Considering I’ve really had over a month to listen to this (don’t ask how), you’d think I would have written something about it by now. After all, Operation:Mindcrime, part the first (henceforth OM1), may be my favorite album of all time. So you would think I’d be quick to jump on the sequel for good or bad. Perhaps I wanted to wait until I bought the official release to see if they redid or added anything (they didn’t, as far as I can tell). Maybe I was reluctant to put down my thoughts on this – to me – momentous event, to figure out what I really think about it. But in the end, it’s a good thing. Although I often read online reviews of albums, I decry the instant review process. I think that it is nearly impossible to get a good opinion of a new release after just a couple of listens, especially after just one. Often, the closer you are to the music or the artist, the more this is true. If you put Eminem’s new CD on for me, I would howl insults at you after the first faux-macho sneer. But I’ve been a Queensryche fan for more than twenty years, and more loyal than most. I’ve given them breaks left and right through the beginning of their decline with Promised Land, their reviled step into softer, melodic art-rock in Hear in the Now Frontier, the slightly heavier but even less-inspired Q2K, the better-but-not-quite-there Tribe, and the numerous in-between live and greatest hits offerings. As a matter of fact, I love all of their studio albums. Some are better than others, but they are all different.
Queensryche’s debut EP was fairly straight-forward 80’s metal with hints of their progressive potential. Their debut LP The Warning was an explosive, intelligent work, heavy and thoughtful in places, with cheesy sci-fi and glorious fantasy themes fitting perfectly (note “NM 156” and “Take Hold of the Flame”). Rage for Order showed them succumbing to the image-whores, painted and big-haired up to look like some gothic, new-wave-prog-metal hybrid horrors, and fans like me didn’t know what to think. But after a few listens, the album showed its true glory, image be damned to the hells of Motley Crue. “Neue Regel” and “Screaming in Digital” were and are mind-blowing works which make me sing (or howl, some would say) in enjoyment and wonder to this day.
And then came OM1. I remember discussing it with my friend at the time. A concept album? Oh, gods, no! This spelled the ruin of the band’s career for sure! I don’t remember how long it took me to realize how unbelievable the album was, but damned if it wasn’t brutal, honest, skilled, nuanced, atmospheric, raging, experimental, and introspective all at the same time. I fell in love with it, as did maybe millions of other teenage boys across the nation and world, all somehow identifying with Nikki, the tormented and self-tormenting protagonist. Beneath all of the drug addiction, revolution, mind control, yearning, and angst, after all, he was a rebel, and we were feeling rebellious. It was an outlet, a hip, fun, and rocking catharsis. Every once in a while I sit down to revisit it and am amazed once again. How many works of art can do that – amaze you through the years? Isn’t that the definition of a masterpiece?
Then, capitalizing on the critical laudation and a successful tour, Queensryche did exactly the right thing – commercially, at least – and released Empire. How I would have loved to hate that album, with its commercial appeal, spotless production, melodic hooks, and neo-prog-rock-balladry. But, Goddamnit, it was GOOD! The musicianship was not quite as experimental and aggressive as OM1, but it was still first-class, and Tate’s singing was even better and full of range and emotion, if that was possible. The album sold so much that to this day, even I am still sick of “Empire” and “Silent Lucidity”, but the rest of it I still enjoy shamelessly.
Then followed the wane in their careers, popularity, and possibly talent, with the decline of metal, rise and fall of grunge, the rise and persistence of “Alternative Rock” (I’m still not sure what that means), and the eventual departure of DeGarmo, the band’s main and best songwriter. But I stuck with them, loved their works, saw them play three more times, and they did not disappoint.
When I first heard early in 2005 that Tate was planning a sequel to OM1, I probably reacted like many long-time fans. Oh no! Oh Crom, leave it alone! And then: Holy shit, a sequel, wonder what that will be like! I can’t wait! So I expected the worst. And I have been disappointed. That is to say, my expectations were not met. OM2 is a good, maybe a great album. The burning question, is it as good as the first one? Well, of course not. But times are different, we are older, and it is not the same theme or subject. Same characters, yes, but it is less urgent, more crafted. Geoff Tate, now in his mid-to-late forties, has not lost much as a singer. Maybe nothing at all, because he does a phenomenal job, and still ranks with my other favorites, Dickinson, Alder, Arch, Dio, and Eric Adams. The guitar work is inspired and skillful, but I’m not sure I would say “effortless.” I wasn’t that sure about Mike Stone in concert, although he performed decently, but he seems to have found a rapport with Wilton. Jackson and Rockenfield do their job well, especially Rockenfield, whom I’ve always thought of as a first class rock/metal drummer. Not quite in the caliber of Portnoy and Zonder, but nearly there. OM2 is heavier than anything since Promised Land, maybe since Empire, but there are definitely songs that hearken back to Hear and Q2k.
I’ll try to give a brief impression of the songs, because I could probably go on forever about this band. “Freiheit Ouverture”, the intro, is not the metal attack of “Anarchy-X”, but it builds up nicely. “I’m American” is a good start, with a nice, chugging riff and Geoff’s lyrics celebrating and mocking our nation and mindsets. He tries to insert commentary on the current political situation while leaving it open to be as timeless as OM1, like “You want what they’re selling – another television war?” And although it might be a bit transparent, I was singing along in no time. “One Foot In Hell” has a nice low groove, and “Hostage”, maybe the best of the album, has hooks worthy of Empire. “The Hands” starts with a tasteful, minimalist tribute to an OM1 riff (was it “The Mission”?), although I can’t understand why they chose this as a single over “Hostage”. “Speed of Light” sounds like it was ripped right from the Hear in the Now Frontier sessions, but it has an interesting end with a gritty, devolving guitar and what sounds like cowbells! Pamela Moore, the woman who sung the part of Mary in OM1, shows up here for the first time. “Signs Say Go” is a frenzied rocker that fits well, and “Re-Arrange You” has a nice, mysterious keyboard line, chugging riffs in the right places, and great drumming from Rockenfield. “The Chase” is the long-awaited duet with Ronnie James Dio – and it’s good, but not mind-blowing, and too short. The vocal arrangement gets a little muddled and overcomplicated, but it’s a joy to hear these two in the same song. “Murderer?” is presumably where the long-suffering Nikki takes out Dr. X, but Tate leaves the ending purposefully ambiguous. “Circles”, a Mars Volta-ish interlude, along the lines of “Waiting for 22”, I found annoying. “If I Could Change It All” and “An Intentional Confrontation” feature Pamela Moore, in all her glory, far more than OM1 did. She has a great voice, no doubt, but she doesn’t fit as seamlessly here as in OM1, where you hardly noticed she was there – she sounded like an extension of Tate. “A Junkie’s Blues” has a nice, dirty, grooving intro, which then morphs into Empire-like cleanliness. I really dig “Fear City Slide”, with emoting from Tate, a catchy chorus and guitar lines. The closer “”All the Promises”, unfortunately, is an anti-climax that drips cheese in its “oh we were so in love” themes. “When you said you loved me it made me feel like I could fly.” Aaargh, that’s painful. Not only is there no resolution, there is no indication of what really is happening with Nikki, besides having a discussion with Mary’s ghost. Is he dead? Insane? Married with three kids in a house with a two-car garage and bonus room? I tend to like narratives that are not resolved and wrapped up cleanly and handed to the unquestioning, unthinking consumer, like a McDonald’s Heart Attack Special, but this end was just a disappointing ending to a good album. But OM2 has grown on me so much since I first listened to it, who knows?
Most artists will never again make an opus as masterful and inspired as they did when they were young, drunk, and hungry. Look at Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Maiden’s The Number of the Beast, Rush’s 2112, Megadeth’s Rust in Peace, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Dream Theater’s Images and Words, Ozzy’s Diary of a Madman, Accept’s Balls to the Wall, and Madonna’s Like a Virgin, to name a few. Just kidding on that last one. That applies to me, too – I don’t think even I will equal the dark and brooding poetry of despair I wrote in the early 90s (not that anyone will ever read it, which is probably to their benefit). But you have to give them some kind of kudos for trying. This was a big gamble on the part of the Ryche. Not that they had a lot of fame or momentum to lose, but to set out to add to the legacy of an icon such as OM1 with the possibility of tarnishing it forever, is quite an undertaking. Have they marred the epic immortality of OM1? If Metallica has not hurt the legacy of Master of Puppets and …And Justice for All with garbage like, well, everything since the second half of the Black Album, I think it would take something much worse than this very-satisfying, if not quite masterful, album to do that to the legacy of Operation:Mindcrime. Here’s to Nikki and to hoping he’s found some kind of peace at last. Just, please, guys, you have other things to offer, don’t let there be a III. I’d rather have a Warning or Rage For Order II than that!