Michael Kamen

REVIEW: Queensrÿche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988/2003 remaster)

QUEENSRŸCHE – Operation: Mindcrime (1988, 2003 EMI remaster)

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 MindcrimeRage 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.

5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Queensrÿche – Queensrÿche (1983 EP/2003 remaster)

Part I of a Queensryche two-parter.

QUEENSRŸCHE – Queensrÿche (1983 EP/2003 EMI remaster)

Sometimes a reissue is done so right you just gotta “Take Hold of the Flame”.

The 1984 debut EP by Queensryche is one such release.  The original vinyl runs shy of 18 minutes, leaving plenty of space for bonus tracks.  For this, they included the audio for all 10 songs from their first home video, Live in Tokyo.  Wishes fulfilled.

The original four track EP put the quintet from Seattle on the map.  Opening with “Queen of the Reich”, the young band showcased their knack for riffs and screaming vocals.  Geoff Tate’s opening scream cannot be touched.  Tate seemed embarrassed of these songs later on (all written by Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo with one lyric by Geoff).  Though the songs are clearly a starting point, they’re nothing to be embarrassed by.  “Queen of the Reich” remains simple, majestic and powerful.

The “Nightrider” sails away but the riffs go on with pneumatic precision.  Early Queensryche were not that dissimilar from early Iron Maiden, but at least they were doing that sound well.  Curiously enough this self-produced EP was not recorded with the intention to release it.  Queensrÿche is actually just a demo, but the band were starting to make waves on the live scene and so the four songs were released as an EP.  It eventually went gold; very rare for an EP.

Flipping over to side two, “Blinded” is screamy and raw.  Not one of the bands’ most memorable tunes, but soon arrives “The Lady Wore Black”.  This is a metal ballad in the classic vein of “Beyond the Realms of Death” or “Remember Tomorrow”.  Tate’s voice cascades while the band weave a backing track of guitar thunder.  Along with “Queen of the Reich”, it still turns up on live setlists.

The live set in Tokyo, recorded in 1984, contains all the tracks from the EP, a non-album song called “Prophecy”, and several from the debut full-length album The Warning.  Opening with the “Nightrider”, Queensryche don’t let up through a generally fast and heavy set.  “Prophecy” keeps up the brisk pace, with a chorus that is miles ahead of “Nightrider”.  And this DeGarmo-penned smoker was a non-album track!  “Deliverance” from The Warning follows in its ashy footsteps.  It’s an onslaught of Warning tracks:  “Child of Fire” and “En Force” rolled out in heavy fashion.  This trio of Warning songs might be considered the slow part of the set.  They have a soundalike vibe as they steamroll the ears.

“The Lady Wore Black” brings a slower, dark atmosphere.  Tate’s sustain is unbelievable!  Then it’s a blast of classics to close the set:  “Warning”, “Take Hold of the Flame” and “Queen of the Reich”.  Magnificent metal through and through, with “Take Hold” being an unequivocal high point.  From Tate’s vocal to the exalted riffing, Queensryche nail it.

Don’t just get the EP.  Make sure to get the 2003 CD reissue with the glorious Tokyo show included.  You’ll be happy you did.

4/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Def Leppard – “Two Steps Behind” (1993 CD single)

This is the sixth and final part in a series on singles from Def Leppard’s Adrenalize era, including hard to find B-sides!  This is a bit of a “bonus” review, since this song wasn’t actually on Adrenalize!

DEL LEP SINGLE_0014DEF LEPPARD – “Two Steps Behind” (1993 Phonogram)

From a B-side to an A-side in its own right, “Two Steps Behind” has seen more releases than most Def Leppard songs. Sure, it’s significant that it was Def Leppard’s first acoustic song, but it’s really not that exciting.  When Arnold Schwarzenegger comes a-knockin’ and says “I need a rock band to give me ballad for my new movie” in that threatening Arnie voice of his, nobody’s going to refuse him.*

However it unfolded, “Two Steps Behind” was selected for the Arnie turd, Last Action Hero in 1992, next to bands such as AC/DC, Alice in Chains and Megadeth.  In comparison to the aggressive contributions from them, Def Leppard’s track seemed hopelessly behind the times.  It still charted in the US, going to #5.  It was spruced up with strings courtesy of Michael Kamen, and was given a high-budget music video.

This single falls between two albums.  Visually, the cover art recalls the prior Def Leppard singles with its yellow and red lego, but features the photographic style that the Retro-Active singles would sport.  Since it cleans up a few B-sides from the era that didn’t carry over onto Retro-Active, I’ve decided to include it here.

The first B-side is a “warts and all” acoustic version of “Tonight”.  This was later released on the deluxe Adrenalize as the “Sun Studios version”.  In many regards, it’s as good as the original.  Perhaps it’s even better, with its sparse but rich sound.  Without the layers of a typical Def Leppard recording, the song breaths like never before.

The final track on the single (and this series!) to discuss is “S.M.C.” which is still unavailable anywhere else.  Unfortunately it is only 1:14 long.  Written and performed solely by Collen, it is a pretty acoustic instrumental track.  Jaunty and light, it sounds classical in vibe.  Leppard fans would be well advised to seek out this single, to add this brief guitar workout to their Leppard libraries.

4/5 stars

* I’m not sure that this is exactly how it played out, but it could have!

DEL LEP SINGLE_0015

Adrenalize singles:

Part 1:  “Let’s Get Rocked”
Part 2: “Make Love Like a Man”
Part 3: “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad”
Part 4: “Heaven Is”
Part 5: “Tonight”
Bonus Part 6: “Two Steps Behind”