Queensrÿche - Operation: Mindcrime II
Produced by Queensrÿche & Jason Slater
The long-awaited sequel to the quintessential metal concept album from 1989 is finally here. The band are once again without original guitarist and key songwriter Chris DeGarmo, leaving Michael Wilton to take over lead guitar duties and Mike Stone to step in on second guitar, but Queensrÿche have proved they don't need DeGarmo to create a second masterpiece.
Now, before we get too carried away, this isn't as good as the first one. It just doesn't flow in the same way and certainly doesn't make anywhere near as much sense. But since no one in their right mind ever expected it to be quite that great, that probably doesn't really matter. What this is however, is the next best Queensrÿche record since (although obviously still not as good as the two before, Rage For Order and The Warning). Where the first Mindcrime was a master class in metal concept record making, this is certainly a good lesson in sequel making. Not only does it continue the story in a meaningful and necessary way, it also doesn't leave the obvious open ending for a weak cash-in third part. Hollywood could learn a lot from this (speaking of which, Mindcrime movie?).
First, a quick recap for the new-on-the-scene. The Operation: Mindcrime story revolves around Nikki, a drug addict imprisoned in a state hospital following the assassination of key political and religious leaders. The first album is Nikki's recollection of the events that put him in the hospital. Nikki is controlled by an anarchist known as Dr. X, who keeps Nikki brainwashed, and nicely supplied with drugs if he does as he's told. Nikki's lover is a former prostitute called Mary who has become a nun but is sexually abused by the Priest who converted her. She also works for Dr. X. X orders Nikki to kill the priest, which he does, and Mary, which he doesn't. He vows to end X's control over them and goes to confront him. When he returns home, having failed in his confrontation with X, he finds Mary dead in her room. Nikki is arrested while roaming the streets and committed to hospital, charged with all the murders, including Mary's. The first album is a true work of art. Widely acknowledged as the best metal concept record there's ever been. Operation: Mindcrime II picks up with Nikki being released from jail, determined to find out who really killed Mary, and get Dr X. while he's at it.
But the most important thing is the songs. The story can be as a work of literary greatness, but if the songs are bad, the album is bad. Individually, these aren't the best songs Queensrÿche have ever written. There's no Walk In The Shadows, London or Anybody Listening?. This is still the more matured Queensrÿche that put out the incredibly reflective Tribe just three years ago. Opening with the symphonic intro piece Freiheit Ouverture, with excellent use of strings, a sense of build-up is achieved with the impression that any moment the first song will explode. Unfortunately, as mentioned, this album doesn't flow as well as its predecessor, and right here is a prime example of why. The intro ends rather abruptly to make way for a 5 second bit of speech called Convict, which is simply a prison warden unlocking the door and telling Nikki he's free. As the door slams shut they do launch into first song proper I'm American, which is nice, but it needed one or the other, either lead in with the intro, or lead in with the speech segment, not both as it just feels disjointed.
The song itself is pretty good. It's one of two played as a preview on the band's US tour last year (Hostage being the other), neither of which impressed too much from the bootleg recordings that surfaced. The reason for this, in the case of I'm American is that it is a very complicated song and audience recorded bootlegs rarely possess the necessary dynamics to portray complicated songs accurately. In this particular case, singer Geoff Tate, although singing in his normal voice circa Tribe, pretty much raps the verses.
One Foot In Hell is typical modern Queensrÿche. It's the not shrieking metal of the first four albums, it's much more in keeping with Promised Land or Tribe, but with a harmonised chorus similar to that used on Empire. Hostage is probably the heaviest song they've ever done, although it has its fair share of quieter bits. It, along with second single The Hands, are the first time thus far that Queensrÿche sound like they're doing something different to previous records; the low-end riffing and melodies are not something that's been found on a Queensrÿche album before. With string use in the background and a catchy chorus The Hands should be the more successful of the two singles and the clear influence Eddie Jackson has had on the music adds extra power to some instrumental passages (particularly on Hostage) with a lot of bass melodies replacing the more common guitar and keyboard melodies normally present. Some moments are somewhat more disorganised than others, in these songs and throughout the album, but that's not to say, as on previous records, they're any less brilliant. This aspect of Queensrÿche's sound comes down to Scott Rockenfield's uncanny ability to play absolutely any kind of drum pattern, making even the strangest arrangements sound perfectly rhythmical.
Speed of Light stretches back to Hear In The Now Frontier territory, with a main verse riff reminiscent of that in Sign of the Times and similar instrumental breakdowns to that album courtesy again in no small part to the excellent interplay between Rockenfield and Jackson. We also see the return of Pamela Moore with another strong performance as Mary, along with the next track Signs Say Go and again on the reflective and passionate If I Could Change It All and the angry explosion of An Intentional Confrontation later on, appearing to Nikki either as a ghost or in his head (it's hard to tell).
In between these two braces of songs featuring Mary, the album's second, and arguably higher profile guest appearance comes in on The Chase with a fantastic vocal battle between Tate (who's voicing Nikki, if anyone was wondering) and heavy metal legend Ronnie James Dio (Dio/ex-Rainbow/ex-Black Sabbath) as Dr. X. This powerful, epic track is bracketed by Michael Wilton's finest moments in Queensrÿche with his sublime soloing on the frantic, driving Re-Arrange You and the slightly disjointed Murderer?. Wilton has been an integral part of 'rÿche since the beginning, but was always in the shadow of DeGarmo as a guitarist. When DeGarmo left, Wilton was able to step up and easily take over lead duties live on the old songs, but this is the first time he's really stepped up and taken over on a studio record. The only other time Queensrÿche have made an album without DeGarmo was the universally hated Q2K. While this destain was, as is so often the case with something new and different, undeserved, with the album being a reasonably solid and straight forward hard rock record, Michael never really stepped into the void to show what he could do in terms of lead guitar. This time, he has.
After An Intentional Confrontation the album sort of wanes. Where the first one finished with strong tracks like I Don't Believe In Love and Eyes of A Stranger, this one doesn't have any strong closing moments like that (aside from the brilliant soloing on Fear City Slide). Mary returns on closer All The Promises to be suitably reflective and depressed with Nikki over a Promised Land/Hear In The Now Frontier kind of soundscape. It's a beautiful track (the only real ballad) with yet more superb soloing from Wilton and some excellent duetting from Moore and Tate, and does kind of allow the album to drift delicately to a close, but it feels out of place following the other songs; the previous track or two didn't wind down towards the soft closer.
When all is said and done, Operation: Mindcrime II is a brilliant album. It has melody, heaviness, hooks, virtuosity and grandeur in equal parts with superb performances from everyone involved. Essential for all Queensrÿche fans new and old, and the perfect partner to the first album as a starting point for anyone wondering what it's all about. Seasoned fans can enjoy trying to spot the occasional musical references to OM1.
“ a second masterpiece ”
Tracklist: Freiheit Ouverture / Convict / I'm American / One Foot In Hell / Hostage / The Hands / Speed of Light / Signs Say Go / Rearrange You / The Chase / Murderer? / Circles / If I Could Change It All / An Intentional Confrontation / Junkie's Blues / Fear City Slide / All The Promises
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