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Nearly every bit as progressive, melodically accessible, lyric and nuanced as the original _Mindcrime_, and unquestionably the best record this band has delivered in over a decade, Queensryche has finally broken off the musical restlessness that started long ago with _Promised Land_, and flat-out delivered a blow right to the solar plexus of the metal world. This is an impressive record, the kind I would have never suspected this band to have in them - sonically reminiscent to the original but with a slicker, well-updated, more modern radio rock edge to it. This is not to say aggro, or "Nu" detuned, rather something that is prog-metal at its heart and yet confidently evolved beyond it....imagine _Hear in the Now Frontier_ with the fat drum (especially snare) sound for the original _Mindcrime_. Although I would have really enjoyed to hear DeGarmo contribute to this album, especially considering the quality of the songs here, Wilton and new axeman Mike Stone kick up such a fearsome Marty Friedman-esque noise on tracks like "The Hands" and "A Murderer?" its just not worth quibbling over what could (should?) have been. This album flat out ROCKS, just like the original, and if you are any kind of fan of this band you will have a hard time not banging your head to help the music scatter your thoughts.
The story, which takes place 18 years after Nikki was tried and imprisoned, mostly captures Nikki's state of mind and his encompassing desire for revenge against his former employers, who left him to rot. It also gives a sense of connectedness as both we and Queensryche are also exactly 18 years older since the original 1988 release of _Mindcrime_. Nikki is now a free man and has to face a world that is in many respects as evil and twisted as the impulses that landed him in jail. Many of the same players are here, including a good amount of original Mary vocalist Pamela Moore, and there are rain-soaked, eerie interludes, or religio-musical iconography (such as the choral outro to "If I Could Change It All" ) that hearken back to the conceptual sprawl of "Suite Sister Mary" and "Electric Requiem" from the original. Occasional snippets of voices and musical themes prominent in the original _Mindcrime_ (such as "Anarchy-X").
As conceptually dark and atmospheric as this album is, it is mixed rather brightly, giving it a very contemporary feel similar to recent prog albums of bands like Dream Theater or Green Carnation. Perhaps even more surprising is that there are at least four or five high-quality singles here. The accessibility of Queensryche is something I think gets the band more reviled by the more extreme metal and prog fans, but I think a careful survey of their history reveals it to be one of their most charming conceits (to the tune of 4 million copies of _Empire_ served, thank you very much). Though the band went with the hyperkinetic "I'm American" for the first single, and that's an agreeable enough choice, its the superbly melodic "Hostage" that reminds the most of the original _Mindcrime_. The trickster, very Euro neo-prog arrangements (think Pain of Salvation meets Iron Maiden) and knockout chorus in "Re-Arrange You" are not to be denied. The boldest single shot I heard on my initial scans is the pulsing "Fear City Slide" which has the warm confidence and accessibility of anything off _Empire_ coupled with an unbelievable head-nodding groove. An edit of that track would get some decent airplay.
But there are even more delightful pleasures to be had in the deep cuts, such as the exciting duet with none other than the mighty Ronnie James Dio (here playing an epic Dr. X) on "The Chase," a noble and excellent meeting of two of metal's most treasured sets of pipes. No, they dont "Dungeons and Dragons" it up, in fact its a well-executed, crafty tune that highlights the two vocalists impressively, and is a great bonus to this album. The song island starting with the haunting "If I Could Change It All" through the blues-grunge-stomp of "An International Confrontation" into the deep dark jungle-prog groove of "A Junkie's Blues" - while touching not just on themes from the first _Mindcrime_ but eccentric touches of gospel and doo-wop of all things. This is probably one of the most adventurous moments of the album, as Nikki begins yet another slide into the seamy underworld of society's nightmares and confronts the ghosts of his past. Here the album drifts into some of the darker, more exploratory recesses of _Promised Land_ and wholly satisfies, concluding with the dreamy, mournful Floydian melancholy and delicate acoustic work of "All the Promises" whose tragic, lovelorn lyrics pack a satisfying emotional punch.
Aside from the *occasional* overabundance of strings (both synth-simulated and otherwise), really the only real detriment to this album is that the narrative this time around does not seem to flow as well as the original did. In fact there's a bit of a dead spot starting with "The Hands"->"Speed of Light"->"Signs Say Go" until "Re-Arrange You" kicks your keister (where the original _Mindcrime_ had the ruthless economy of "Operation: Mindcrime", "Speak" and "Spreading the Disease.") The biggest advantage to the original _Mindcrime_ was how successfully the theatrical nature of the album was woven into the songs. But the narrative seems more inscrutable this time, more detached from the songs themselves, maybe a little too subtle. In any case, the music raging beneath it generally kicks so much ass i'm inclined to forgive the extra work i'll have to do to really dig into Nikki's story. What a kickass surprise for 2006.