The year is 1988.
I’m 14 years old, thin, with hair past my shoulders. It’s my second year at a new school, and I’m just starting to think about things like art, and free speech, and politics. The Reagan years are coming to a close, and King Bush I is just about to take his throne. We are still a couple of years away from Gulf War I, the most critical world event of my young life, and still four years away from the first election in which I can vote.
And I do vote, in 1992, for an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton, and the rush when he sails to victory is my rush, too. 14 years later, I think about politics and world government and social injustice perhaps too much, but in 1988, I’m an apolitical kid, experiencing my first glimmers of the structure we’ve erected around us. And those first glimmers came through music – R.E.M.’s “World Leader Pretend,” Metallica’s “Disposable Heroes” and “…And Justice for All,” the still-striking video for Genesis’ “Land of Confusion.” Music is my first love, and I listen to what it has to teach me.
Of course, 1988 is the height of my metalhead phase – it continues for another four years or so, and for half of that time, I am convinced that Megadeth’s Rust in Peace is the best album ever made. A list of my favorite bands in 1988 would include Metallica, Anthrax, Guns ‘n’ Roses, and others of that ilk. I’ve never even heard of Seattle, Washington, which in almost no time flat will unleash a full-blooded assault on the headbanging music I hold dear, wiping it from the face of the earth.
Except I had heard of Seattle, in that abstract sense – I still, at this age, don’t have a firm grasp on the concept that the bands I love are made up of people, and that these people actually live in real places. But if you ask me, I will tell you that the smartest band in the world comes from Seattle, and their name is Queensryche.
You know how people studied records like Tommy and The Wall when they came out, endlessly playing them to search for conceptual clues and piece their operatic stories together? That’s me with Operation: Mindcrime, Queensryche’s magnum opus. I play that thing to death, going over the lyric sheet (printed, in my cassette, as one long sentence that was incredibly difficult to follow) and leaping for joy as new insights present themselves. This is new territory for me – there are characters, there’s a plotline, this record has Something to Say.
It’s 1988, and Operation: Mindcrime is the best album I’ve ever heard.
* * * * *
I have often made the distinction in this column between albums that are genuinely groundbreaking and important to music as a whole, and ones that are personally important to me, no matter how much they objectively suck. Mindcrime is one of those – it was the smartest album my 14-year-old self had heard, a politically-charged headrush that also rocked really hard. Looking back, it’s the absolute apex of Queensryche’s career – they only approached it once more, with Promised Land in 1994 – and even if the band itself is a blip on the radar of pop culture, that one album changed my life.
I don’t think it’s possible to undersell the place Mindcrime has in my personal musical life – it’s an album I can still sing from memory, and one that I go back to even now. Does it still hold up? I’m the wrong guy to ask. I can’t separate Mindcrime’s admittedly over-the-top operatic metal sound from what it means to me. I still think that Geoff Tate is one of the best singers in popular music – the only difference between Tate and someone like Matthew Bellamy of Muse is the cheese factor inherent in what Queensryche does. And the relative intelligence Queensryche brought to my then-favorite style of music was like a gateway drug.
Here’s the story of Mindcrime, and if you haven’t heard it and don’t want to know, stop reading now. The album follows a street thug named Nikki who, disgusted with the political situation in Reagan’s America, joins a revolutionary movement named (you guessed it) Operation: Mindcrime. Under hypnosis, Nikki goes about assassinating political leaders, following the directives of a shadowy figure named Dr. X. He gets the call, X says the word “mindcrime,” and off Nikki goes, gun in hand.
X has other ways of keeping Nikki under his control, including drugs, administered by a former prostitute named Sister Mary. We learn that Mary joined the church after a priest picked her up off the street, and now that priest rapes her once a week. Nikki and Mary fall in love, and, sensing the danger, X orders Nikki to kill the unsuspecting nun. (“And get the priest, too,” he says, in a spooky interlude.) What happens next is up to conjecture, but Nikki finds Mary dead two songs later. The record ends where it began, with Nikki in a hospital room, under arrest for crimes he doesn’t remember committing, and mourning Mary. He’s been used by the revolution just as much as he’d been by the system it sought to overthrow.
Incredibly, this dark, complex album was the band’s commercial breakthrough, thanks to a hit single “Eyes of a Stranger” and a video that summarized the whole story. I must have watched that video 200 times, looking for more clues – what happened to Mary? Who killed her? Did Dr. X get away? What happens next? And as difficult as it was for 14-year-old me to grasp, I had to learn that in this case, as with most stories, nothing happens next.
Except, it turns out, something does happen.
* * * * *
Time has not been particularly kind to Queensryche – they’ve gone through as many changes as I have in the intervening 18 years. After Mindcrime, they hit the big time with Empire, a concept-free collection of love songs that included “Silent Lucidity,” an orchestrated ballad about dream control that is still the song for which they are best known. Empire was good, Promised Land was better, and then it all fell apart.
Many point to the departure of guitarist Chris DeGarmo as the death knell, but his last album with them (Hear in the Now Frontier) is still their worst, so that doesn’t quite hold water. DeGarmo’s replacements have failed to fill the void, and despite showing off a renewed vigor on 2003’s Tribe, they’re demonstrably not the same band they were. Even Tate’s powerhouse voice has seen better days, as he strains to hit high notes and can’t hold them for as long as he used to.
It’s this band, this not-quite-Queensryche, that has decided to risk ridicule by making Operation: Mindcrime II in 2006. What the hell were they thinking? It’s bad enough that records like Q2K and Tribe get unfavorably compared to Mindcrime, why would the band intentionally invite that scrutiny? And more importantly, who, beyond the small set of folks like me who hold the original in perhaps-undeserving esteem, will care about this? Offering someone like me an official sequel to one of the more important records of my life is like asking me to hate it.
Because of course I’m going to buy it. Of course. No matter how much it sucks, or how much it taints the albums I loved as a teen. Naturally, I had to hear this thing.
And really, all I was praying for here was for Mindcrime II to rise above the level of unlistenable crap. It does that handily. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, is just how much it would connect me, emotionally speaking, with the original record. The story picks up in real-time, and Nikki apparently had a really good lawyer, because 18 years later, he’s out of jail, and hungry for revenge. He’s also insane, and he hears Sister Mary’s voice in his head constantly.
So Nikki tracks down Dr. X, and kills him, but in the process, he learns (I think) that he himself was Mary’s killer, under that apparently powerful hypnosis. The final third of the album is basically a long conversation between Nikki and the voice of Mary in his mind, urging him to kill himself. If it’s possible, Mindcrime II ends on an even more depressing note than the original – there are no plot twists waiting in the wings, just a collision and a sad aftermath.
And that’s one problem I have with it – the story is pretty much unnecessary, and doesn’t tell us anything new. It also misses the opportunity, unlike the first one, to comment on the state of the world, which I was looking forward to – the original Mindcrime is a tight burst of anger at the world and at how it chews people up, whereas the new one is more of a vengeance flick with little context. It’s not an essential new chapter, and even though it clears up one lingering question (kind of), all it accomplishes is a further exploration of just how used and damaged Nikki is.
But I really have to give Tate and company credit – this is the punchiest, most vibrant Queensryche album since before DeGarmo left, and much of that can be chalked up to the band’s decision to time travel back to the ‘80s. Most of this album is crunchy, heavy metal, the kind that the ‘Ryche hasn’t turned out in almost two decades. Some of this album represents their heaviest material since The Warning, believe it or not, and it’s full of flailing guitar solos and high, wailing vocals.
The band is on fire here, especially new guitarist Mike Stone, who almost makes me not miss DeGarmo. First single and leadoff track “I’m American” is a jaw-dropper, the kind of riff-heavy monster I thought Queensryche would never write again. While the album doesn’t erupt quite like that again, some other tracks come damn close – “Signs Say Go,” “Murderer?,” “Re-Arrange You.” This is without a doubt the band’s attempt to bring back fans that wandered during the ‘90s. The sound is punchy, thanks to Snake River Conspiracy’s Jason Slater in the producer’s chair.
But I was also surprised at just how dark and moody this thing is. The original Mindcrime didn’t take a lot of time to wallow – it had a plot to advance, and it did so with razor-sharp, uptempo rockers. But Mindcrime II explores emotions, sometimes in cringe-worthy ways, and the music is appropriately minor-key and overcast. The final third is a tumble down into suicidal thoughts, and tunes like “If I Could Change it All,” with a reprise of the choir from the original record, are as atmospheric as one could hope.
* * * * *
So it’s not terrible – in fact, it’s the best thing the band has done in ages.
Well, there’s the cheese factor again. And I don’t know at this point if it’s me or the band, whether I’ve outgrown this kind of thing or if they’ve really ratcheted up the Velveeta here. Take “The Chase,” the song in which Nikki confronts Dr. X. The band has invited Ronnie James Dio to play the part of the evil doctor, and he does so with gusto, chewing up whatever scenery Tate has left untouched. The two vocalists make a radio play out of their predatory circling, but the end result is… well, really cheesy.
“Believe it or not… you owe me!”
“I owe you nothing!”
“I gave your life a purpose!”
“I owe you nothing but your death!”
Yeah… it’s like that.
But that’s nothing when compared to the closing song, “All the Promises,” which finds Tate singing a duet with Pamela Moore, as Sister Mary. (She provided the voice of Mary on the original record, a nice nod to continuity.) This song is so laughably awful it nearly ruins the whole project for me. It’s the most groan-inducing love song (“When you said you loved me, it made me feel like I could fly…”) sung with all deliberate vocal force, American Idol-style. The song is meant to be the emotional climax, the sad withering of Nikki’s will to live, but it falls painfully flat.
And I’m listening back to the first Mindcrime, and to the records that surround it in Queensryche’s early catalog, and I think it’s the band, not me. I think they regrettably chose cheese in several key places here, and turned their love-slash-revenge story somewhat silly. These moments keep Operation: Mindcrime II from rising to the status of its predecessor in my mind, and unfortunately, prevent me from embracing it the way I do the original.
Maybe Mindcrime was just the right album at the right time for me – had this sequel been released in 1990, it’s possible I’d think of it as equal to the original. But I don’t. It’s certainly better than I expected, but it doesn’t make me feel 14 again, like I’d hoped. Although, I admit, that was a far-fetched hope to begin with, and too outrageous an expectation to place on what is, after all, just a rock record.
In 1988, Queensryche was just like me – they could have gone anywhere and done anything. 18 years later, this is where they’ve ended up, and I would no more fault them for where life has tossed them than I would stay angry at myself for not living up to my perceived potential. For the first time in a long while, this sounds like Queensryche making the best album they could, and even though they landed a triple while aiming for a home run, at least they tried to knock it over the wall, which is more than I can say for most bands I listened to when I was 14.
Operation: Mindcrime II is not essential, really, nor is it important, in the grand scheme. But it is a sign of new life, of renewed purpose, from a band I have always liked, and sometimes loved. This is not one of those times, but given how much I dreaded this album’s release, I am relieved that it’s at least solid and imaginative. I don’t love it, not like I love the first one, but I’m not disappointed in it. Is that enough?
Sometimes, yeah, it is.
See you in line Tuesday morning.