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When one finds themselves in a serious discussion among one's peers on the subject of the concept album, it is rarely considered in good judgment to exclude Queensryche's third album, the definitive classic Operation: Mindcrime. Along with the Who's rock opera Tommy, Dream Theater's somewhat superfluous Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, and W.A.S.P's The Crimson Idol (among others), Operation: Mindcrime is consistently and tirelessly associated with the best and brightest concept albums ever conceived. And I'm still unsure why that is. Despite all the hype and endless praise from the collective progressive metal fanbase, I can't grasp it's supposed allure; this album appealing to me about as much as Extreme's Pornograffiti album.
It's not the storyline; on the contrary, the tale that Queensryche has told is one of intrigue and suspense. I even found myself drawing a few parallels to Orwell's 1984, a classic of dystopian fiction that this album surely took some inspiration from. But it's a story that seems like it would have played out much better as a novel, or even as a screenplay. The concept album format almost exclusively makes the storyline of an album a bit difficult to follow, even more so if the listener isn't taking the time to read along with the lyrics in the sleeve. So for an album of this type, it's usually necessary to listen to it several times before one finds that they truly understand and appreciate it the way it was meant to be heard. And for that to be possible, the album (musically) must be compelling enough to warrant a second, a third, or a hundreth listen-through in its entirety, however long it takes before the listener 'gets' it. And that right there is where Queensryche failed me as a listener. Zero compulsion to listen to it again.
And it's not the fault of the band's playing either. No, these are men of talent and vision. Eddie Jackson's walking bass lines often call to mind the playing of Getty Lee, while Chris De Garmo's playing is restrained by tact and purpose, never once perceptible as pretentious or showy. And Geoff Tate is fucking amazing. He soars like an eagle and commands a stunning lower register that compliments the mellower parts of the album tremendously. There's plenty of parts where you can be assured that James LaBrie was taking notes, as a good bit of his singing sounds like what Tate was doing here. But a performance can only be as grand as the songs that are being performed. And here lies the only actual flaw on this album, the reason I haven't bothered to listen to it twice nor consider it in the upper echelons of the conceptual album realm: these guys cannot write for their lives.
Here they are, putting out their most daring album lyrically, poking fun at our government and our society while casting a grim forecast of dystopia, and they never bothered to make the songs interesting. This is where the album parallels with said Extreme work musically: it's slighty elevated 80's pop metal, praised for its higher quality of lyrical aptitude while remaining generally dull instrumentally. The psuedo speed metal in "The Needle Lies," those half chord half stop-for-a-second-to-highlight-the-vocals riffs that bands like Motley Crue and Winger were so fond of back in the day (see the title track for an example), the poor use of keyboards for 'atmosphere' in the segue tracks. All these grievances and more occur repeatedly throughout the album, that while remaining listenable, fails to enthrall. The only thing that excites me at all about this album's songwriting is Queensryche's masterful ability to create an aura of tension. "Suite Sister Mary," despite its 10+ minute length, manages to form a suspenseful, frantic mood (partly due to the lyrics) that is damn near astounding. They sort of do it again on "Eyes of a Stranger" and there's hints of it at other times, but it's the closer for that first side that makes this entire album alright in my book. Few other artists can create a mood like that, so credit is given where it is certainly due.
But by the end of the album, I still am left with the feeling that I'd rather have seen Operation: Mindcrime the movie than have listened to the album. The band wrote lyrics that they could not accommodate properly with their music, leaving more dissatisfaction than pleasure. If this is considered their masterpiece, I fear for the quality of their remaining back catalogue I've yet to experience. One can only hope that a band with a reputation like Queensryche's could at least deliver one completely solid album.
[UPDATE 4/25/09: Having picked up a cheap copy of the album on cassette, I decided to give it another chance. But despite a few listens over the past few days in various environments, my opinion stands. For all of the pomp and circumstance that comes with Operation: Mindcrime's legacy, it offers very little in the way of the replay value and depth an album of its billing (not to mention its reputation) is supposed to offer. Obviously some love the thing, but you may find, as I already have (twice), that's it's much less than indispensible.]