Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Operation: Mindcrime - Queensryche

Provenance: A bit murky. There's a good chance that the consensus amongst my secondary school muso friends was that Operation: Mindcrime was a Very Good Album™, and purchasing this would make me a pretty hip dude indeed. Another possibility was that the uncle of my friend Chris recommended it to me. He knew his metal, and thus had Good Opinions™.

Either way, Operation: Mindcrime became a bit of a touchstone for the tight-knit group of friends I was part of that attended gigs and European music festivals together. We enjoyed referencing it with a certain ironic relish, especially the moment at the beginning of 'Anarchy-X' where a guy answers the phone and is met with a bitchin' guitar riff. The phrase 'mindcrime' became our shorthand for any unappealing or bad situation.

At our first Sweden Rock Festival we wandered around our designated campsite looking for a place to pitch our tents. We thought we'd found a decent spot next to the perimeter fence and were about to stake our claim when the riff from 'Anarchy-X' piped up from a nearby boombox. We took this to be a bad omen and moved on. It was the best decision we made all weekend too (aside from trying elk kebabs), as we finally broke ground near two Swedish girls who we became friendly with. To this day I am still in touch with the beautiful, charming and extremely funny Camilla. Mycket bra!

Turns out we dodged a bullet as spot near the perimeter fence was adjacent to the biker field. The bikers spent the entire time listening to the worst fucking Eurobeat whilst hopped up on speed.

Review: Operation: Mindcrime is a prog-metal concept album. I'm not really sure what it's about. There's a guy who seems pissed off with the world being all fake and shit, which is great for religious cult leader Dr. X as he recruits and brainwashes this guy into becoming an assassin (cool). There's also a nun in the employ of Dr. X (Sister Mary, who used to be a prostitute of course) and the story hinges on the brainwashed guy and the nun getting too close. Dr. X uses his mind magic and this chap kills Sister Mary...or does he? That's about where it stops making sense to me. He's in hospital at the start of the album and the best song is about how he can't remember anything, so I assume the action occurs in flashback.

I genuinely don't think I'm too far off with the jibber-jabber I wrote in the preceding paragraph, and based on that alone Mindcrime should be terrible. In the interests of fairness, perfectly serviceable thrillers have been written on flimsier premises, but concept albums do seem to have to live up to some never-articulated higher ideal. You can come up with any old bobbins for a cinematic presentation and the greybeards will still take it seriously (i.e. classic Alfred Hitchcock), but dare to set it to rock! music! and you run the risk of being called pretentious, ridiculous or worse.

Anyway, it's all academic because Mindcrime really is a very fine metal album. Without any kind of unifying narrative arc the songs all stand up to scrutiny. However, in this instance, the knotty and overwrought storyline does give the album a definite propulsive force, to the extent where I wouldn't want to listen to any of the songs in isolation.

Alongside the strong concept, two other things push Mindcrime into the upper echelons of progressive metal releases. The first is the fine-tooled songwriting, which never sacrifices a keen ear for a hook in the name of technical ecstasy. From front to back Mindcrime is sleek and accessible, replete with pomp and grandeur but retaining an almost pop sensibility. Thus the likes of 'Operation: Mindcrime', 'I Don't Believe In Love', 'Breaking The Silence' and 'Eyes Of A Stranger' have huge stadium-satisfying choruses.

The second quantity of Geoff Tate's preternatural vocal ability. His voice is simply perfect for the material, and in the metal genre perhaps bettered only by that of Rob Halford (and really, there's a cigarette paper between the two). And whilst I've praised the songwriting, the music is truly brought to life when coupled with Tate's vocals - his extraordinary pipes makes that chorus in 'Eyes Of A Stranger' soar. The only real blot on the copybook comes near the conclusion of 'Suite Sister Mary' at which point the band opt for the dusty ol' device of creepy Latin chanting to signify threat or menace of a religious nature. Sanctus! Dominus! 

It's a shame, then, that Tate turned out to be such a strange and unpalatable character. As with many bands of their era the passage of time saw Queensryche's fortunes steadily diminish, but thanks to Tate's antics there was - for a while - the assuredly unsustainable situation of not one but two Queensryches existing in this universe alone (and who can say how many in a multiverse?). Meanwhile, his questionable sartorial tastes led to the commentariat of Blabbermouth to dub him 'Uncle Vester'.

At least his winery seems to be doing well.

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