While most hard rock bands of the era were focused on rowdy debauchery, Queensrÿche staked a claim as one of the most intelligent bands in the genre.
In 2005, ‘80s metal mavens Queensrÿche returned to the stage to play their legendary 1988 concept album, Operation: Mindcrime, in its entirety for the first time since 1990. Soon after, the band went back into the studio to finish a long-awaited sequel, Operation: Mindcrime II. With the series now complete, the band has recently taken to the road to play both albums together as part of a tour de force theatrical production.
Many of the fans who attended the band’s Cleveland show had no doubt seen them band perform the first Mindcrime last year -- Queensrÿche visited the House of Blues twice -- but both the music and the story are so epic that they stand up to repeat listens. And, this time, the original Mindcrime was just the beginning.
While most hard rock acts of the era were focused on rowdy debauchery, Queensrÿche staked a claim as one of the most intelligent bands in the genre. It takes a certain amount of creative genius to craft an album that fans will still want to hear two decades later. Tate’s epic story about Nikki, a would-be underground revolutionary made into a fall-guy assassin by the mind-control drugs of the nefarious Dr. X, assailed the hypocrisy of American politics in a way that struck a chord with the youth of America.
Eighteen years later, that chord is still ringing, and the music from 1988 has lost little of its impact, as evidenced by the energy that surged through the crowd as the band launched opener “Revolution Calling.” Vocalist Geoff Tate’s lyrics remain as relevant as ever: “Got no love for politicians/ Or that crazy scene in D.C…There’s a growing feeling /That taking a chance on a new kind of vision is due.”
The band moved deftly through the album, using a combination of film footage and onstage performers to act out the story. Tate himself performed certain scenes as well, adding a dramatic authenticity to the proceedings. “Suite Sister Mary” -- in which Nikki is ordered to kill his cohort/girlfriend and ex-nun Mary because she knows too much about Dr. X’s operation -- remains one of the most epic songs in rock, and Tate’s duet with Pamela Moore was nothing short of spine-tingling. Drummer Scott Rockenfield, bassist Eddie Jackson, and guitarists Michael Wilton and Mike Stone, meanwhile, performed the song’s many changes with masterful precision as Tate and Moore emoted on top.
As the story continues, Nikki refuses to kill Mary and leaves. Later, Moore’s Mary character takes a phone call from Dr. X, who orders her to shoot herself. Like Nikki, she is a victim of X’s mind control drug, and in a gut-wrenching scene reminiscent of classic cinematic thriller The Manchurian Candidate, Mary can’t help but follow his order. Nikki is framed for her murder in “Breaking the Silence,” “I Don’t Believe in Love,” and “Eyes of a Stranger,” and the latter saw Tate wrapped in a straitjacket by doctors and police. The first set ended with Nikki being incarcerated in a criminal psychiatric prison.
After a brief break, the band returned to play Mindcrime II. The album begins as Nikki is released after 18 years in prison. The opening song, “I’m an American,” picks up where “Revolution Calling” left off, indicting modern society as Nikki quickly realizes that little has changed: “If you voted for the man you’re wasting time/ He’s got his fingers dipped in everyone’s pie/ The news can’t wait to promote all the bullshit this government is selling/ I’ve got this plan in motion, countdown/ Assassinate, terminate, smack down."
“One Foot in Hell,” “Hostage,” and “The Hands” rocked with a fierce spirit and prog-rock depth worthy of the original Mindcrime, as Nikki set his mind on revenge against Dr. X, who has become fabulously wealthy in the pharmaceutical business. Time and again, Rockenfield’s powerhouse drumming and Jackson’s dynamic bass commanded attention as the tight rhythm section drove Queensrÿche’s musical machine.
Creating a follow-up to a masterpiece like the original Mindcrime is a tall order, and if the sequel has one main flaw, it’s that too many of the songs revolve around Nikki’s personal obsession with revenge, rather than continuing to explore larger issues. “Re-Arrange You” is a powerhouse rocker and Tate sounds as strong as ever, but, as we reached the halfway point in the album/second set, the lyrics were still focused on the revenge motif.
Nikki and Dr. X finally met in “The Chase,” where metal god Ronnie James Dio was shown in a taped cameo reprising his guest vocal as Dr. X. In “Murderer?,” Tate/Nikki gets the best of Dr. X and holds a gun to his head, struggling with whether or not to kill him before finally pulling the trigger. Nikki then ponders turning the gun on himself, but can’t go through with it and finds that exacting his long-awaited revenge still leaves him unfulfilled.
The album/set’s final six songs all revolved around Nikki’s struggles with his personal demons, a theme which was perhaps a bit belabored. While Mindcrime II doesn’t have as many classic cuts as the original, the band gave its all in an attempt to at least match the record's musical intensity. Moore’s Mary returned from beyond the grave to duet with Tate on “If I Could Change It All” and “An Intentional Confrontation,” and, while neither song is on par with “Suite Sister Mary,” the performances were still captivating.
“Fear City Slide”, the album’s penultimate tune, recalled the intensity of “Eyes of a Stranger” in a classic Queensrÿche way. Wilton and Stone shined on the guitars, trading smoking solos as Nikki continued to struggle with the specter of suicide.
The show wrapped up with the anti-climactic melodrama of “All the Promises,” as Tate/Nikki and Moore/Mary continue to lament their lost love. It didn’t close things out with the intensity and impact that “Stranger” lends the first Mindcrime, but the band nonetheless received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the set. They received similar screams after a triumphant double encore, the title track from 1990’s multi-platinum Empire, which rocked liked nobody’s business.
Vocalist/lyricist Geoff Tate stands as one of the most intellectually challenging performers in rock history. Staging over two hours worth of theatrical thinking-man’s rock and roll is an ambitious undertaking, but Queensrÿche pulled it off with admirable aplomb. And Tate’s message was clear: revenge in and of itself will not satisfy. A timely lesson for America in the age of its so-called “War on Terror.”