The Gang Epidemic that Inspired “Empire” by Queensrÿche

After releasing and touring behind the passionately performed, sociopolitical concept album Operation: Mindcrime, a 1988 release widely regarded as a classic, Seattle progressive metal unit Queensrÿche originally intended to do a sequel. But their hearts weren’t into it at the time and they switched gears. In fact, the sequel would not arrive until 2006.

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Returning to their hometown for writing and some of the recording for their next album, the five band members found themselves in a state of transition both artistically and personally, with some of their romantic relationships dissolving and new ones forming. Thus the next album Empire would combine social commentary, observations about their home turf, and introspective looks at themselves. One of the standout cuts was the title track, a somber look into how gang violence was getting out of control in America.

Looking Inside and Outside

Released in August 1990, Empire felt a little more melodic and, in spots, upbeat than its groundbreaking predecessor. Another difference is that fans could listen more to individual tracks, whereas Mindcrime often felt like a collection that demanded to be heard for a larger amount of one’s time. Either way, Queensrÿche still had serious issues weighing on their minds.

“I think that’s something that had always been sort of a trademark in the writing of Queensrÿche: looking at social issues and commenting on them and contemplating them and then writing a song that maybe helped explain the situation from another point of view,” frontman Geoff Tate told KMUW in Wichita, Kansas, in 2021. “Empire had several songs like that. ‘Resistance’ is about the climate change debate and the results of climate change, what it’s been doing to the civilized world. Homelessness [is something we wrote about] with ‘Della Brown.’ There were relationship songs that are kind of classic writer go-tos because you write what you know and we’re all in relationships to some extent. It was an album that I think really resonated with people, and they heard it.”

The band’s label EMI Records issued the more aggressive title track right out of the gate to grab longtime fans and metalheads. The singles that followed were a diverse batch that transitioned audiences into the different sides of the album. “Best I Can” was an anthem about overcoming adversity and inspired by people with handicaps pushing to reach their full potential. The gentle ballad “Silent Lucidity” would become the group’s biggest hit and only charting single. “Jet City Woman” described the longing felt when being apart from a beloved partner.

Building Empires

Propelled by edgy, charged riffs and a heavy groove, “Empire” dove into the world of gangs and drug-dealing. The expansion of gangs across the United States had become a big issue in the mid- to late-1980s, particularly in Los Angeles. There were a wide variety of factors involved, such as unemployment, racial inequality, wealth inequity, greater access to guns, and migration. But it was not a topic often tackled by metal bands, making Queensrÿche’s song stand out.

Johnny used to work after school / At the cinema show / Gotta hustle if he wants an education / Yeah he’s got a long way to go / Now he’s out on the street all day / Selling crack to the people who pay / Got an AK-47 for his best friend / Business the American way.

Beyond the social commentary, the mid-section of the song was also very unusual. It was a mellower part that cooled the momentum of the song as Tate delivered this spoken-word statement before guitarist Michael Wilton’s dramatic solo kicked in:

In fiscal year 1986-87, local, state, and federal governments spent a combined total of $60.6 million on law enforcement. Federal law enforcement expenditures ranked last in absolute dollars, and accounted for only 6% of all federal spending. By way of comparison, the federal government spent $24 million more on space exploration, and 43 times more on national defense and international relations than the law enforcement.

As the site Living Life Fearless noted, the band’s call for more police funding now flies in the face of more recent public sentiment. But times have also changed, and nuance and moderation were important to Tate, who in recent years has stated he is a libertarian who believes in socialism. The generally left-leaning Queensrÿche have also been supportive of members of the military and veterans, as evidenced on the 2009 album American Soldier. Tate’s father was a military man. One can support those institutions while also offering criticisms, and the critiques on Empire, like their album Operation: Mindcrime, encouraged listeners to contemplate the kind of society they wanted to live in.

Acclaim and Validation

The Empire album would be the group’s commercial high-water mark, reaching double-Platinum status 16 months after it came out and selling an additional million copies by 1994. About the time Empire reached its 2 million sales mark, their self-titled debut EP, and the Warning and Rage for Order albums were certified Gold while Operation: Mindcrime reached Platinum status. It was a great affirmation that a band as musically and lyrically complex as Queensrÿche could be commercially viable. Plus the big success of Empire turned the group into an arena-headlining act that meant they could finally stage the entirety of Operation: Mindcrime within a multimedia setting, something that was not possible previously.

Queensrÿche’s next album, the darker and more brooding Promised Land, quickly reached Platinum status a few weeks after it was released in the fall of 1994, although it stalled commercially. But one thing that can be said about Queensrÿche is they’ve never rested on their laurels and tried to repeat the same thing over and over again.  Their most successfully commercial period between 1982 and 1994 saw them mature and evolve while also keeping their ears open to different musical possibilities. That ethos continued thereafter.

The song “Empire” still carries resonance today. At the time of its release, the group stressed how gang empires were becoming more violent and dangerous. These days, America is experiencing that and a more general public crime wave driven by wealth inequality and emotional strain from the pandemic. The country may be spending more on law enforcement now, even amid cries of defunding the police in the wake of widespread recorded incidents of brutality, but the country still struggles with the fact that wealthy people hold the purse strings so tightly that many average citizens find more profit in crime than honest work. In a 2010 interview with Get Ready To Rock, Tate acknowledged the situations depicted in the song had not changed.

In that way, “Empire” remains as timely as ever.

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Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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