Music Over 40: Operation: Mindcrime, Queensryche's finest hour
A look back at a progressive metal masterpiece
The year is 1988, the last year of the Reagan era. Hair metal is in full swing and the popular music flavor is all about sex, booze, drugs, fun and rock and roll. Thrash metal is growing, but not quite yet in the public eye. Hip hop is emerging out New York and Los Angeles. Alternative rock is starting to brew in places like Minneapolis and Seattle. Punk is dead. Arena Rock and Synth pop are no longer in vogue.
Enter a quintet from Seattle named Queensryche. All they did was spin a tell of deception, religious and government corruption, mind control, assassination and regret. And, oh what a tale it is.
Queensryche had been gaining ground in the hard rock world with a style reminiscent of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Lots of twin guitars, double bass drums and the multi octave pipes of one Geoff Tate all hit home with hard rock fans. They already had an EP and two full length releases under their belt and some buzz to go with it.
Operation:Mindcrime would be a sonic leap forward. Lead by the songwriting talents of the aforementioned Tate with guitarists Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton they peeled back the veneer of the era, and revelaed all was not well. The stock market crashed in October of 1987. Scandals abounded in the the government. Television evangelists and politicians were being caught en masse with persons other than their spouses. The Russians were still the enemy, and one to be feared.
Starting with a internal dialogue, we see the stories protagonist becoming aware in a hospital and realizing he has been manipulated into doing some terrible things. The refrain "I just remember doing what they told me", repeats and fades out into the rumbling instrumental intro Anarchy X. Hammering guitars and the pounding rhythm section of Eddie Jackson on bass and Scott Rockenfeld on drums carry the proceedings into Revolution Calling. This songs sets the tone with its images of religious philandering, communist fear mongering, crooked politicians and media manipulation. Starting with a blistering twin guitar lead and a killer low end, Tate shrieks out the first of many heavy yet hooky choruses. This song is also a first introduction to the mysterious Doctor X, the man behind the curtain.
The title track follows starts with a phone call and the single syllable "Mindcrime". This is the trigger that sets the protagonist, Nikki, on his path of destruction. A heavy riff starts with a heavy bass underpinning the works. Essentially this is the point where Nikki is put under Dr X's spell with an combination of drugs and propaganda. The bass dances throughout the verses while the drums crash and pound. An echo drenched solo ensues and the frenzy ends with prophetic lines "There's a job for you in the system boy, with nothing to sign". The next track, Speak, is the best metal riff on the album. This high tempo burner reveals Nikki's observations of a corrupt leadership and his plans for bringing them down is fast paced, melodic and effective. The memorable chorus is one of the best of the album. Spreading the Disease follows with a tribal drum intro and a searing lead. Nikki sinks deeper into addiction and paranoia, but now has the enigmatic Sister Mary by his side. Rockenfeld's drums really stand out on this track. Tate gets up into the ether for the chorus and the whole vibe is quite sinister. Another diatribe against the power of the rich vs the needs of the poor, the building anger in Nikki comes through loud and clear.
Mission is a bit of slowdown, the only real dead spot on the album. Chiming guitars over a heavy keyboard bed, the song shows the delusion Nikki is under as he repeats the phrase "My mission saved the world". The ten minute epic Suite Sister Mary more than makes up for it. Dr X has Nikki dispose of a priest and Mary, his only friend. Like a heavy metal Pink Floyd, the song sweeps through soft passages and heavy crescendos. Spoken word segments in the background sweep behind call and response vocal sections. Michael Kamen (of Metallica S&M Fame) scores the effective orchestral arrangements on this one. All of this with the backing of a choir that seems to border on the verge of madness, anger, sorrow and confusion. The song is almost hypnotic in its effects and is a kaleidoscope of emotion and range. The realization about the things he has done, and the drugs they been using to control him all spills over in The Needle Lies. Introduced by Nikki yelling "I've had enough and I want out" to which Dr X replies "You cant walk away now" is set into motion with a frenetic drum figure. This one hits hard and direct. Aggressive guitars all over this one as well as some great bass and a killer riff that precedes all the verses, this is one of the heavier offerings on the album.
The creepy Electric Requiem instrumental follows with some eerie guitars and keyboards. Breaking the Silence, one of the more popular radio tracks, comes in with one of strongest hooks on the album. Twin guitars abound as Rockenfeld really works the high hat over an effective bass line. A great chorus with Tate and backing vocals leads into trade off solos of Maiden vintage. MTV favorite I Don't Believe In Love follows with another anthemic chorus and is probably the most recognizable song on the album. Tinged with regret the song opens with a big guitar hook and eases into some cruising bass and some climbing guitar chimes into the shout along chorus. Nikki mourns over the loss of his beloved Mary at his own hand and knows the end is near for him.
The harsh instrumental Waiting for 22 strikes an accusing tone and drops right into the lament of In My Room. What starts off as a vocal with heartfelt sorrow morphs into screaming rant of a madman. This seques into the show stopping, Eyes Of A Stranger. One of Queensryche's finest moments is a catharsis for Nikki, as he lays in a hospital bed alone with the memories of who he is and what he has done. The effects laden intro gains steam with a steady rhythmic pulse breaking into a monster riff that grabs hold and does not let go. This song really shows Tates range as he goes from low to high effortlessly. The outro is a sound collage of effects, voices and snippets from earlier in the record which ends with resounding swoosh and the eerie sound of Nikki saying "I Remember Now".
The album appears to owe at least some debt to Dark Side of the Moon with some of the structures and use of sound effects. This is very cohesive piece. It has a real nice low end, which is something a lot of eighties metal lacked. This signaled the beginning of the rise to popularity which culminated with the release of Empire in 1990. Many of the hallmarks of that album are here. The rumbling bass, the heavy drum sound, the twin guitars, the vocal range.
What I find most striking is the world being described in 1988 by the band is very similar to world as it stood in 2008. Politicians mired in scandal, an economy on the brink, religious scandal and shame and a widening gap between haves and have nots are all applicable.
This piece is 60 minutes and well worth the time. Grab the headphones and try to go for it in one sitting for maximum effect. Enjoy!