Welcome, headbangers, to a fantastic record that threw the concept album phenomenon square into the lap of heavy metal! One of the greatest works to introduce this trend to heavy metal is, without question, Operation: Mindcrime by Queensryche. Released in 1988, it was the group’s 4th studio album. Despite coming out almost 30 years ago, many reviewers to this day list it among the 10 ten heavy metal concept albums ever.
Before its release, Queensryche had some time to polish their sound. The band’s first effort was a self-titled EP offering four tracks, including one written by lead singer Geoff Tate: “The Lady Wore Black.” Next was The Warning. Though the band’s talent with melody was starting to shine forth, the production still smacked of inexperienced mixing, and in fact Tate would later claim the mixing had been done by an amateur with no experience in hard rock. Their third record was Rage for Order. At this point heavy metal was well ensconced in its glam phase, and the group was required by their label to dress up like popinjays. Their music, however, was evolving rapidly. Far more precise and ardent, it wove intricate tunes with guitar and keyboard, and addressed themes like technology and authority. Queensryche began to be called “thinking man’s metal,” in line with bands like Rush.
So when Operation: Mindcrime appeared it detonated into the heavy metal world like a fuel-air bomb. This collection had a story to relate, and there would be no love-taps. Geoff Tate was the front-man, an exceptional vocalist with a range of almost 4 octaves and an eerie resemblance to Bruce Dickenson. Chris Degarmo and Michael Wilton wielded lead guitars with the mesmerizing tones of twin pipe organs. Bassist Eddie Jackson harnessed a bass that chugged like a Harley Davidson at idle. Scott Rockenfield sat at drums, flinging out snare beats with the slapping report of a Glock pistol. Keyboard use was minimal, but the album was replete with short dialogue snippets or sound effects which added to the story. The band also brought in some additional elements for assistance: a full choir for the song “Suite Sister Mary,” an accompanying group of string instruments for “The Mission,” and various voice actors for the dialogue pieces. Furthermore, while the basic rhythms and tempos fell within the norm for rock music, both guitars and drums were syncopated to stack on a level of complexity that was unusual for the time period. Best of all, the melodies were intricate and innovative, staying at minor key but combining chords in uncommon fashion. The overall development was a hypnotic metal rampage that led its audience far and away like a pied piper.
Apart from brief interludes, the record featured 10 full-length songs to flesh out its saga. Beginning with “Revolution Calling,” the tale focused on Nikki, a street junkie who bemoaned the corruption of modern society. In the following four tracks, “Operation: Mindcrime,” “Speak,” “Spreading the Disease,” and “The Mission,” the listener learned how Nikki was found and recruited by Doctor X, who channeled Nikki’s ire to lethal extremes, using drugs and dogma to make him an assassin. At first Nikki believed his assignments were for the best, if unpleasant. Then Nikki met Sister Mary, a former prostitute turned nun. Mary was “rescued” from her previous life by a priest named Father Williams, but it turned out Williams was using her. Nikki befriended her however, and found respite from the surrounding ugliness. But Doctor X, believing Mary learned too much in her services for his agency, ordered Nikki to kill both her and Father Williams. In “Suite Sister Mary,” the longest opus of the album, Nikki slew the priest, but couldn’t bring himself to kill Mary. Instead he chose to protect her. In “The Needle Lies,” Nikki returned to Doctor X to tell him he wanted out, but the Doctor refused. Nikki fled anyway, with the pangs of drug-hunger accosting him. He returned to Sister Mary’s abode, but to his horror found her dead. Worse, in his drug-addled state, he wondered if he was the culprit and couldn’t remember it. In “Breaking the Silence,” he ran through the streets calling her name. “I Don’t Believe in Love” related how Nikki was caught by the police and charged with Mary’s and Father Williams’ murders. Nikki was placed into a mental treatment facility, and as of the last song, “Eyes of a Stranger,” lingered in a semi-catatonic state, still disturbed by Mary’s memory.
And there our story ended… or did it? Queensryche fans know that answer: In 2004 Queensryche released Operation: Mindcrime II. Also, the DVD Mindcrime at the Moore answered the question of who actually killed Sister Mary. But for a long time fans were left without knowing the full tale, or even if there would be any follow-up at all. Regardless, Operation: Mindcrime was a glowing pearl which made other metal efforts look pallid and sophomoric in comparison. No love taps, remember? The record blistered through its fantastic arrangements, and not a one of them was blase or forgettable. The scorching pace continued right through the final track which ended in a mind-blowing vocal cacophony. By the end the listener was left breathless, and in a wonderment as to why all metal can’t be like this all the time.
Operation: Mindcrime reached 50 on the U.S. overall charts. It went gold right away, and was certified platinum in 1991. It also took 21 in Switzerland, 25 in Sweden, and 29 in the Netherlands. While respectable, these results weren’t exactly over-the-top, but they were enough to make Queensryche a justly lauded group whose next album, Empire, launched immediately to stardom. (Empire took number 7 on the U.S. overall charts, as well as spawning the band’s first real radio hit, “Silent Lucidity.”) Owing to the the mastery of its melodic arrangements, the resonant power of its lyrics, and its all-too-relevant topics of political stagnation, vigilantism, and love gone tragic, the tour de force that is Operation: Mindcrime raised the bar so high it could not be lowered again. There was no going back, and fans would never want to.