When founding member Chris DeGarmo told his bandmates he was leaving Queensryche in the summer of 1998, the remaining four members of the popular prog-metal group were stunned. They'd played, recorded, and toured together for 17 years. Most had been friends since their teens. But DeGarmo had made up his mind. He stuck with the group through a short South American tour that fall, and then he was gone.
For guitarist Michael Wilton, who had woven intricate harmonies with DeGarmo as half of the quintet's tight-knit six-string duo since its inception, the split was devastating. "You can just imagine," says Wilton, still sounding exasperated by DeGarmo's departure, "I've known the guy since high school."
Since then Queensryche had enjoyed a Top 10 single ("Silent Lucidity"), million-selling albums (Empire and Promised Land), successful worldwide tours, and massive MTV exposure not to mention nearly complete artistic freedom and heaps of critical acclaim. Admittedly, as it had for many of their contemporaries, the grunge movement of the early-90s had dimmed the spotlight shining on the Seattle-based outfit. But, realizing they still had a huge core following, the band replaced DeGarmo and carried on. The rebuilt Queensryche can be heard on last year's Q2K. The 11-track disc blends the band's trademark off-kilter rhythmic approach with a leaner, more spontaneous sound. The new guy has a lot to do with that.
DeGarmo's replacement seems, at first, unlikely. Shortly after DeGarmo's exit, Queensryche vocalist Geoff Tate had suggested Wilton contact producer Kelly Gray (Candlebox, Brother Cane). Tate had played in a band with Gray 25 years before and Queensryche had been impressed with Gray's musical vision when he engineered an acoustic performance for a Queensryche radio appearance.
Wilton got together with Gray at the producer's home, and though he hadn't played guitar in a band setting in nearly a decade, Gray's rough-hewn playing inspired Wilton. "We just jammed," Wilton recalls. "It was great. The first week we wrote two songs that ended up on Q2K: The Right Side Of My Mind' and When The Rain Comes.' I thought, This guy's all right." The rest of the band agreed, and Gray polished off his chops. Wilton says that besides his expertise as a producer and engineer and Gray has turned down a lot of lucrative producing work since joining the band he has brought refreshing fretboard techniques to the group as well.
"He's a down and dirty player," Wilton says. "He's into spacey blues type stuff. He's a huge Ry Cooder fan." Wilton claims Gray's biggest influence on Queensryche isn't the I-IV-V progression though; it's drop-D tuning. "That's what we've done now. Any songs that had bizarre tunings, we just re-worked the fingerings. We dropped the low E down to the key of the song."
Though Wilton had himself toyed with alternate tunings and blues riffs he grew up on Zeppelin and Hendrix that kind of foolishness was, apparently, not previously accepted in Queensryche. "Blues was a no-no," he says. "A couple of guys in the band couldn't relate to it. But now, how cool, the multi-dimensional aspects have opened up everybody's eyes." 2 cool.