Review Summary: A nice addition to the 80s Queen discography.
Chapter XII: A New Beginning
After some of the disappointment caused by 1982's dance-influenced Hot Space and 1984's bland rehash The Works, Queen needed an album that would bring them back into the spotlight. While 1986's A Kind of Magic was mostly a return to form in retrospect, people weren't really convinced back then to buy it. The album only managed to go Gold in the U.S. (and for such a popular band like Queen, that was unheard of back then) and was widely considered another disappointment. So looking back on the record, did it really deserve these distinctions" Definitely not.
While A Kind of Magic is pretty inconsistent in spots, there's also some fantastic music going on here. Stylistically, Queen decided to take the "rehash formula" of The Works and expand upon it, also adding much more hard rock that was reminiscent of their 70s heyday. More importantly, it feels as though Queen sounded more fresh and inspired when it came to the songwriting and arrangements. Along with maintaining a nice array of varied riffs and more textural arrangements, there's some really heartfelt and beautiful stuff to offer as well. Essentially, this record represents the first step in pulling Queen out of the quicksand they put themselves in musically.
The album takes most of its lyrical inspiration from Highlander, giving many of the heavier tracks a more "epic" feel. This is mostly represented with songs such as the string-laden hard rock opener "One Vision," the slower and more distorted "Gimme the Prize," and album highlight "Princes of the Universe." The latter is particularly notable for featuring more of a heavy metal influence than the other songs, Brian May laying down some hard-hitting rhythm guitar work. The harmonized vocals are as fresh now as they were back then, providing those traditional bombastic arrangements we all know and love. "One Vision," while still rooted in 70s hard rock, begins drenched in lavish strings provided by a synthesizer played by Brian May. This gives a great backdrop for the rest of the song to build from, and the musicianship in the hard rock section that follows is as tight as ever.
The ballads can be hit-and-miss, but some are pretty great. I could go on for hours and hours about how good "Who Wants to Live Forever" is, for example. Beginning with a quiet, emotional verse sung by Brian May over a Yamaha keyboard, Freddie Mercury takes over on the next verse as the song builds steam. There's a really melancholic undertone to the piece, but once the chorus kicks in, sadness is all but forgotten. This is one of the great choruses in the history of rock music, combining beautiful harmonized vocal work from Freddie with a nicely orchestrated backdrop for said vocal melodies to follow. Once Brian May sings the final verse, "Who waits forever anyway," the song ends with food for thought for the listener and represents closure for a perfect piece of music. The other ballads can be good, but definitely don't reach the same level. "Pain Is So Close to Pleasure" and "Friends Will Be Friends" are your typical Queen affairs, and "One Year of Love" is just way too sappy at times, but the songs are at least serviceable ballads.
Unfortunately, the album is indeed very flawed. The ballads, as I said, are just kind of decent with one great exception, but two songs almost kill the album unless you're willing to look past them: the title track and "Don't Lose Your Head." The former is an extremely boring mid-tempo number that brings almost nothing to the table; it really feels like a B-side to The Works. The stretch from the middle to the end is particularly painful, with a bunch of melodies and vocal harmonies going absolutely nowhere while John Deacon just sits in the back and plays his bassline aimlessly. "Don't Lose Your Head" is also annoying, being an entirely forgettable dance number forged out of Hot Space's songwriting template. The vocals are a bit bland compared to Freddie's typical singing quality, and the programmed drum track just makes you wish for Roger Taylor to return to the kit as quickly as possible.
The reason this still gets a 3.5, though, is because the music that works well works REALLY well. The rockers are fantastic, the ballads range from decent to fantastic, and the music sounds like Queen returning to their old 70s glories with an 80s coat of paint. Despite some songs that almost derail this experience, I'd still recommend it. It's worth trudging through the flaws to get to the good stuff... or in this case, the wonderful stuff.