This time, I will be listening to Operation:Mindcrime by Queensryche, one of the most famous and well respected albums in the traditional progressive metal subgenre. Operation:Mindcrime is an hour long concept album, is a multi-platinum seller and was released in 1988, the year that I was born.
It is one of those albums (well, if it wasn’t it wouldn’t be covered in this series of articles) that you always see in lists of best ever albums. Its in most publication’s top 1000 rock and metal releases at a minimum. The linear notes of the copy I picked up made mention of the fact that everyone who likes metal has usually heard of Operation:Mindcrime even if they don’t know any Queensrÿche material whatsoever, such is its reputation.
I am one of those people mentioned, I’ve known about this album for years and years, but before today I couldn’t tell you anything about the band at all, I didn’t know the member’s names, didn’t know if they had ever made any albums that weren’t Operation:Mindcrime 1&2 (I do remember seeing that there was an Operation:Mindcrime 2 on the internet before now) and I have never heard any of the songs from any of their other releases in my whole life.
While belonging to the Classic Prog-Metal subgenre like Dream Theatre (who I had also made a First Impressions article about), Queensrÿche are a lot more similar to my existing tastes. I like Progressive Rock a lot and I love Metal so it would make sense for me to enjoy Progressive Metal, but there was a overall brightness and ‘sheen’ on the Dream Theatre album that was a little off-putting to me.
Operation:Mindcrime is free from such a sheen, by and large. Occasionally things can be a bit shimmery and over commercial, but for the most part they suit my pallet in the same way that very early Overkill and Anthrax does, as well as most of Anvil’s music.
The type of metal that the band play is very much in the Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne vein. ‘Speak’ and ‘The Needle Lies’ for example have a Powerslave or Hell Bent For Leather feel to it in parts, just brilliant and perfectly formed 1980s metal.… not heavy enough to be called Thrash but not light and overproduced enough to be called Hair Metal either, even if it does sit on the border and share a few sonic similarities with Skid Row’s debut. Sometimes it can be a bit cheesy and feel a little like Ozzy’s ‘Shot In The Dark’ but for the most part it is just plain enjoyable regardless of what it sounds like.
Another band that Operation:Mindcrime brings to mind is Canada’s Annihilator, especially the more commercial side of their second and third albums Never Neverland and Set The World On Fire. Part of this is to do with the production, part of it is to do with virtuoso guitar skills and part of it is to due to occasional vocal similarities.
Speaking of the vocals; singer Geoff Tate, (much like Dream Theatre’s James LaBrie now that I think about it) seems to be influenced quiet heavily by Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Rush’s Geddy Lee but carries it off much better in my opinion. It also helps that I am a huge fan of Rob Halford, because Geoff’s vocals on ‘Suit Sister Mary’ are almost indistinguishable from those of Rob Halford, so good is his performance.
When I think of Operation:Mindcrime, I can’t help but compare it to the Dream Theatre album for which I also made a First Impressions article; Metropolis 2: Scenes From A Memory. Apart from the actual tone of the metal, which I feel is the most crucial and defining point on which a metal album can be considered good or not, both of these progressive albums are actually pretty similar.
Both releases are a concept album; specifically both are written in the rock opera style that delivers a continuous narrative with lyrics based on the character’s experiences where every track is a piece of the story.
Furthermore, both albums have an intro and occasional voice-overs with someone talking to set the mood. Both display clear influences from Rush and Pink Floyd, (although I’ll admit with Queensrÿche, the Floyd inspiration is more apparent structurally than musically, with the exception of the intro to ‘Eyes Of A Stranger’ sounding a lot like Floyd’s ‘Empty Spaces.’) Probably most importantly though, both have high-pitched vocals, aren’t that heavy and feature a lot of technically impressive guitar solos.
One clear difference between the two is in the implementation of Keyboards. Keyboards on Operation:Mindcrime are like Keyboards on a Dio album, just there to add colour and grandiosity to what is already down, a supplementary instrument only. Dream Theatre’s keyboards are more like the keys on a Deep Purple or ELP record, every bit as important as vocals or guitar, a full-on lead instrument. This is not a negative thing in Dream Theatre’s case however, I prefer the lead instrument version of Keyboards much more in most circumstances. Its just a noticeable difference between ‘Mindcrime and Metropolis.’
Where Operation:Mindcrime really differs from Metropolis 2: Scenes From A Memory however is that there isn’t anything that seems out of place. Everything on the album feels authentic to the year it was released, there are no specific key sounds which wouldn’t normally be heard on a 1988 metal album, no out of place ELP style hootenanny shoehorned in where it doesn’t really fit and no overly sweet ballad amid the progressive metal. Its polished perfect and doesn’t require an editor to separate the good from the unnecessary.
I guess I’d have to say Operation:Mindcrime is just a lot more tasteful than most progressive music. It feels to me like a one of the best implementations of what I like about progressive music, just added to good old-fashioned metal. Firstly, Queensrÿche didn’t just mix a bunch of prog moments and a bunch of metal moments, they just applied the the creativity and scope of prog to their metal album. Secondly, The prog never gets in the way of the album, it only enhances what is already good about it. There is nothing that spoils a song just to be weird or different.
The best way I can think to explain what I mean is by pointing out two examples of when things aren’t done right, because being tasteful and considerate to the listener is like being the editor on a film, you notice it done badly more than you notice it done well.
First example; The Mars Volta. The Mars Volta are one of my favourite bands, but sometimes their decisions can make it unnecessarily difficult for the listener, such as on the track ‘Frances The Mute.’ That track was not included on the album which it shares its title with, but is integral for the understanding of any of the plot of the story that album tells. The song is also arguably the best thing they’ve ever done, but only begins after four minutes of annoying sound effects and breaks down into a mess in the middle. It is poetic and amazing, and perfect for delivering the atmosphere and style of the narrative and the very music itself is a metaphor for what is happening in the abortion-intrigue storyline…. but it is an absolute assault on the senses that totally gets in the way of some of the best music the band ever written.
Second Example; Jethro Tull made one of the best albums in the world in 1972. It was called Thick As A Brick and it was a concept album, but it was a satire of concept albums and so even though it is one of the best albums ever, it breaks into an unnecessary rubbish bit at around the 24 minutes in to highlight excesses in concept albums, but this intentionally self indulgent bit that intentionally gets in the way of the music still does get in the way of the music. Its like a scene in a television comedy show where the characters mock shows with bad jokes (usually from the 50s or 80s) by just making bad jokes themselves, but that just means the audience have to hear a bunch of bad jokes instead of using that time to just be good. If this part was removed the album wouldn’t be such an effective satire, but it would be a flawless album with no bad parts.
Operation:Mindcrime doesn’t indulge in anything unnecessary like that, and for that I am both glad and impressed. That being said it wouldn’t matter all that much on an album that was already crap. Luckily Operation:Mindcrime isn’t just a good concept album, it is a good album period. The whole thing just feels like a classic album, it has a definite and pronounced x factor. When I first heard Jethro Tull’s Aqualung I had no idea that it was such a big deal but I could instantly tell just by hearing it that it was something special, it felt important. Operation:Mindcrime shares this vibe, I know it is difficult to tell, but it does feel as though if you had never heard anything about it before, that you could still tell it was considered a classic album right away.
So overall my first impression was pretty glowing; it turns out that Operation:Mindcrime is a very good album and I liked it a whole lot. I can tell that I am going to be listening to it from now on, this is definitely staying in my collection.