Neil Kernon

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: Queensryche – Rage For Order (remastered)

QUEENSRYCHE – Rage For Order (originally 1986, 2003 EMI remastered edition)

Every fan has their favourite Queensryche album.  Whether it be The Warning, MindcrimePromised Land or Empire, there are plenty of great albums in their back catalogue.  I used to seek the warm high of Promised Land when looking to chill with my favourite Queensryche.  Now I look for refuge in the cold, technological sheen of their 1986 album Rage For Order.

Rage For Order was a challenging album in its time and today it is still complex.  In 1986, fans questioned the gothy makeup and hair, not to mention the excessive samples and synths.  Today you can look back and almost call Rage For Order the first progressive industrial metal album.  It certainly has qualities from all three of those genres.  Geoff Tate beat Trent Reznor to the punch by years.  Rage seems to have a vague futuristic concept about a world of technology, revolution, and disconnection.

Although Rage For Order is certainly not an immediate listen, certain key tracks are commercial enough to keep you coming back.  The first is “Walk in the Shadows”, one of the few songs to be played live fairly consistently over the years.  “Walk in the Shadows” could pass as a hard rocking hit.  For the first time Queensryche really proved they were more than a simple metal band.  The slick production was completely different from their first two records, with the edge taken off the guitars and instead given to the computers and sequencers.  They give the whole album a precise, punchy tech sound that is its own form of heavy.  No wonder:  Dave “Rave” Ogilvie was an engineer.

A dense ballad called “I Dream in Infrared” has sorrow, but flowing through the veins of a computer.  Geoff Tate blows minds with his incredible voice and singing ability, layered for maximum effect.  In 1991 it was remixed acoustically for a single B-side, and that version is a bonus track on the remastered edition.  The original was perfect for what it was, but the acoustic mix is more accessible to outsiders.  It ends suddenly and the metallic guitars of “The Whisper” enter, accompanied by clock-like percussion.  Rage For Order has many songs with layered, overlapping vocals and you can hear that on the chorus.  It is a cold, sterile but powerful track.

The strangest song was actually the lead single, “Gonna Get Close to You”.  It was the only cover Queensryche ever put on one of their studio albums, a track by Canadian songstress Lisa DalBello.  In the hands of Geoff Tate, it becomes a creepy song of a stalker with a strangely rousing pre-chorus.  “You think I’m a fool or maybe some kind of lunatic?  You say I’m wasting my time but I know what to do with it.  It’s as plain as black and white.  I’m gonna get close to you.”  Cree-hee-eepy!  Which is the point.  The bizarre samples and synths only deepen the macabre.  DalBello’s original is perhaps even creepier, but Tate’s pompous bravado adds its own slant.  “If you knew my infinite charm, there’d be no reason to be so alarmed…”

As an added bonus, a 12″ extended version of “Gonna Get Close to You” is included in the bonus tracks, but like most extended versions from the 1980s, it’s very choppy and awkward.

Along with the technology, there is a theme of loneliness on Rage For Order, and “Gonna Get Close to You” plays into that.  “The Killing Words” contains more heartbreak on the album’s second ballad (third if you count “Gonna Get Close to You”).  Tate’s voice is drenched in pain.  A 1994 acoustic version from the “Bridge” CD single is included as a bonus track.

“Surgical Strike” is a brilliant track, fast and heavy, and working with the technology.  The lyrics are brilliant and quite prescient.

It’s lonely in the field,
that we send our fighters to wander.
They leave with minds of steel,
It’s their training solution.
We’ve programmed the way,
It leads us to Order.
There’s no turning back.

A Surgical Strike.
We’ve taught them not to feel.
performance is their task,
A Surgical Strike,
Its time is arriving now for you.

The plan for the day,
will be swift as the lightning they harness.
The atom display,
It’s not mindless illusion,
At master control, assessment will not,
Be by humans.
There’s no turning back…

It feels like this future is not very far off.

One of the most techy tracks is “Neue Regel”.  Clockwork percussion, strangely computerized lead vocals, and intelligently used samples paint a scene of a future battlefield, complete with bomb-like drum sounds.  The multi-layered chorus is one of Queensryche’s most perfect.  Respect to Geoff Tate.  When the man was at his peak, nobody could touch him, both vocally and as a songwriter.  Of course one must also remember the other side of the equation, which was guitarist Chris DeGarmo.  He has more songwriting credits on this album than Geoff Tate, including two solo credits (“The Whisper” and “I Will Remember”).

The future continues to look cold and dark on “Chemical Youth (We Are Rebellion)”.  “Our religion is technology” is one line, and if only Tate knew how right he was!  There is a still a spark of hope and that is the young.  “Chemical Youth” is one of the heaviest tracks on the album, and sonically very interesting too.  The next ballad “London” fades in with a synthy bass line.  Loneliness returns.  “There’s some things in life I could never face.  The worst is being alone.”

The technology slant hits its peak on the brilliant “Screaming in Digital”.  Describing this song can do it no justice.  It is like listening to Queensryche within the gleaming sterile walls of the dystopian sci-fi classic THX-1138.  There is far too much going on underneath it all to absorb in just a few listens.  You will hear new sounds you never noticed before even 30 years later.  Artificial intelligence has never rocked so heavy.

I am the beat of your pulse,
The computer word made flesh,
We are one you and I,
We are versions of the same,
When you can see what I feel,
Don’t turn your back on me,
Or you might find that your dreams,
Are only program cards.

Fucking chilling!

“Screaming in Digital” must be counted on any list of Queensryche’s best music.  It is sheer genius, far beyond what their hard rock peers were peddling.  It was also years ahead of its time.  By crossing digital techniques with heavy metal in such an intelligent way, Queensryche truly were breaking new ground.

“I Will Remember” is the final song, a ballad that seems to tie it all together.  It has the feel of a lonely ballad, while lyrically tying up the technology concept.  “And we wonder how machines can steal each other’s dreams.”  Another Queensryche classic, including a genius DeGarmo acoustic guitar solo.  Shades of the future “Silent Lucidity” too (also written by DeGarmo).

There are four bonus tracks including the three discussed above.  The last one is a 1991 live version of “Walk in the Shadows”, which appears to be a mix of two different performances judging by the credits.  Whatever the case may be, it’s cool to get a live version of this incredible song as a coda to the album.

Queensryche took the conceptual approach to its logical apex next time out with Operation: Mindcrime.  They ditched the technology and went back to guitars and even added an orchestra.  For that reason, Rage For Order is very unique in the collection.  It was a sound they have never repeated.  Operation: Mindcrime had a sequel, but Rage For Order never will.

5/5 stars