Review Summary: A wonderful follow-up to A Night at the Opera.
Chapter V: The Pressure of Success
Despite being ridiculed in the past for their campy brand of humor, Queen really struck a chord with audiences and critics alike when their 1975 masterpiece A Night at the Opera was released. The album seemed to go about the typical Queen formula of bombast and genre-mixing, but had a more cohesive vision and overall sound. The musical picture was completely in focus instead of the inconsistency of previous releases, and thus the public seemed to give it their highest praises. Naturally, this led to certain questions on everybody's minds: what will the next record be like? Will it be similar or throw things up a bit? Will the songwriting style be altered? Well, on December of 1976, everybody's questions were answered. Rather than entering completely new musical territory, A Day at the Races trims some of its predecessor's excess while introducing a few new sounds to keep things fresh. Even then, it still manages to be a superb follow-up.
The typical Queen sound is present in every way here; you'll still hear the multi-layered vocal harmonies, the Vaudevillian sense of humor (hell, this album's title is even taken from a Marx Brothers film), and so forth. However, things are a bit more humble and stripped down musically this time around. For instance, after the one-minute guitar intro by Brian May, "Tie Your Mother Down" storms in to kick the listener right in the face with its aggression. The guitar work is raw and goes back to traditional rock and roll roots, adding up to a sound that's less bombastic and more focused. "You Take My Breath Away" is in a similar vein, but as a ballad. For the majority of the song, it's just Freddie Mercury and his piano; a very melancholic melody is being played beneath Mercury's passionate vocals. Soon enough, more vocal "layers" pop up and the piece becomes more textured as it progresses, but the song's first impression is so subtle and quiet that it's pretty intriguing for a band like Queen.
However, the moments of Queen's traditional progressive rock sound are where this album really shines. I think it's a safe bet that most people have heard, or at the very least heard of, the ballad "Somebody to Love"; with the gospel-like vocal harmonies and waltz-like piano composition, it's still one of the great Queen classics. However, one underrated piece just so happens to be "The Millionaire Waltz." Starting with one of John Deacon's most technically challenging bass lines hanging underneath some lighthearted piano melodies, the song is very effective at varying its dynamics to create a certain sense of atmosphere. About halfway in, the song explodes into a clash of guitar riffing and soaring vocals; however, this disappears about as quickly as it came. Nonetheless, it's a very nice addition to a fantastic power ballad. Finally, there's the quirky strut of "Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy"; the song is every bit as fun and suave as the title suggests. The vocal harmonies are very carefully placed to give a joyful mood to the swift piano melody. The musicianship is as tight as ever, but the band members give each other room to breathe when it comes to solo spots and solid musical foundations. There are some darker moments on this record as well; I already mentioned "You Take My Breath Away," but "Long Away" also comes to mind as a very sad tune. Brian May's chord progressions give off a melancholic, almost nostalgic tone as he sings his lyrics of loneliness and isolation. Definitely more of a downer, but a great song nonetheless.
So is there anything bad about this record? The only negative aspect of it is that it lacks the overall vision that A Night at the Opera had. A Night at the Opera was similarly loaded with great songs, but the overall album flowed a bit better than this one. This album doesn't really feel like an album as much as just a collection of songs; the benefit of this, however, is that it's easier to pick out a song that you really enjoy and listen to it at any point in time. Overall, this is easily one of Queen's strongest albums. It isn't quite as solid as A Night at the Opera, but it comes really damn close.