After Pink Floyd made history by releasing The Wall in 1979, concept albums fell out of fashion. Almost a decade later, two heavy metal albums brought the artform of the full-length story back: Iron Maiden’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche. Of the two, Mindcrime had the more coherent linear story, but both remain high water marks for each band.
The Queensryche album sold slowly at first, as the band refused to make music videos to let the album speak for itself. They changed course in 1989 when “Eyes of a Stranger” made it to MTV and MuchMusic. Fortunes changed dramatically for Operation: Mindcrime. The album eventually went platinum.
The reason Mindcrime was better suited as an album than music videos was the connected storyline running through each song. Employing a classic frame technique, we begin at the end with “I Remember Now”.
“I remember now. I remember how it started. I can’t remember yesterday. I just remember doing what they told me…”
The anti-hero Nikki is an angry, aimless addict who fell in with a radical political group called Operation: Mindcrime. He is a disheartened young American. “The rich control the government, the media, the law.” Mindcrime’s modus operandi? Using drugs and brainwashing, would-be assassins are sent out to kill strategic political targets, building to revolution. Inequality, corruption and the media have made the country an ugly place. Dr. X, the mastermind behind Mindcrime, has total control over Nikki. He also uses the nun Mary, a former prostitute, to feed Nikki’s needs. Nikki and Mary grow closer until he receives the order: “Kill her.” She knows too much.
The first two tracks are just setup before you get to the meat. “I Remember Now” and “Anarchy-X” create a powerful set of images, with anthemic guitars and the sound of massive crowds rallying to a cause. “Revolution Calling”, the first real song, begins the narrative. “Then I heard of Dr. X, the man with the cure, just watch the television, yeah you’ll see there’s something going on.”
Nikki is indoctrinated on the title track, an ominous riffy behemoth of a song. Dr. X uses Nikki’s drug addiction to control him. With nothing to lose, Nikki falls for the doctor’s words. “There’s a job for you in the system boy, with nothing to sign.” Nikki has no use for the government or politicians. It all sounds good to him. On “Speak” he receives his first assignment. “I’m the new messiah, death angel with a gun.” On a blazing fast track with a thick chorus, Nikki falls into his new life. “Eradicate the fascists, revolution will grow.” On “Spreading the Disease”, another kickass track with a chorus that goes on for miles, Nikki tells the story of Mary and his distaste for the church. “Religion and sex are power plays, manipulate the people for the money they pay. Selling skin, selling God, the numbers look the same on the credit cards.”
Queensryche take it slower (though not soft) on “The Mission”, as Nikki starts to feel disillusionment. “I look around, my room is filled with candles, each one a story but they end the same.” He keeps telling himself that he’s doing what’s right. “My mission saved the world, and I stood proud.” But then he is given the order he dreads: Kill Mary. This instruction opens album epic “Suite Sister Mary”, 10 full minutes of riffs, choir and orchestra (by Michael Kamen). The riff alone stands like a monolith. Vocalist Pamela Moore sings a duet with Geoff Tate as the character of Sister Mary. As for that riff? Chris DeGarmo was the master riff composer in this band, a hole they have never quite filled.
The second half of the story commences with “The Needle Lies”. Nikki wants out, but finds that it doesn’t work that way. There is no “out”. Meanwhile Queensryche strafe the speakers with a thrashy blitzkrieg. Drummer Scott Rockenfield cannot be contained. Then on the quiet filler track “Electric Requiem”, Nikki discovers that Mary had made his choice to disobey orders irrelevant. Dead by her own hand, Nikki is broken and tailspins into a mad depression. This is portrayed on “Breaking the Silence”, another stone cold winner of a song with a mighty chorus. The chunky guitar riff is to die for.
With his memory failing him, Nikki doesn’t even know if he killed Mary himself or not. He questions everything on the ever-cool single “I Don’t Believe in Love”, one of the most remarkable of all Queensryche songs. Once again the writing partnership of Tate and DeGarmo struck heavy musical gold. Two shorter tracks (“Waiting for 22” and “My Empty Room”) fill in some story points, and Nikki is eventually caught.
Operation: Mindcrime’s biggest song is its final track and first single, “Eyes of a Stranger”. Memories are but fragments. “I raise my head and stare into the eyes of a stranger.” It’s one of Queensryche’s most incredible recordings, a perfect storm of guitars, vocals and melody. It’s neck deep in drama, with Geoff Tate at his most emotive. The story ends with some questions left unanswered. At least until 2006’s unnecessary Mindcrime II….
Operation: Mindcrime took Queensryche to an artistic level that fans and critics always knew they could achieve. Their debut EP showed promise. They didn’t live up to that potential until Mindcrime. Though good, The Warning album wasn’t a stunner like Mindcrime. Rage For Order was brilliant but alienating. Even when it was first released, Mindcrime did not blow all the critics away. Only after it had been digested slowly over time did the masses realize they were sitting on something very special. Queensryche had done conceptual work before, but more abstract. Nothing as well-hewn as Mindcrime. Musically it was like they distilled everything they had accomplished thus far, and concentrated it into pure rock majesty.
The 2003 CD reissue had two live B-sides as bonus tracks. “The Mission” was originally released in 1991 on the B-side to “Silent Lucidity”. It is a different recording from that on the live album Operation: LIVEcrime. “My Empty Room” is a later acoustic recording, released in 1995 as a B-side to “Bridge”. It’s interesting for its acoustic setting and percussion, but is best heard in the context of the “Bridge” single with its other acoustic counterparts.
Is Operation: Mindcrime a masterpiece? The story is a bit Hollywood and a tad juvenile, but the broad strokes are remarkably still valid today. Mindcrime is rivalled by only a few. It’s a worthy, nay, important addition to any metal collection.