"A generation which ignores history has no past and no future." Robert Heinlein
By Sam Graham
In my experience there’s two ways a concept album can go: supremely uphill or monumentally downhill. There doesn’t seem to be any middle-ground. While I don’t fully understand the reasoning behind making one, they seem to be popular enough. Maybe I see things to linearly, but to make an album that tells a story, it’s bound to be pretty vague, because isn’t the music their product? Shouldn’t the music take president? Saying that though, Peter and the Wolf (1936) is a story-telling piece of music and that was around long before heavy metal. I suppose anything’s possible. Music tells a story in the same way that a picture tells a thousand words.
Operation: Mindcrime (1988) is the third album by Bellevue-based prog-metallers, Queensryche. The story it tells has a similar anti-establishment message as Genesis’ Land of Confusion (1986) with a neo-noir setting popularised by writers like James Ellroy and to the lesser extent, Philip K. Dick. I won’t delve too much into the story, suffice to say that it starts out in a nut-house, like most of H.P Lovecraft’s catalogue, and tells the story of a kid who becomes a drugged-up assassin working against his will against the government. He meets an ex-whore-turned-nun and decides to escape. It all goes wrong, she gets killed, then he gets busted and blamed for it.
On to the album.
The first thing I notice about Operation: Mindcrime is that the first track, entitled I Remember Now is not a song at all, but rather the prologue to the story. The actual music begins on the following, Anarchy-X. If this wasn’t a concept album, this is where it would have started. Because of the bassline, played by Eddie Jackson, it sounds somewhat similar to Burn (1994) by The Cure. You’ll know that as that song off The Crow (1994). It’s a short instrumental that has some rallied chanting in the background to help cement the story’s message of a dystopian world. This song is like the opening credits to the album and features some Bill & Ted-esque harmonies from both axe-men Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton towards the end.
After that comes the first actual song, Revolution Calling. It has a soft intro that you can just tell is building up to something cool. The payoff is worth it, as the intro solo is all you could expect from this era of heavy metal (late 80’s). Geoff Tate comes in on vocals and he sounds somewhat like a cross between Rob Halford of Judas Priest and Matt Barlow, formerly of Iced Earth. The song is about, you guessed it, an oncoming revolution, and it’s the combination of rhythm guitar and vocals that carry this song, instead of it being one or the other. For me, guitars carry the verses but Tate dominates in the chorus’. It’s only the title of the song repeated, but the way it stays the same pitch as the background goes up the scale works incredibly well. It gets better in the second chorus when the music stops and he goes it alone for a line. The solo is short for a prog band, but enjoyable. To be honest, the rest of this song is so good that this solo gets eclipsed, but in a way that it doesn’t feel bad. And for someone who admittedly lives and swears by guitar solos, that’s saying something about how good this song is.
The lyrics to this song do make me chuckle, especially the one just before the chorus: “Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook”. It tickles my inner class-warrior.
The best song on this album (although it was a tough toss-up between this and Revolution Calling) comes next. Operation: Mindcrime starts with some more story before coming in with a bending riff that’s difficult to ignore. It’s the simplicity makes it good. Unlike the previous song, Geoff Tate holds this song solely in the palm of his sweaty hand. Like the previous, the chorus is the main selling-point. It’s been stuck in my head for days now. The solo starts off a bit Twisted Sister-ish, then becomes a bit Judas Priest-y: starting off slow and rhythmical, then becoming a more technical version of itself, before plunging back into the verses. Operation: Mindcrime ends on a high note that is the chorus and some sounds of crowds chanting.
Speak has the strongest opening so far. It’s fast and- and I hate to keep comparing them- very 80’sJudas Priest. The guitars even have a similar tone and drum beat is something they’d do too (drums provided by Scott Rockenfield). So far it’s the fastest-paced on the album and I suppose could be somewhat of a headbanger. There’s heavier songs and there’s lighter songs; this one is somewhere in the middle. The key change in the interlude is my favourite part. The lyrics here are like a conversation with any conspiracy-nutcase: it drops the word ‘corporation’ pretty quickly, then talks about ‘controlled media’ and ‘fascists’. Like I say, a chat with your typical shut-in that doesn’t understand consumer capitalism. At least nobody mentioned the Mayans or a one world government, or this album review would have been a lot shorter, and would have resembled the review to Spinal Tap’s album Shark Sandwich. The solo is so far the best on the album. It’s the longest so far and is painfully 80’s. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s just what I like.
After that comes Spreading the Disease. It begins slowly, then follows the same motions as Speak. There’s a funny moment in the first pre-chorus where Tate mentions that the girl this song is about only charges “twenty-five bucks a f**k”. My first thought was this: Taking exchange rates into account, that’s much cheaper that Charlotte the Harlot. Well, as they say, you get what you pay for.
Suite Sister Mary is the longest song on the album, at a whopping 10:40. Perhaps it’s because it’s the turning point in the album’s story, they figured it needs more time for development. I hope that’s why anyways. It makes sense. It’s about the protagonist being sent to kill his nun/ex-whore friend by his clandestine employer. Naturally he relents and decides to do a bunk with her. This song is the most ‘story’ one of the album, and the rest of the band play the role of atmosphere for a large portion. After about three minutes it becomes a song and basically beefs up the distortion while playing the same thing. After that it reverts back to being atmosphere for a long while. I have to say, I didn’t like this song. I found it to be pretty boring and for what it was about, too long. It feels too stretched and on the back end of great songs like the ones before it, it’s too drastic a change for me.
The next song is called The Needle Lies and starts with a drum beat that sounds a lot like Walking on Sunshine (1983) by Katrina and the Waves. This song is such a welcome change, coming off the back of the long and droll Suite Sister Mary. It’s fast, cool, flashy and has everything that it should have. As far as I can discern, the lyrics are about the protagonist wanting out of his contract, and his boss basically telling him where he can go shove that notion. The chorus has some power-metal elements to it and the solo is a belter. It’s these kinds of guitar solos I wish I could write. It’s a perfect blend of flashiness and rhythm, and the way it comes off the back of Tate’s scream works effortlessly well. Everything about this song dwarfs the one before it.
Breaking the Silence. While a fairly generic song title, much like Into The Fire, My World, or The Power of Love, because there’s just so many, it’s got the best intro on the album. It reminds me of Youthaniasia (1994) era Megadeth for its warmth and simplicity, but the ability to maintain heaviness. The song is a sort of lament for the hard-not-to-see-coming demise of Sister Mary. This song is not however, soppy in any way. It has a similar kind of feeling as I Died for You from Iced Earth’s concept album, The Dark Saga (1996), which was about the tribulations and unlife of my favourite comic character, Spawn. Towards the end of this song it becomes a bit ‘stadium’ with the chorus repeating until the end, holding long vocal notes over an outro solo. It’s very cool.
The next song carries on the exact same vibe. I Don’t believe in Love is like the second half of the same long chapter. Musically, it’s a bit more rock ballad and the chorus actually reminds me of something Dio would do. All in all, it’s not as strong as the one before it, but still a good song. Listen to it on its own and it will sound stronger.
We’re coming up to the end of the album now and after the two impressively short tracks, Waiting for 22 and My Empty Room, about the protagonist being incarcerated, comes the final song: Eyes of a Stranger. This song has the right amount of build-up that a good last song should have. It has the soft edge to it, but enough balls to show that it’s not just filler. It’s like the cool down after the exercise: you’re definitely better off with it than without it. If I had to compare it to another song I’d compare it to A Touch of Evil by Judas Priest. The guitar solo is especially like the one played byGlenn Tipton and the song fades out on the chorus before ending the story where it began, in the nut house, thinking back about what’s happened. The rhythm is brilliant, the vocals are brilliant, the harmonies are brilliant, and it fades to a close very nicely.
If Operation: Mindcrime has any flaws it would be in that I don’t like the way the story sometimes overpowers the music. I don’t hate concept albums; Dark Saga and Nostradamus (2008) by Priest are two of my most frequently listened to, I just think that there should be an equal balance. I like the story the album tells; I really like it. It puts me in mind of Blade Runner and Dark City(1998), with elements of the kind of realistic grit films like Harry Brown (2009) have and keeps that atmosphere really well, but on the whole, I tend to listen to music for the music. I think Operation: Mindcrime would make a cracking film that Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, Texas Killing Fields) would be perfect for directing.
Has it stood the test of time?
It is still Queensryche’s most popular album to date and when it was released on May 3rd, 1988, it became a commercial and critical success. In ‘89 Kerrang rated it in the mid 30’s of their ‘greatest metal albums of all time’ and still makes it onto lists like that to this day. Operation: Mindcrime was rereleased in 2003 and yet again in 2006, such is its lasting popularity. It was about this time (2006) that Queensryche made a sequel, entitled Operation: Mindcrime 2. It follows the story of the same protagonist, now out of incarceration and out for revenge against his former employer. Like its predecessor, it became a success for the band.
In fact, the album's lasting success is the reason I am reviewing it. Since Denim & Leather Remembers began, we’ve been getting messages requesting this album. I’d never heard it at that point, so my apologies, but it’s taken me some time to listen to the band in order to make an honest and fair assumption.
Today, Queensryche are still together with Tate, Rockenfield, Wilton and Eddie Jackson still in the band. Guitarist on ‘Mindcrime, DeGarmo, departed in 1998 and is now a professional pilot, although he came back for a spot in 2003.
All in all, this album has stood the test of time. It was Queensryche’s most popular album then, and is their most popular album now. It doesn’t sound dated, especially now since there’s been a couple of rereleases and one could argue that its anti-establishment message is all the more prevalent nowadays. I can’t speak for American politics (because I barely understand our own), but the way I see it, people have always been s**t on by the government. Hey, you voted for them.
Devil-Horn Rating (Out of Five): \m/ \m/ \m/ \n