Review Summary: The first of Queen's two masterpieces.
Chapter II: The Big Leap Forward
I like to see progressive rock epics and albums as rock's own answer to classical symphonies and suites... complex, multifaceted, and brimming with technical skill. With the help of bands like Kansas, Genesis, Yes, and whoever else gets categorized in so-called "symphonic prog," 70s prog was able to be played on heavy rotation by those who didn't want to listen to the more simplistic forms of rock at the time. However, 70s-era Queen were always of a different breed. Yes, their music was complex. Yes, it was multifaceted. Yes, it contained varying time signatures. But what was so different? What really stood out? The charisma and bombast.
Freddie Mercury and co. were one of the very few acts to marry the complexity of prog with the mainstream success and streamlined nature of pop almost perfectly, something even Supertramp couldn't fully pull off (but they tried their best, that's for sure). "Queen" is such a fitting name for a group who could pull off pomp and eccentricity with such elegance and taste... and of course, there's the eclectic genre-bending involved as well. The band tried ragtime, hard rock, classical, jazz, gospel, metal, you name it. Oh sure, it felt a bit forced and out-of-control on occasion, but you can't really blame a band who are trying to expand the normal confines of hard rock. But here's the craziest thing: the album that only began to develop Queen's signature sound also happened to be one of their very best... perhaps their best, in fact. That, my friends, is Queen II.
Make no mistake, this is a full-fledged progressive rock album. Multitracked vocal harmonies run rampant, time signatures change quite frequently, and the band's signature stylistic shifts are here in full-form. Right from the dark funeral-like guitar overdubs of "Procession," you know you're in for a pretty unusual record from the get go; even more unique is the way the band had set up this epic album. First is Brian May's "white" side of the album which focuses on more beautiful and light tunes, whereas Mercury's "black" side is absolutely warped, outrageously bombastic, and extremely dark. With that said, let's just say that you shouldn't expect a whole lotta camp from this one like in later Queen works. Most of the material here replaces the band's usual humor and lightheartedness with more dramatic lyricism, much of it focusing on fantasy-influenced storytelling. Expect a dark record through and through, basically.
Aside from that, though, the real draw is in how well everyone in the band works in tandem with each other. John Deacon's bass perfectly compliments Freddie's piano playing in the somber "Nevermore," just like how Brian May's heavy guitar riffing and Roger Taylor's hollow and rough drum sound are a great fit in a hard-hitting song like "The Loser in the End." There's a genuine chemistry between the band members, something that seemed so powerful even in this phase of their career. Also, this is the first album in which the group's layered vocal harmonies came into high prominence, and they couldn't feel more welcome with the grandiose arrangements. The slow buildup in "Ogre Battle" leads into an incredibly loud burst of vocal bombast that has to be heard to be believed, and "March of the Black Queen"'s use of counterpoint brings out many highlights of this nature as well. That's not to say there aren't poppier or more tightly packed arrangements on here as well, as "Seven Seas of Rhye" and "Funny How Love Is" can prove, and these are placed right at the end to bring an optimistic end to a beautifully dark journey.
If Queen's debut was their set of musical blueprints, this is the towering skyscraper they were arranged to construct... and indeed it towers over most of its contemporaries, progressive rock or otherwise. It's beautiful, brutal, dark, florid, complex, and everything in between. But above all, it's simply a masterpiece. The combination of instrumental prowess and emotional depth is breathtaking... and to think that this was only the band's second record! It was clear that Queen's future would be bright, but it's cool to know that they had already mastered their craft early on; in any case, get this. I don't care if you enjoy rock, pop, classical, jazz, whatever. Just get this.