and touring until we can’t do it anymore.” At the same time, he’s aware of what hangs in the balance with the upcoming court date. The band is booked on tour through October, but then, Wilton says, “We kind of have to keep November open.
But after that, we’re ready to work this new album for a long time.”
As for what “after that” will look like, Wilton is positive, if tentative. “We try not to be lawyers or anything, but we feel strongly about what we have on our side. But the law, especially in the state of Washington—my gosh, who knows? It’s all determined by the person wearing the black robe. And that’s scary. But the outcome will be what it will be. And then everybody will just have to deal with it.”
On this last point, at least, Tate agrees. “I don’t know what the future holds, and I don’t know if I want to know,” he says. “At the end of the day this isn’t going to stop me from making music. It isn’t going to stop me from touring and playing shows. But I don’t think you can sit and stew on it all. It’ll drive you crazy. You just have to put your boots on and start stomping around. Get back into it. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff, really.”
Illustration: Seldon Hunt