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Some have stated that this album was a bit ahead of it's time, and based on the gigantic barrage of concept albums put forth by the likes of Rhapsody, Luca Turilli, Iron Savior, Avantasia, and even Dio's Magica in the late 90s and the early 2000s, it is a fair assessment. If albums like this band's first full length album "The Warning", Helloween's "Keeper" albums, and Dio's "Last in Line" pioneered merging the genres of metal and 70s progressive rock, this is the album that made it universally accessible both to a wide audience and to a large number of bands.
Many in the metal community have dubbed this album a sell out, but the only aspect of the band that seems to have changed since the warning is a stronger production. Queensryche has never really been a speed metal band, although their first release had elements of it, they have always been a more progressive metal act, even before the term was coined. The NWOBHM was not known for having keyboard tracks, nor for obscure concept albums, both of which were present on "The Warning". And as to the image factor, you don't sing or play an instrument with your clothes, get over it.
The concept of this album is a bit nebulous, many critics were quick to label it a blanket condemnation of the Reagan years in America, but this only is the case if you only listen to the first 5 or 6 tracks on the album. What I think that DeGarmo, Tate, and the others are actually suggesting with this story is a bit more universal and far-reaching that mere 80s political polemics.
Dr. X is a prime example of a criticism I've often had of the various people trying to reform the American government, the cure is 5 times as grotesque as the disease it claims to be opposed to. Dr. X is actually a rather clever philosophical figurehead for a kind of person that has been with humanity since the beginning of time, the manipulator. In olden times we referred to him as the witch-doctor, the one who instigated the atrocities of history by inspiring the Attilas, Genghis Khans, and the Ottoman Empires of the world to strike out at what they defined as evil. The modern witch-doctor that X portrays is a combination of the idiot-philosopher who can manipulate the ideology of the impressionable student, and the drug pusher who sells an alternate reality as a reward for serving his ends. The idiot-philosopher label can apply to people like Kant, Marx, Hegel, Rousseau, and other collectivists who inspired irrationality and then destruction.
Nikki and Mary are essentially the masculine and feminine incarnations of the primary victims of both the drug pusher and the idiot-philosopher, the impoverished and the socially rejected. Both of them are alienated and easy to manipulate, and also believe themselves to be completely unable to control what is going on around them. The very premise of "Operation Mindcrime" is the ability to control the minds of others, and the result is a very dark story. Although such stories don't further any positive philosophical causes, as was the case with George Orwell's 1984 (which unlike Ayn Rand's Anthem did not offer solutions to the dilemma of the tyranny of the government/majority), they do entertain quite effectively.
The music on here is essentially a collection of mid to up tempo prog. metal classics. Fast paced rocker "The Needle Lies" is probably the most energetic of the bunch, while more mid-tempo rockers like "Spreading the Disease" and "Revolution Calling" see a large emphasis placed on lyrical storytelling and powerful choruses. In fact, there are choruses in any song on here that come close to being forgettable, by any standard.
The overall pacing of the album is fairly similar to that of a fictional novel. There is a spoken exposition at the beginning, followed by an anthem-like musical overture. The only real flaw here is that any listener with a short attention span might have a hard time getting past 3 minutes with no singing. Once we get to "Revolution Calling" the album picks up and never really tapers off. The pacing of the songs slows a bit in the middle to give more time for story, but then gets ratcheted up big time right after "Suite Sister Mary" when Nikki's character falters in his attempt to escape from Dr. X's control. Every full length song afterwards is extremely powerful and pushes the story all the way to it's horrid conclusion in "Eyes of a Stranger".
The instrumental and vocal performances on here are spot-on from start to finish. If I had to pick a favorite song for Tate's singing, "Breaking the Silence" and "Suite Sister Mary" are tied for the best. The greatest overall instrumental performance would be a toss up between "The Needle Lies" and "Revolution Calling". And my favorite solo goes to "Breaking the Silence", which also gets my pick for best overall song.
In conclusion, this is obligatory listening for any fan of melodic and progressive metal. This album represents, along with "The Warning", the missing link between the music of Rush and the forward looking music of today's Prog. Metal scene. The only real complaint I have about this album is that I don't think the story of the concept album is up to par with Rush's philosophically inspired lyrics. It is an excellent work of fiction, but the message it carries is one that leaves little hope for mankind. Perhaps I ask to much of today's artists, but in life all is not outside of our control, and I would give the philosophical edge in the metal scene to unapologetic bearers of triumph over adversity, such as Lost Horizon as the heirs of Rush's philosophical fortune. Of course, had it not been for Queensryche, Lost Horizon would probably not play the way they do.