Operation: Mindcrime II
hen Queensrÿche began in 1981, few could have predicted its career. The Seattle quintet was originally a covers band called The Mob, adopting its current name with the addition of singer Geoff Tate. A four-song demo, Queen of the Reich, made its way to English metal magazine Kerrang!, where a glowing review led to a flurry of international mail-order interest. The demo revealed a startlingly accomplished, fully-formed take on melodic British metal such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, topped by Tate's operatic vocals. Queen of the Reich was originally only available on cassette through a Seattle record store, but demand was so high that it was pressed to vinyl. A major label bidding war ensued, and the band signed to EMI, which reissued the demo as the Queensrÿche LP. The band's full-length debut, The Warning, was ambitious, yet sterile; still it garnered the band opening slots for Dio and Twisted Sister. 1986's Rage for Order had vastly improved production and was enjoyably theatrical, complete with some of the most over-the-top outfits ever worn for album artwork. International arena touring followed with the likes of AC/DC, Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, and Bon Jovi.
It took months for Tate to convince his bandmates to work on a concept album. But they finally came around, and 1988's Operation: Mindcrime was successful beyond their wildest expectations. The album told the story of a young junkie, Nikki, who is brainwashed by Dr. X, a charismatic demagogue, into assassinating corrupt government leaders. Nikki falls in love with prostitute-turned-nun Sister Mary, who has also been brainwashed by Dr. X. Dr. X fears the relationship will hinder his control over Nikki, so he commands him to kill Mary. The album ends with Mary dead, her rosary wrapped around her throat. Nikki is imprisoned for his crimes, but it's unclear how Mary died. The album seamlessly tied the story together with cinematic interludes and dark, complex songs that flowed into one another. Operation: Mindcrime eventually went platinum, buoyed by the success of its follow-up, Empire, which featured the massive MTV hit "Silent Lucidity." Years of jet-setting touring followed, and the band did not release new material until 1994's Promised Land. The album had impeccable production and deep, stately songs, but trends had shifted towards grunge, and interest in the band waned.
Things took a much worse turn with 1997's Hear in the Now Frontier. The album was wretched; the band experimented with ill-fitting major keys and unconvincing alt-metal grooves. Queensrÿche no longer sounded like itself, and fans and critics reviled the album. Q2K and Tribe followed in the same alt-metal vein and hardly redeemed the band. A major part of the problem was that guitarist Chris DeGarmo, the band's primary songwriter, had left to become an airplane pilot. Tate tired of metal and released a non-metal solo album; drummer Scott Rockenfield engaged in soundtrack work and side projects. The band had seemingly lost touch with itself and its fans. But through the years, some threads remained. What happened to Nikki and Dr. X? How did Sister Mary die? Fans had come to appreciate Operation: Mindcrime as the band's greatest work, and were still curious how the story would turn out. Tate, too, had been working on a screenplay for Mindcrime, and found that his notes contained enough material to finish the story. Given that the political climate was similar to that of the original, in which another Bush was in power, the setting was ripe for a sequel.
Operation: Mindcrime II does a poor job of tying up the loose ends. The story renews with Nikki's release from prison. It's been 18 years, and in the meantime Dr. X has become wealthy through his company, Xcide Pharmaceuticals. Memories start to come back to Nikki, and he becomes obsessed with revenge. He tracks down Dr. X, but does he kill him? It's not clear from the lyrics, though in interviews Tate reveals what happens. After the showdown with Dr. X, Nikki is depressed at the meaninglessness of his life and flirts with suicide. But does he kill himself? And how exactly did Mary die? Again, it's not clear from the lyrics. However, the band revealed how she died through visuals on its 2004 tour, which seems like an incredible copout. Mary returns here as a sort of conscience haunting Nikki, but the female vocals portraying the character are grating and the character is superfluous.
Thus, the story boils down to Nikki and Dr. X. For a 17-track album, the action moves incredibly slowly. Most of the songs dwell on the turmoil inside Nikki's head. If Mindcrime does become a movie, the action in II would be the last 20 minutes. Much has been made of the story's sociopolitical commentary. But Dr. X and Nikki state the commentary in the original and sequel, respectively, and an evil demagogue and a brainwashed junkie are hardly reliable narrators. In the end, Mindcrime essentially becomes a character study of Nikki.
Musically, the album is solid. It's a far cry from the original, but it's Queensrÿche's best work since Promised Land, which admittedly isn't saying much. The music is an interesting mix of old and new. The band combines its early British metal harmonies with the heavier alt-metal of later albums. The juxtaposition of the melodic and the bluesy is often jarring, but there's much hot fretwork courtesy of new guitarist Mike Stone. What's lacking is the catchiness of the choruses in the original Mindcrime. Tate sings with amazing vigor, though, and his vocals rescue a lot of otherwise mundane material. The result is songs that don't really gel, but are full of cool moments. "The Hands" has an atmospheric intro that harkens back to the original Mindcrime, while "Signs Say Go" rocks harder than anything the band has done in years. "One Foot in Hell" has awesomely '80s-inspired vocal harmonies, and the Led Zeppelin-esque "Speed of Light" is a bright spot on an otherwise bleak album. The story peaks with "The Chase" and "Murderer," which portray the showdown between Nikki and Dr. X (played here by Ronnie James Dio). Dio’s tradeoff vocals with Tate are merely functional; the pairing could have hit much harder had they not been singing in the same register. Instead, it feels like a musical, which may dismay fans of the old Queensrÿche. But like much of the album, it makes sense after several listens.
The album's production is another story altogether. The mix is bass-heavy (producer Jason Slater is a bass player) and fairly muddy. The guitars are raw and have a harsh sheen to them. The drums are over-compressed and have little impact. There's a lot going on, from samples to keyboards to a variety of vocal styles, and the elements don't sit right in the mix. It's unfair to expect a clean, digital mix like the original Mindcrime, which probably had a higher budget, but an album of this scope doesn't deserve production like this. This flaw isn't fatal, though. The listener's ears will adjust after a while, and it takes a while to appreciate this album anyway. It's no original Mindcrime, but it helps rescue Queensrÿche's name from the embarrassments of the past decade.