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Timeless, though a product of its time - 100%

RedRedSuit, September 28th, 2016

(I rate on a 10 point scale. 2 = unlistenable, 4 = mediocre but has its moments, 6 = good, 8 = great, 10 = classic. Generally 6+ = worth buying. The odd numbers are "in-between" scores.)

For a classic, Mindcrime is an odd album. It is unmistakably, unapologetically '80s, with a pronounced trebly sound, high-pitched operatic metal vocals, and a (male) protagonist named Nikki. It sounds '80s, and it references '80s things -- war on drugs, greedy preachers, the phony enemy that is Communism, etc. It's somewhere between glossy heavy metal and aggressive hard rock, with a progressive pedigree but boasting beautiful, catchy choruses and radio-friendly hit songs.

Essentially, while it is by no means some kind of pop-oriented, image-obsessed hair metal, it's still the type of music that was essentially commercially annihilated by Nirvana's Nevermind in the early '90s -- in a way that rougher bands like Metallica or Megadeth or Pantera, for example, were not.

Despite all this baggage, Mindcrime remains a classic, which is almost miraculous in a way. It just works THAT well, to this day, because it is both a collection of universally great or good songs and a coherent, evocative concept album. About the only negative thing I can say about it -- other than perhaps a couple of clumsy lines from Geoff Tate -- is that its sound can be off-putting to those coming into it with a thrash metal or Black Sabbath sensibility (which, let's face it, describes plenty of metalheads). I remember listening to it for the first time, having heard all these accolades afforded it for years, and initially thinking, "THIS wimpy-sounding '80s rock album is what everyone's been praising?" -- then I listened to it. Again. Again. Again. And the more I listened, the more I became addicted to virtually all its qualities.

Let's start with the story. Mindcrime is a concept album, possibly the mother of all metal concept albums. It tells the story of a junkie named Nikki who gets involved in some kind of shadowy scheme to assassinate people in high places as directed by the evil Dr. X. X provides the drugs and the brainwashing, while Nikki provides his killing skills. Eventually Nikki has 2nd thoughts due to the involvement of his love interest, the ex-hooker Sister Mary, and things unravel from there.

On the one hand the story and characters are full of archetypes, maybe even clichés. On the other hand, the singer Geoff Tate more than sells these. His voice bleeds emotion, and when guest vocalist Pamela Moore participates on one song as Mary, she is his match every step of the way. As important is perhaps the fact that, while ultimately quite focused on these characters, the album is also obviously a form of strong social commentary. In the first half of the album, while Nikki is getting involved in the conspiracy, the messages are political and social and explicitly delivered, with commentary on fighting the drug war, corrupt priests, corrupt politics in D.C., etc. In the second half, while Nikki's life has essentially gone to shit in a circle of drugs and violence, the commentary is more subtle and character-based but still has things to say about the way we treat the dregs of society.

One problem concept albums tend to have is that the story either stands too apart from the music to make much sense, or the two are coupled so closely that the songs suffer from the burden of having to service the story. (For example, try listening to Dream Theater's rock opera with Mangini on drums and tell me that the overwrought concept didn't water down the musicality of the album.) Well, Mindcrime is probably the first and best example of EXACTLY how to do this right. There are something like 15 tracks, of which maybe 5 are semi-musical or spoken interludes, while the rest are honest-to-goodness, actual songs (with story-related asides to start or finish, in some cases). Yes, there is one 10-minute opus with orchestra and guest vocals, almost like a requirement of a prog concept album -- it's called Suite Sister Mary -- which is absolutely fuckin' perfect for what it is, by the way -- but the rest of the album is dominated by regular-length songs.

...And what songs they are. This is an album that absolutely starts strong and then, generally, gets better and better and better, culminating in the two main singles, I Don't Believe In Love and Eyes Of A Stranger. The thing is, the first half leading into Suite Sister Mary is good but perhaps not utterly great. All good songs, but to me -- other than the opening "real" song, Revolution Calling -- they don't quite have that sing-along intensity.

Then Suite Sister Mary happens, and I honestly get jitters throughout the thing, both musically and due to the lyrical interplay between the two lead characters. After that, it's basically just excellence-ville throughout -- brilliant songs stitched together with perfectly mood-setting story-relating interludes of varying musical value. Needle Lies is verging on thrash metal speed, with heart-breaking lyrics about the desperation of drug addiction (something that, if you've personally experienced it, might get you to shed a tear... and this is a very fast song, mind). Then we get the trio of brilliant mid-tempo singles -- Breaking The Silence, I Don't Believe In Love, Eyes Of A Stranger. It's a bleak trio lyrically but musically basically an aural orgasm, with restrained riffing, blazing leads, deep bass, and perfectly enunciated verses with soaringly catchy choruses.

Then it all ends in circular fashion. "I remember now." And if you're like me, that means you're going back to track 1. Again.

P.S. A quick note on instrumentation. I don't really think of this album as a showcase for instrumentalists. The miracle of it, to me, is just the brilliance of the songwriting -- the way the concept and the individual songs are married perfectly. That said, the album has a unique sound and plenty of instrumental pyrotechnics from the guitar duo of Wilton and DeGarmo (the latter doing most of the music writing as well). The solos are all tasteful and perfectly executed and memorable to boot; they're still not strictly "necessary" per se but are all unique and enhance the songs. The rhythm section is thundering, drummer Scott Rockenfield achieving a particularly booming and busy performance -- reminiscent maybe of John Bonham on overdrive? -- and Eddie Jackson's bass providing a satisfyingly heavy and full low end in less guitar-heavy moments such as the verses of I Don't Believe In Love.