Review Summary: This is one of the best known conceptual albums and one of the most important progressive metal recordings ever. But apart from its importance and the wonderful storytelling the music itself is not strong enough to turn it into a classic.
Which records jump immediately in your mind when you hear the term “conceptual album”? Among other classics - like “The Wall” by Pink Floyd, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” by Genesis or The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” - you will surely find this one: “Operation: Mindcrime”. Since its release in 1988, “Operation: Mindcrime” has almost become a synonym for conceptual albums. It’s often claimed to be the first and most important progressive metal recording ever and its influence on later progressive metal bands like Dream Theater is, without doubt, immense.
Formed in the early 80s, it took Queensrÿche a long time and three studio albums until they reached the point of their breakthrough. The first three albums, “Queensrÿche”, “The Warning” and “Rage for Order”, were not unsuccessful, but Queensrÿche remained unknown to the great majority, which should be changed by the release of this record. Not promptly - the chart positions weren’t much better than those of their previous albums: #50 in US and #58 in UK charts - but slowly, starting with the success of the single Eyes of a Stranger
(hitting #35 in the Billboard charts). Until now there have been two video releases “Video: Mindcrime” and “Operation: LIVEcrime” about their live show, in which they used to play the whole album and show the story almost musical-like. Further there are a few box sets and in March 2006, the sequel “Operation: Mindcrime II” has been released.
The three important personalities behind “Operation: Mindcrime” are singer Geoff Tate, lead guitarist Chris DeGarmo and rythm guitarist Michael Wilton. They have written almost all songs on the album. The other members of the band are drummer Scott Rockenfield and Eddie Jackson on bass. The story is mainly invented by Geoff Tate, the leader of the band.
“Operation: Mindcrime” is a narrative conceptual album, all songs are part of the story and between some of them short spoken sequences are added to make everything more easily understandable. The story circles around three characters: Nikki, Sister Mary and Doctor X.
Nikki is a junkie who is manipulated by Doctor X through brainwashing and the use of drugs. Doctor X is the merciless leader of the “Operation: Mindcrime”, a terror organization which’s targets are unclear, but they seem to be killing important persons and so causing as much confusion and panic as possible. Nikki himself doesn’t really know what “Operation: Mindcrime” is all about
: “To preach the ‘New Beginning’, to make you understand. / To reach some point of order, Utopia in mind.”
Nikki becomes a “one-man death machine”
, “a ‘Death Angel’ with a gun”
, obeying the orders of Doctor X - mainly assassinations - until he falls in love with Sister Mary, another member of the “Operation: Mindcrime”. Sister Mary’s position in the organization remains unclear, the listener doesn’t find out much about her. “Father William saved her from the streets. / She drank the life-blood from the savior’s feet. / She’s sister Mary now, eyes as cold as ice. / He takes her once a week on the altar like a sacrifice.”
Doctor X is, of course, not pleased by the arising relationship and orders Nikki to kill Sister Mary. The central part of the story is Sister Mary’s death, though in the album the actual death is never described. It remains unclear how she died - whether it was Nikki who killed her, another member of “Operation: Mindcrime”, maybe Doctor X himself - or if it has been suicide. If you are interested, you can find out, how she died (look at Wikipedia), but I think it’s important for the album that you do not know it. Nikki is arrested by the police and through the last songs of the album he is sitting in his cell, thinking about his past and the death of his love and slowly getting crazy. “There’s no sleep today. I can’t pretend. / When all my dreams are crimes, I can’t / Stand facing them.”
This is also the point were the album starts: Nikki is in a prison hospital, remembering what has happened.
Especially the love story keeps reminding me of George Orwell’s novel “1984”, which is also dealing with a hope- and futureless love in the worst of all imaginable circumstances. Also the general feel both the music and the lyrics of this record draw is very closely related to Orwell’s dark vision of the future. “The ‘System’ we learn says we’re equal under law, / But the streets are reality. The weak and poor will fall.”
Queensrÿche show us a very depressing picture of their time. A corrupt government keeps the poor people under control. “Fighting fire with empty words while / The banks get fat. The poor stay poor. / The rich get rich and the cops get paid / To look away as the “One Percent” rule America.”
The first half of the album is full with statements like these. “Seven years of power, the corporation claw. / The rich control the government, the media, the law.”
Though the album was recorded almost twenty years ago, Queensrÿche’s social criticism remains current today - not only in the United States.
It’s a pity that the music fails to reach the high quality of the story. Most songs have basically the same build-up, with slower verses leading into a chorus with bursting guitars and Geoff Tate’s almost screaming voice. Queensrÿche use that scheme for the first four songs after the intro: Revolution Calling
, Operation: Mindcrime
and Spreading the Disease
. Further The Needle Lies
and I Don’t Believe in Love
have the same structure too - which is not really bad, but gets boring if you hear it about six times on an album. But every now and then DeGarmo’s guitar solos are shining through the heavy sound and save more than one song completely on their own. It’s actually DeGarmo who I admire most in this line-up.
The sound of the album is very raw and hard, with only a few moments to relax - like Electric Funeral
and Waiting for 22
, which, because of their rarity, have a beauty they otherwise would leak. The heaviness is mainly caused by the heavy drums and the raw production. Nothing is smoothed here, the guitars are creaking, the drums are banging and the bass growls. Of course, to a certain point, this kind of music underlines the dark and hopeless atmosphere of the story and is an expression of Nikki’s anger, but some different styles and types of music would have given the album much more variety and a deeper touch. Geoff Tate’s vocals are very often high pitched, which can even get annoying at some times. But he’s a very talented singer and proves that throughout the album. I wouldn’t like anyone else to sing these songs - but that’s maybe only because I’m already used to him after listening to the album often enough.
The outstanding track on here is the 10 minute epic Suite Sister Mary
. The included choirs, rain effects and an interesting build-up differ from the other songs. But also other tracks, like the heavy, short and fast intro Anarchy-X
, The Mission
(including the greatest guitar solo of the album) or Breaking the Silence
are fully enjoyable.
It’s right that “Operation: Mindcrime” is one of the earliest and most influential progressive metal records and it can surely be called groundbreaking, but it’s by far not one of the best in musical terms and has been beaten by many succeeding progressive metal albums by other bands. But without “Operation: Mindcrime”, those other albums might have never been recorded at all. A must-have for anyone who calls himself a metal-fan, quite enjoyable for those who are open to all genres, but surely no eye-opener for those who are not too fond of heavy music. It is a great album, but not the masterpiece many fans want it to be. It has its strong songs and is a masterpiece if you concentrate on its thematic side, but musically there are too many weaknesses and not enough ideas to define a classic.