Thursday, August 30, 2012

Queensrÿche - Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

It would be remiss of me to think of Operation: Mindcrime as a mere album, because to me, personally, it has served more as an institution. Along with records like Port Royal and Somewhere in Time, both of which share a similar, airy eloquence in their production values (thank the 80s), this has become a monumental benchmark by which I've judged much melodic metal I've experienced since. In fact, if I myself was to be locked away in some remote gulag or asylum, stripped of my iPod, but allowed a mere car mirror CD visor worth of metal music to bring along, this would be guaranteed a slot. It's one of those rare cases of a record upon which I wouldn't propose a single alteration. If given the power to time travel and manipulate musical media, I wouldn't change a damned note on Operation: Mindcrime. It was, and remains in my estimation, flawless. Never broken. And never needing to be fixed. Or compromised by its own authors (but that, as they say, is 'another story').

However, despite its massive commercial success, and the endless landfill of praise and detraction that has been laid upon it through the ensuing decades, Operation: Mindcrime is not a record without some baggage, and this I would largely attest to conflicting perceptions of its conceptual merit. Queensrÿche's third full-length was not its first with a unified theme, but the first to really splay it out into a narrative rock opera involving brainwashing, political assassination, and a clear violation of doctor-patient confidence. The band hired on friends and actors to perform brief character roles, and they set it up with a number of briefer story vignettes to round out the metal tracks. For some listeners, this is a huge hurdle, but personally I rather enjoyed each of these pieces, not only for their value to the central theme, but also because of the clinical atmosphere and sense of gravity they lend to the story. They're also musical for the most part, with but one or two exceptions; for instance, "Anarchy-X" is a 90 second anthem with brazen guitars, dual leads and warlike drumming cadence that fully fits with the lengthier cuts. It's not like Pestilence's Testimony of the Ancients, where the interludes seem to be incorporated just for the sheer whim of experimentation. No, these pieces actually seem to belong to their surroundings.

Of course, one of the joys of this album is that it can actually be listened to in two ways: straight through the story sequentially, or by skipping the central narrative and appreciating each of its regular length tracks for their individual values. Some might contain snippets of samples or story, but the lyrics behind a tune like "Eyes of a Stranger", "The Needle Lies", "I Don't Believe In Love" could hold some relevance for a listener whether or not he/she gives two shits about Sister Mary, Father William, or Dr. X. Nor would it take a high intellect to be able to make an 'abstraction' out of "Suite Sister Mary" or the title track. Much has been said of how 'genius' or 'brilliant' the album's concept was. I myself was incessantly exposed to such praise in high school to the point that I couldn't stand it, joyous that, for once, the hairspray-drugged Poison and Bon Jovi crowd, and the male students chasing their tails, had invested themselves in an album of quality. But let's be honest: Mindcrime's story is an average psychological thriller at best. It's not a Gravity's Rainbow, or Foucault's fucking Pendulum. It doesn't have the same pulse pounding action and intrigue as Robert Ludlum's Bourne series. The twists and turns are fairly obvious, and the lyrical diatribe used to convey the tale is hardly complex or inventive prose. That said, though, so what? Compared to most of the driven being spewed upon the radio to glam fans, or the same half dozen issues being beaten to the floor by the more serious metal acts of the 80s, Operation: Mindcrime was indeed something special. Different.

What's more, the music itself is superb. Bearing aside the standalone intro and interludes, which I've discussed above, the level of composition on this album is far beyond that of its predecessors, and needless to say any of the miserable albums since. Tate and DeGarmo, Wilton, Jackson and Rockenfield create this monstrous admixture of melody, harmony, atmosphere, power and drama through a riff-set that even for its day would hardly be considered complicated or technical, and yet its impact is timeless. After a few cycles of the ten 'core' tracks, I have never been able to get them out of my head. Aesthetically, this is an album which walks the line between the mainstream hard rock sounds of its day and a slightly more progressive metal inclination. The writing is similar to Rage for Order, but with an exponentially superior polish and level of refinement. I mean, for fuck's sake, I like every single (complete) song on this album more than Rage for Order in TOTAL, and sitting here a quarter century after its release I can't hear a single flake of rust on this whole spectacle. Sure, you could 'date' this to the 80s, but three decades later I find it all too rare that I pick up any album which covers so many bases as this.

All five of the musicians deserve top honors for this feat, but I suppose, to start at the top: Geoff Tate. There is a reason this man built a legacy which brought him in firing range of legends like a Halford or Dickinson. Some consider the guy the greatest vocalist in the field, and you're listening to exactly why. His timbre is impeccable. His range, perhaps not limitless, but so fully utilized that he's the equivalent of a living siren. Had the sailors of antiquity heard this voice through the maritime mists, and changed course to find a naked, German-born man calling them to their deaths from a rocky outcropping, they would have questioned their own sexuality before hull breach and drowning. Higher pitched, inspirational and unforgettable pre-chorus and chorus sequences litter this record like lemmings a cliff-side, and he structures every individual line with skill and quality. Where he hits those highs in "Speak", or "Revolution Calling", or the eternally pleasing chorus to "Eyes of a Stranger", all 6'2", 220 lbs of burly, bald-headed, linebacker-like, (nearly) middle-aged me wants to break down into tears; partly because of the sheer level of emotion inherent in the melodies, and partly because I know I could never sing that beautifully in my entire life, with or without computerized assistance...Tate even excels when it comes to adding a playful or maniacal component to the verses, and his lower range is cautionary, moody and eloquent where it appears.

Yet the chords, leads, and rhythm section support his crystalline delivery brick by brick. DeGarmo and Wilton weave the sorts of gracious, burning melodies over the lattice of backing guitars that I so loved about a song like the Scorpions' "No One Like You". I must have spent hours in my formative years with the instrument scratching out the chorus melody to "The Mission", or the Maiden-esque, opening volley of "Speak" which is probably better than anything those same Brits wrote at their own peak. But the MVP award here might go to the rhythm guitars, which are muscular and spacious, whether chugging or hanging on an open chord. DeGarmo earned a paycheck for the next century with these riffs. If I were to dissect all of the album's central songs, or even "Anarchy-X" measure for measure, remove the drums and bass, the beautiful vocals, the subtle but effective synthesizers, each of the guitar progressions would be enjoyable by its lonesome. That proves just how well-composed this is, and in fact I can barely understand how they were able to arrive at such impressive riffs and vocal lines individually, both so glorious in tandem. The leads, too, are all wonderful, though they've got their work cut out for them to even ATTEMPT to live up to the other riffs and choruses that lead into them.

Jackson and Rockenfield should not evade mention, either, for while the ears might remain affixed to Tate and the guitar harmonies throughout Mindcrime, their steady pummeling is part of the appeal. Jackson's tone is punchy and plodding, especially for a lot of the mid-paced numbers where he's repeated such simple note sequences below the workmanlike gait of the guitars (reference "Breaking the Silence" or "I Don't Believe in Love" for a prime example). Rockenfield doesn't overdo anything here, as usual he gives a mightier than typical approximation of the standard rock beat, but he earns his signature steel cage, and those snare hits really drive home the emotional wait of each mournful chord sequence and palm muted mugging. Nothing too technical, which would feel arbitrary in the universal grasp of these songs, but it sounds like it must have been quite fun to lay these out. James Barton and the rest of the engineers did a knockout job of fusing the varied elements together, none ever too loud that they drown out another, despite the 80s proclivity for setting the vocals so high in the mix. Like the satisfaction of finishing a puzzle, everything seems to snap into place, even the less pronounced components like airy synthesizers and the vocal acting used for the intros/interludes. I still have my original CD copy, and it sounds unbelievable cranked up.

In terms of individual songs, there are no personal favorites, or to be more accurate, they are ALL favorites. I could not choose one over another, since the consistency of quality is omnipresent. Even comparing two of the most 'contrasted' neighbors on the playlist, the 11 minute epic "Suite Sister Mary" with its ominous, operatic choirs, overcast clean guitars, and varied, almost frightening arrangement; to the succinct power metal pummeling of "The Needle Lies", there is no lapse in fulfillment. I suppose the songs that were made singles are sensible, like the soul searing, climactic finale "Eyes of a Stranger" or the hard rock pleaser "I Don't Believe in Love", but even the more unsung entities "Spreading the Disease" and "Breaking the Silence" are better than anything most bands ever concoct in their entire careers. Lyrically, while the album serves to follow its character perspectives with a blue-collar rage, its perfectly cast to the music, and there are a number of unforgettable phrases throughout. 'Twenty-five bucks a fuck and John's a happy man', 'People always turn away from the eyes of a stranger', all great stuff that most of us can relate to.

Like any masterpiece, there will be opposition to a record like this. Hell, even the most recognized chefs attract roaches to their kitchens. Crunch. Operation: Mindcrime is an indisputable, indispensible cornerstone of the progressive/power metal field, even if most bands in this niche seem to take more direct cues from the wonkier Rush-like expressions of an act like Dream Theater. It might not be jammy or improvisational, or as nerdy sounding as Rage for Order, but it was blessed with an accessible edge that somehow managed to blow the lid off the band's potential audience, while not insulting the more underground sensibilities of the serious metal fan. It 'speaks to all of us', if you'll pardon the phrase. While its far from the first rock concept album (the 60s and 70s had some pretty heady stuff), or even the best of its type in 1988 (Voivod's Dimension Hatröss was more interesting, if not musically superior), it set the bar for many to follow it. In fact, it set that goal so high that its own creators have failed to match it since, even with the greater mainstream success of its follow-up Empire. That's the one 'down side' to Mindcrime. It won't happen again. Perhaps the album's narrative saga is not the most brilliant of ideas, but the music didn't get that memo.

Oh, and as for my teary-eyed confession above, well... I never wrote that. Never happened. Forget it. I'm sending someone over. I've got a job for you. Time to make something of yourself. Take this number and welcome to: da-neh-na-neeeeh.

Verdict: Epic Nun [10/10] (we've got so much to do)

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