QUEENSRYCHE – Takes No Prisoners – A Sit Down with Michael Wilton

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Michael Wilton

Queensryche, as a musical force, stands alone.  Queensryche does not sound like other bands; other bands sound like Queensryche.  Representing a monumental shift in metal music at a formative stage of the genre, they laid the foundation for what would become progressive metal.  Formed in 1980, the band has produced several era defining albums during their more than forty years of existence.  They have a singular legacy, and that legacy may be Queensryche’s greatest challenge.  After decades of changing musical tastes and high profile member departures, how does Queensryche survive?  Their new release, Digital Noise Alliance, may be the answer.

Screamer Magazine sat down with Queensryche founding member, Michael Wilton, to discuss looking forward, looking back, and everything in between.

Digital Noise Alliance is the perfect synthesis of old and new.  It is wholly original but carries all the hallmarks of that classic Queensryche sound.  There is a good reason for this.  Wilton explains, “On this recording, it was very organic.  We wanted to have spontaneous ideas, songs where everyone was involved in a room.  This wasn’t internet based or anything like that.  This was everybody in a room, ideas happening, and built in real-time.  This one was like a throwback to how we did it in the 80s, you know?”  It was a return to the early days spent in former drummer, Scott Rockefield’s parents’ garage, lovingly named ‘The Dungeon’ where it all began.  It was back-to-basics.  “We’d play them together and build them,” Wilton continues, “but with a modern approach.  Now, we have the computer, Pro Tools, to archive ideas, which is very good because, at my age, I may throw out an idea that everybody loves, and I won’t remember it in ten minutes,” he jokes.  The opening track, In Extremis, recalls a song structure reminiscent of  The Warning, Rage for Order or even the self-titled EP, Queensryche. The double-attack lead guitars of Wilton and Mike Stone.  The otherworldly resonance of Todd La Torre’s high notes.  Eddie Jackson’s bass…a foundation of granite but as flawless and fluid as ever.

“This wasn’t internet based or anything like that.  This was everybody in a room, ideas happening, and built in real-time.  This one was like a throwback to how we did it in the 80s…”

As organic as the process may have been, time in the studio moved with direction.  Working with Zuess (Rob Zombie, Hatebreed) in the producer’s chair, there was a conscious effort to return to a less digitized sound.  With serious credibility in the hardcore arena, Zuess was a choice that gave the songs a raw, stripped down, tactile texture.  Digital Noise Alliance’s final cut is undiluted Queensryche.  Nothing about it feels forced.  “Because of the spontaneity of this album, it developed so naturally.  Zuess said, ‘Why don’t you bring in all your Marshall [amp] heads?’  And I was like, ‘yeah, I have all the Marshall heads from previous recordings.’  So, we set up six of my Marshall heads and that just gave the recording a vintage-y feel.  It’s got that tone of the old days.  What was great is that we’d use combinations of amps, and they all have their own personality and sound.  It was fun.  And, we would say, ‘let’s try the sound from Rage for Order or Promised Land!’  It was definitely a fun guitar album.”  You don’t have to dig too deep to uncover that sound. Wilton has the ability to explore on the fringes of a huge tonal canvas without losing its center.  Arguably, Queensryche has deviated from its musical tides before, but the ship has been righted on this one.

Wilton acknowledges that he was a bit of a guitar collector decades past but is less so these days.  When asked about his recent guitar choices, he returns to the guitars that originally defined Queensryche.  “I have five or six [guitars] that I go to.  I know they’re going to sound good, but I do go back to the earlier guitars.  Like the skull guitars have Floyd Roses [tremolos] on them but there are Floyd Rose upgrades, so I can supercharge my older guitars.  They are the ones that I really like, and I’m finding ways to bring them up-to-date.  I also have a boatload of effect pedals,” he admits, “that I plug in once in a while.  Sometimes, it’s too easy to plug in the Kemper [digital profiler], which I know is going to be instantly perfect every time.  It’s nice when you don’t have time to set up everything, but there is something that just feels so great about plugging a guitar into an amp.  I love it,” he says with no small amount of sincerity.  “Yeah.  I really do love it.”   Wilton includes the latest digital innovations in his repertoire of amps and guitars, but he has gone decidedly analog on Digital Noise Alliance.  It is the perfect statement for an album at a crossroads of old and new for the band.

Queensryche has an unenviable challenge: continually meet fan expectations without sacrificing originality.  It is a challenge that confronts many legendary bands, but, as Wilton explains, Queensryche has managed to stay true to their vision and legacy.  “The ideas just flow into my head, and I just go with them.  For some reason, they just sound like Queensryche,” he shrugs. “We never try to write this or that.  It’s more, ‘let’s build around your drum riff.  Let’s build around your vocals.  Let’s build around my guitar riff.’  What happens in our situation is the song dictates what it needs.  We don’t overplay.  We don’t throw in as much crazy ear candy.  But yeah, I don’t try to overplay.  Don’t do it for the sake of flash.  ‘Hey, look at me!  Look at me!’” He smiles.  “I’m passed those days.”  Digital Noise Alliance reflects this.  It is unified in its performance.  Everything fits and speaks to the themes of the album—lyrically, harmonically, kinetically.

We do occasionally want to experiment, but, you know, we never go too far out of the box.  What I’m trying to say is, when you go too far out of the box, you can lose that connection with the fans…”

However, the responsibility of such a legacy remains forefront.  There is an understanding of Queensryche’s place in the history of heavy metal.  We do occasionally want to experiment, but, you know, we never go too far out of the box.  What I’m trying to say is, when you go too far out of the box, you can lose that connection with the fans, so I think it’s more about keeping the entity of Queensryche moving.  Not to equate sports and music, but a football team is constantly wanting the best representation of their team for the greater good of the team.  That happens a lot in music.”  The importance of upholding what Queensryche represents underpins much of our conversation.  While they are not riding the coattails of past glories, Queensryche is a band that is steadfast in their ideals: respect the history, care for the fans, move forward.

Without a doubt, Queensryche has had some high profile member departures.  Chris DeGarmo, their chief songwriter, left active status in 1998.  Geoff Tate, their sound defining vocalist, left on less than equitable terms in 2012.  Wilton, however, is thoughtful on the topic.  Not all friendships have to be lost, and past resentments do not have to persist.  “Me and Chris were high school buddies.  We golf together.  We stay in contact.  He’s a great guy.  He’s doing what he loves now.  He’s on his path, which is a different one.  Look, the thing is, when you do this, and we’ve been doing this for forty years, people change.  They have different aspirations, where they want to go musically, what style, how they want things viewed.  People just grow out of it.  For me and Eddie (Jackson), this is about keeping the legacy of Queensryche alive.  When people listen to a Queensryche album, we want them to listen to Digital Noise Alliance and then listen to Rage for Order.”  After years of musical creation and conflict, Wilton and Queensryche have left the anger behind and embrace the incredible heritage they have forged.  There may not be a lingering love for each and every former member, but there is certainly respect for what they have achieved.

Wilton has worked on a number of side projects.  He has shown a great amount of flexibility in his playing and creative output.  From the dark southern metal of Soulbender to the driving thrash of Wratchet Head, Wilton has proven himself a prolific artist.  Speaking on his music outside of Queensryche, Wilton notes, “Yeah, I think it’s healthy.  You’re exploring different viewpoints of your playing, and I have in my back pocket another one that will hopefully be finished by next year.  You know, you stay busy.  As a guitar player, you write every day.  You get a catalog and an arsenal of them, and the next thing you know, you have a solo project,” he grins.  “Everything that I’ve done [on the side] has been quite different, so that’s the idea behind it.  Show a different side of your music ability and your songwriting.  That’s how I view it.  In my solo work, I don’t want to write something that sounds just like Digital Noise Alliance.”  While Queensryche may be Wilton’s career defining work, he has not let it define him solely as a musician.

Queensryche has toured relentlessly throughout its history.  Supporting a current release can be daunting in the best of situations.  Wilton, however, has a positive attitude about the ongoing difficulties of live music in this unprecedented economic reality.  “You know, I’ve been doing this for forty years.  I think that constitutes me as a road dog?  But, we’re fortunate to be able to tour in this climate of rising prices and fuel costs, so we’re very happy to be out here.  We just came out of a pandemic, and we didn’t know what was gonna happen with the music industry.  All the big companies were bare bones.  Places and venues were shutting down and swallowed up by bigger companies.  So, we’re very thankful that we can still tour, especially to open up for Judas Priest and play because it’s tough times right now.  It’s harder for bands to tour.”  Live music has seen a decline in ticket sales but has bounced back as fans crave that incomparable connection.  While Queensryche and Digital Noise Alliance has a life in the universe of online streaming, nothing can compare to the energy and precision of their onstage attack.  The sheer force of their music must be experienced live.

“It’s been a great run!  We’ve been through many changes in the music industry.  We’ve seen ‘em come and go.  We’re just a band that knows how to adapt to change.”

Queensryche will continue.  They have overcome more than most and yet manage to deliver memorable songs and unforgettable performances starting from humble beginnings in the ‘Dungeon’ back in 1980.  Wilton and the rest of the band hold on to the flame, still.  “You know, I love what I do.  I don’t know what else I would ever do!  It’s the fans, ultimately.  We feed off that energy, and it gives us motivation and aspiration to keep putting out Queensryche music.  It’s been a great run!  We’ve been through many changes in the music industry.  We’ve seen ‘em come and go.  We’re just a band that knows how to adapt to change.  It’s by all means a challenge, but it’s the fire that keeps us wanting to do this.”  Longevity is not in question for a band that has survived conflict, loss, and transformation.

If Queensryche were to end today, their place in musical history would remain firmly established; however, it is a history still being written and without limits.  “Right now we’re on tour with Judas Priest until December 1st.  Then in 2023, we have a headlining tour in early spring.  The future is support this album.  When we put an album out, we support it for two to three years, so that’s all I can see for the foreseeable future.  Look.  The fans dig what we do, and we’re still doing it.  We’re gonna keep doing it as long as we can.  Take no prisoners!  We’re riders at the gates of dawn!”

Queensryche is currently on tour in support of Judas Priest.  Their latest release, Digital Noise Alliance, is out now.

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