Fearing an embarrassing failure on the scale of the Star Wars prequels, Begrand braves Queensryche's new sequel to its 20-year-old masterpiece Operation: Mindcrime.
I remember now. I remember how it started. I can't remember why they wanted to make a sequel. I just remember hoping they'd do so without sucking...sucking...sucking...
It was around the time when the nurse sneered, "Sweet dreams...you bastard," that we all started to realize Operation: Mindcrime was going to be a hell of a lot more than your average concept album.
In the spring of 1988, it had been two excruciatingly long years since Queensryche's last album. In the weeks before Operation: Mindcrime's release, word of mouth was generating serious momentum; claims were being made that the new record was going to stand alongside such seminal works as Rush's 2112 and the Who's Quadrophenia. In a genre where bombast, theatrics, and melodrama was commonplace, nobody (save for King Diamond) had really attempted something on this grand a scale, but if there were one young band with both the talent and the ambition to pull it off, it was Queensryche.
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Personally, the idea of concept albums and rock operas had become a fascinating one. I began gravitating to such classics as Pink Floyd's The Wall, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and even Kiss's disastrous fantasy epic Music From the Elder. By April of 1988, Iron Maiden had whetted my appetite for a great metal concept album by releasing the least-great album of its decade-long domination, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. By the time I took off to the local mall during lunch hour a month later to grab that new Queensryche album, I was primed for some good old theatrics and bombast, but what I and every other young Queensryche fan was not expecting was an album that would turn our little metal-centric world upside-down.
Seventeen years after Operation: Mindcrime's release, it's now considered one of the finest rock operas ever recorded and universally regarded as one of the greatest metal albums of all time. When Queensryche announced in early 2005 that it was going to record a sequel, it's no surprise at all that many who grew up with that album greeted the project with great cynicism. Coming from a band of 40-somethings who, despite their perseverance and best efforts, had failed to successfully follow up a masterpiece written during their mid-20s, a belated sequel was such an obvious last-ditch attempt to recapture their former glory that it could be nothing but a sure-fire recipe for disaster, right? Theoretically, this crazy idea should be an unmitigated catastrophe. Then again, what does Queensryche have to lose?
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For those of us who experienced the '80s metal explosion during our teens, Queensryche's musical evolution throughout the decade seemed to mirror the growth of our own tastes: every album sounded more mature, bolder, more assured. Queensryche's formative years, from 1983 to 1986, found it feeling its way around and trying on various guises. While that early period was not without its share of bumps (can we ever forgive singer Geoff Tate for his "Bride of Frankenstein" look in 1986?), the sheer ambition of the music made for some thrilling moments. Directly inspired by the burgeoning metal movement in the early '80s, the 1983 Queensryche EP was a furious, decidedly British-sounding album that belied the fact that these kids were from Seattle, highlighted by their exuberantly flamboyant early signature tune "Queen of the Reich" and the more theatrical "The Lady Wore Black", both of which served as showcases for Tate's multi-octave vocals.
1984's The Warning, the band's first for EMI, continued in that beefed-up UK metal vein. In direct contrast to the majority of young metal buzz bands of the era, it brazenly slowed things down to an ambling pace with heavy emphasis on the rhythm section of bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield; the dual guitars of Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton were mixed down to a warm, smoldering mush by producer James Guthrie. Despite the sonic quibbles, not to mention a handful of pedestrian songs ("Deliverance", "Before the Storm"), signs of the quintet coming into its own were evident. The title track carried itself with a swagger, aided greatly by Tate's ornate vocals, which made the undeniably bombastic song seem more dignified and less silly than it actually was. "N M 156" delved into William Gibson-esque science fiction, more specifically the relationship between machine and man; the epic "Roads to Madness" had the band flex its prog-metal muscles (complete with orchestra); and the album-stealing centerpiece, "Take Hold of the Flame", made up for Triumph-esque self-help lyrics with the band's stirring performance.
Thanks to those strong first two releases, expectations were high among the metal set in 1986. Queensryche responded by pulling the rug out from under everyone's feet with the bold, not to mention polarizing, Rage for Order. Much maligned for its focus on hooks, slick production, and synthesizers, it remains, two decades later, the band's most misunderstood album. Brilliantly produced by Neil Kernon, Rage for Order features the band combining chilly, arch tones with a Rockenfield-Jackson rhythm section so tight it's almost mechanical, all accented by sumptuous, classy melodies. The overtly stylish photos of the band on the album sleeve had many cynics hollering, "hair metal!", but no band of poodleheads could have come up with songs as gorgeous as those on this record, which was divided into two distinct halves. Side One focused not on the usual cock rock fixations of the Aqua Net set, but on unhealthy obsession: songs like "Walk in the Shadows", "I Dream in Infrared", "The Whisper", and "The Killing Words" took the conventional pop metal formula and added a decidedly progressive musical tweak and dark lyrical twist. It all climaxes with the astounding, near-gothic stalker tune "Gonna Get Close to You", a song originally recorded by Canadian new wave artist Dal Bello.
One of the most audacious covers of the '80s metal era, "Gonna Get Close to You" would serve a precursor to the first-person melodrama of Operation: Mindcrime. The album's second half ranks as the most challenging work in Queensryche's catalog, as "Neue Regel", "Chemical Youth", and "Screaming in Digital" teetered dangerously on the precipice between credible and pretentious, while the ballads "London" and "I Will Remember" showcased Tate's increased emotional range.
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By the time the '90s rolled around, Queensryche's career would veer rapidly from mainstream acceptance to a serious decline in musical quality, relegating the band to the periphery of progressive metal while younger, much more imaginative bands were foisted with the "cutting edge" label. Arriving just after mainstream interest in metal had peaked and as the grunge fad was beginning to build steam, 1990's multi-platinum Empire, which became the band's biggest-selling album, was rife with enough flaws to leave longtime fans disillusioned. Sure, there were some bright spots, such as the superb "Anybody Listening?", the admirable Pink Floyd knock-off "Silent Lucidity", and the lush harmonies of "Another Rainy Night", but much more so than Rage for Order, it was all flash and little substance.
Unlike the first-rate songwriting of the first half of Rage, Empire headed more toward the middle of the road, its pop-oriented songs padded out to five minutes and given just enough prog rock touches to make the album appear more innovative than it actually was. Heavy-handed, token "serious" lyrical themes such as gun control, policing, and the plight of the homeless were tossed off, interspersed with much more shallow, cliché-ridden fare, from the tired "Resistance" to the embarrassing "One and Only", which could have passed for a Slaughter tune with lines like "Treat me to your sense of taste and style / Together we can walk the miles". The popular single "Jet City Woman" was a good microcosm of Empire's plight: a brilliant, thrilling build-up with absolutely no payoff, just a weak chorus that left the song flaccid.
From that point on, Queensryche's decline was swift. Between the long four-year period between Empire and its follow-up, Promised Land, the rock landscape had undergone a massive overhaul. Grunge had come and gone with Nirvana and Pearl Jam winning over audiences; alternative rock from independent and major labels was breaking new ground both artistically and commercially; industrial rock had become mainstream; and irony was in, sincerity out. By the time Promised Land finally hit the shelves, there were still plenty of people interested in what the band would do (it peaked at #3 on the Billboard album chart), but what fans got was a band that sounded completely out of step, simply locked in a drab, midtempo groove. Tate, one of the best vocalists around, had no good melodies to work with (save for "I Am I" and "Bridge"), and the guitars sounded just as muddy as they did on The Warning. One positive aspect was that Promised Land was a considerably more focused album than Empire, but ironically, this overproduced record was ultimately too bland musically to care very much about.
Much more forgettable, though, was 1997's Hear in the Now Frontier, as the increasing sense of malaise in Queensryche's music became disturbingly obvious. Veteran bands "stripping down" their sound and claiming they're "going back to their roots" is always a bad sign, and this album's back-to-basics approach, while decidedly more raw, laid bare the cold hard fact that by now Queensryche was incapable of writing compelling music, coming off as third-rate post-grunge in the process. After DeGarmo, the band's primary songwriter, retired from performing, his former mates continued to soldier on, 1999's Q2K and 2003's Tribe ardently attempting to sound re-energized with only marginal results. While both albums were marked improvements on Hear in the Now Frontier, in the eyes of many, Queensryche had used up all its chances to return to form. The band members were reaching their 40s, and that one classic album they made when they were a bunch of ambitious 25 year-olds had become their own albatross.
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1988 was not as groundbreaking a year for heavy metal as 1983 was, but like 2004 and 2005, it was more a case of many young bands reaching their peak at the same time. In a year dominated by Metallica, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Slayer, Voivod, and young upstarts like Testament, Death, and Crimson Glory, however, Operation: Mindcrime stole everyone's thunder. Built around a storyline that would be ludicrous if it weren't so darn engaging (disenchanted young man joins subversive group, becomes political assassin, falls for a hot nun, nails the hot nun, becomes a heroin addict, and is seemingly framed for the hot nun's murder), Mindcrime had Queensryche testing its limits, both musically and lyrically.
"Revolution Calling" was a scathing critique of late-'80s America, as Reagan was about to give way to Bush Sr., and "Spreading the Disease" is an eloquent examination of media manipulation by both politicians and religious figures ("Selling skin, selling God / The numbers look the same on their credit cards / Politicians say no to drugs / While we pay for wars in South America"). The one-two punch of "The Mission" (arguably the best song the band has ever recorded) and the ten-minute epic "Suite: Sister Mary" brought a sense of high drama to the record; the album's final third, highlighted by three of the band's catchiest compositions, "Breaking the Silence", "I Don't Believe in Love", and "Eyes of a Stranger", kept the its wild ambitions from becoming too progressive, offsetting highly theatrical pieces like "Electric Requiem" and "My Empty Room" perfectly. Despite a mix that tended to be on the thin side (which has since been remedied somewhat on the 2003 remastered version), it remains the band's career zenith and was an eye-opener for both its fans and mainstream music critics that year.
Which leads us to 2006 and the release of Operation: Mindcrime II, an album that's been dreaded as much as it's been anticipated. In fact, aside from the band's small but loyal remaining fanbase, most of the interest surrounding this sequel is purely out of morbid fascination. Queensryche hasn't put out a good album in the last 15 years, its musical direction over that time period has alienated many who expected more from a band who delivered such consistently challenging music during the '80s, and quite frankly, it should have run out of second chances years ago. Yet here it is, bruised but not broken, all but admitting the only way it can revive its career is by presenting a touring production of Mindcrime (complete with actors) and recording a follow-up, an idea as potentially embarrassing as the surviving members of the Who writing Revenge of Tommy. And to the great surprise of yours truly, Queensryche has gone and pulled off the unthinkable.
To put it bluntly, Operation: Mindcrime II is the band's best album since 1988, a dark, brooding piece of work that makes up for its lack of polish with its fiery passion. It's the sound of a band who, after a painfully long period of coasting, seems to finally have a raison d'etre; for once, Queensryche dared to truly challenge itself, and to its great credit, rose to the occasion.
Granted, Operation: Mindcrime II is nowhere near the classic record that Operation: Mindcrime is, and anyone would be a damn fool to think otherwise. Since Queensryche no longer has a large record label behind it, the overall scope of the new album is diminished, the production much more robust and claustrophobic than the slick 1988 version, the orchestras replaced by string synths, and massive choirs replaced by a small number of guest vocalists. DeGarmo's absence is also very noticeable; the original Mindcrime story was his and Tate's baby, and it was DeGarmo who either wrote or co-wrote unforgettable songs like "The Mission" and "Eyes of a Stranger". There are no songs on the sequel that match the majesty of the original's many highlights.
Somehow, though, the quintet of Tate, Wilton, Jackson, Rockenfield, and DeGarmo's replacement Mike Stone pulls everything together just well enough to make it all work. The storyline is as enigmatic as one would expect, focusing on the protagonist's return from prison after 18 years, his unquenchable thirst for revenge on the eee-vil Dr. X, and his struggle to accept the consequences of his own murderous deeds in the past and present. As compelling as the story is (and kids, you're in for a fun little twist), it would be useless if the music didn't hold up, which for the most part, miraculously does.
"I'm American" is an oddball selection as lead-off single, but it's the most propulsive track we've heard from the band in eons, lampooning today's America in the process ("I am free, I deserve everything I can get / 'Cause I'm American"). Heavier midtempo fare like "One Foot in Hell" and "Hostage" get down to business, as Tate begins to carry the album, launching into the kind of charismatic, emotive vocal performance that fans have been clamoring for. It's proof that he's at his best when singing in character, which forces him to inject some much-needed passion into his vocals. "The Hands" is the closest the band gets to equaling the commercial-friendly sounds of the first Mindcrime, and is aided greatly by dual guitar harmonies by Wilton and Stone that hearken back to the late '80s. Of course, we get plenty of songs dedicated to plot exposition; "The Chase" will be the one song that will have folks talking, thanks to a superb cameo appearance by the great Ronnie James Dio (in the role of Dr. X), who trades barbs with Tate in a deliciously bombastic vocal duel. "A Murderer" returns to the prog metal/electronic fusion of Rage for Order's "Screaming in Digital", but as in 1986, the band is able to keep the last half of the album grounded with a couple of pleasant surprises in the groove-oriented "A Junkie's Blues" and the careening "Fear City Slide".
"If I Could Change It All" and "All the Promises" come perilously close to Andrew Lloyd Webber territory, but especially in the case of the latter (a duet between Tate and Pamela Moore, reprising her Sister Mary role), the emotion conveyed is convincing enough for us to buy into it. In an attempt to achieve a sense of consistency with the first Mindcrime, Operation: Mindcrime II was recorded in the same key as the original, and the band adds a couple of nifty touches, slyly incorporating the intro from "Breaking the Silence" into "The Hands", and slipping a hint of the overture "Anarchy-X" into "A Junkie's Blues". Instead of sounding blatant, the familiar melodies are brief and tasteful enough to work well.
Nearly two decades after turning the metal world on its ear by exceeding everybody's lofty expectations, Queensryche's primary goal this time around was simply to save face. It has done so with a subtly contagious record that carries itself with dignity. It's not a classic, and there will undoubtedly be a couple dozen hard rock/metal albums that will be much better, but Operation: Mindcrime II will still go down as one of the year's most pleasant surprises. It's a small triumph, but a triumph nevertheless, and it's great to have this band back.