Review Summary: "What I know for sure is that Queensryche crafted a magnificently ambitious collection of songs, each one vast and filled to the brim with emotion. Arguably (In-arguably, if you ask me) one of the greatest vocal performances in all of rock and roll, soar
Before I get started into what will be my first ever submitted review for Sputnik I want to give a bit of history on my experience with this album and hopefully shed some light on why it will always and forever be my number one favorite album of all time.
My mother and father divorced when I was four - he was in the Air Force and she couldn't bring herself to live in the Philippines (where I was born) again - so much (98%) of my life has been spent apart from Dad. Always a part of my life, though, we shared a love for hard rock from as early as I can remember. At about age six I went to visit him for a few weeks when he noticed that I was listening to Queensryche's "Empire" (I had "borrowed" it from my uncle months before) and asked me how I felt about them. My childish mind wasn't capable of explaining at the time exactly why I was so infatuated with the band, so it came out something like "I love his voice and the guitars are super awesome!". Actually that was exactly what I said. He sat me down on the bed and said he was going to put in the album that came before "Empire" and to pay attention to what they were singing - that the album told a story. I couldn't get over that....I'd never heard of albums telling a story! I was into the first four tracks, but it was "Speak" that I will never forget hearing. For the next couple years (Desert Storm, if I remember correctly) I mostly had a brief conversation with him on the phone once every couple of months to discuss new music - but we'd always return to "Operation:Mindcrime" discovering that we'd both been listening to that more than anything else.
Now for the review proper:
Coming off of the criminally underrated and overlooked "Rage For Order" Queensryche were on the verge of something special. I'll spare you the band history - everyone knows about Geoff's inspiration for the story. With Chris DeGarmo behind him he crafted a masterpiece that, in my opinion, represents the single greatest progressive ROCK album of all time.
The album opens with "I Remember Now", which at the time was a chilling and foreboding (at least for a six-year-old), setting of the story at the end, after "Nicky" had experienced the events of the album. Following is "Anarchy-X" which explodes onto the speakers with a bit of backing symphony further enhancing the epic tone of the track and story to come. The song continues, spiraling with guitar leads into the final moments which segue into "Revolution Calling" - arguably the most "eighties hair metal" song on the album (Brief aside: it is historically unfair for QR to be lumped in with the hair metal bands). As a hair metal sympathizer I mean that in the least offensive manner possible, I absolutely love the track. The soaring solos that serve as the main hook for the song are some of the most memorable for the entire album, and Geoff rides the high notes for most of the song. Chris DeGarmo delivers one of many outstanding guitar solos before the song ascends into sky for its grand finale.
The title track begins with a phone ringing and a man speaking the word "Mindcrime", later revealed to be the word which subliminally acts as the trigger for Nicky to do Dr X's bidding (so the story hasn't aged well....just remember this was 1988). If there is a "least favorite" track on the album for me, this is probably it - not because it lacks in any particular way, but I was just never really a fan of the guitar riff which serves as the meat of the song. "Speak" follows, shredding through leads from the start. Never before or again did Queensryche write a song like "Speak" - so vicious and at the same time so ominous. Pairing Geoff's soaring highs in the "Speak to me" before the chorus with his surprising baritone in "the word is all of us" always got me. This guy was an amazing vocal talent. I'll not swoon too much here. Anyone who has checked this album out will undoubtedly remember "Speak".
"Spreading the Disease" is a song which dials things back a bit, not so overly aggressive as the previous two tracks, but this is not to say that the song is any less incendiary. "She's Sister Mary now, eyes as cold as ice, he takes her once a week on the altar like a sacrifice" may go down as the single most memorable vocal line in my personal music history. Geoff's delivery, exploding into the sky before the chorus begins, is all-time great. Actually, he kind of quit doing it live (in the original tuning, at least) in the mid nineties. Another great solo followed by a spoken word section which proved to be rather notoriously cheesy (I never really thought it was that bad or out of place, but I've already explained why I could lack a certain objectivity with this album).
With "The Mission" Queensryche turn on the prog which they explored at length in Rage for Order, and here the album changes dramatically. The acoustic intro and Geoff's somber baritone set the table for what is to come, a sonically devastating pre-chorus and chorus filled with falsetto backing vocals from the band (the always reliable Eddie, Chris and Michael Wilton) and a returning symphony. On an album filled to the brim with great leads and memorable solos, maybe none more so than those on "The Mission" serve the song better, starting up above the returning acoustic guitars and driving the band back into high gear by the end. In the twenty-two years since I've been listening to the album, "The Mission" has time and time again been the song I most often recognize as the album's best.
Following "The Mission" is "Suite Sister Mary", a song I admittedly wasn't capable of comprehending until I developed a greater catalog of music later on. The band famously employs the outstanding Pamela Moore to voice "Mary" in the call and response verses centered around an exchange between she and Nicky, voiced by Geoff. The track frequents the use of far more theatrical elements than the rest of the album - sound effects ranging from rain hitting the streets to car windows to spoken word segments to set the stage for the story - most notably a chorus of voices heightening the epic tone of the song. While the song sports a wonderful chorus and many memorable passages with Pamela, the star of the song is undoubtedly Geoff Tate, delivering an all-time great performance bleeding with personality and emotion to serve as Nicky's testimony to Mary.
If you had never showed me Queensryche before I was twenty-eight years old I would probably have thought the next track, "The Needle Lies" was an Iron Maiden song I'd somehow overlooked. In fact, Queensryche's eponymous debut, as well as outstanding follow up "The Warning" are most similar to Iron Maiden if you ask me (the band probably would have never gotten the hair metal tag if they hadn't dressed the way they did in those years - just look at the back of Rage for Order). Straightforward and pounding riffs are the story here, another excellent solo bridging the gap between chorus and one of the best riffs Megadeth never wrote before the final verse.
"Electric Requiem" serves as a minor refrain from the action and Nicky's realization that Mary is dead. A quick and chilling musical piece preceding the excellent "Breaking the Silence" which has a chorus as catchy as a Bon Jovi anthem from "Slippery When Wet". I'm not so dim as to try to talk this song up too much. I love it to death, probably due to my youth in discovering the song, but aside from another gorgeous and thrilling solo and Geoff's excellent delivery the song is on the low-end of creativity and musicianship.
"I Don't Believe in Love" has been a live staple since the album was released, and with good reason (Geoff was able to continue singing it well into his late forties, not the least of which). The song is immensely catchy. You can't really specify any one thing as a hook when every second of the song represents another one, a galloping rhythm section with DeGarmo and Wilton's trademark dual leads and gorgeous tone make for a wonderfully enjoyable track. The lyrics, upon examination, are largely depressing - renouncing love and the ability to feel it again as a result of loss. One of my favorite lyrics from the album come near the end: "My only hope is one day I'll forget the pain of knowing what can never be. With or Without love, it's all the same to me".
"Waiting for 22" and "My Empty Room" serve as the penultimate build for what will be the finale of the album - the former with only DeGarmo and Wilton's guitars screaming melancholy through the track, the latter with a desperate cry from Nicky alone with his thoughts and no clues as to where to go from here.
The final track, "Eyes of a Stranger" turned out to be the song that broke Queensryche into the mainstream following a tour with Metallica and their usual tour cycle for an album. MTV got hold of it and requested a video, the rest was history. Understandable, because no song could end an album of astronomical heights better than this one does. The trademark dual guitars are present in the opening, but its the end of the verse where you know the song has something wonderful in store, as the heavy guitars return and Geoff reaches for the sky with the line "Looking back at me". The chorus may be the strongest on the entire album, but the second verse is undoubtedly the greatest passage Queensryche ever performed: "Is this all thats left of my life before me" Straight jacket memories, sedative highs? No happy ending like they've always promised? There's got to be something left for me.." The song represents a desperation and uneasiness at the future all while being completely unsure of yourself and who you are. Its a bleak way to end the album, the grand finale of which returns to the opening passages of the track while recalling some of the greatest moments of the album you've just listened to.
I've always felt mentally drained when I've allowed myself to be engrossed in the experience of the album. What it must have taken to craft such an organically beautiful album is beyond me, but I feel that way about many of what I regard to be the greatest progressive rock performances of all time. What I know for sure is that Queensryche crafted a magnificently ambitious collection of songs, each one vast and filled to the brim with emotion. Arguably (In-arguably, if you ask me) one of the greatest vocal performances in all of rock and roll, soaring dual guitar leads in the vein of Iron Maiden and enough diversity for everyone to find something they like, this album clearly stands the test of time and will go down as the band's most memorable.