I took a bit of a break after Part 2, as I really wasn’t in the mood to listen to music or write about it, given all that’s been going on in the past few weeks. Today, I felt like getting back to writing, so here I am to continue the series. For Part 3, I’ve picked Queensrÿche’s 1988 rock opera classic, ambitious in scope and accomplished in delivery, a favourite of critics and fans alike.
Album: Operation: Mindcrime (1988)
Narrative genre: Political thriller
Narrative theme/concept: Nikki, a junkie and political radical, is recruited and brainwashed by a shadowy organization to assassinate corrupt leaders. He eventually meets Sister Mary, a former prostitute turned nun, and decides he wants to lead a normal life with her. He finds out the hard way that Doctor X, the leader of the organization, will never let him go.
Best songs: Revolution Calling, Operation: Mindcrime, Suite Sister Mary, I Don’t Believe in Love, Eyes of a Stranger.
What makes it special: The story is a thinly veiled critique of the Reagan years, essentially the same America that Oliver Stone stripped bare in Wall Street six months earlier. The tone throughout is one of gritty reality and impending tragedy. The album starts off with some dialogue and an instrumental intro. The first proper song is Revolution Calling and you know you’re onto something special when Geoff Tate delivers the pre-chorus:-
“I used to trust the media
To tell me the truth, tell us the truth
But now I’ve seen the payoffs
Everywhere I look
Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?“
It’s difficult to identify any single element that makes this album work; there are no virtuoso guitar performances or drum pyrotechnics. But in the hands of producer Peter Collins (who produced Rush’s Power Windows), it all comes together as a tightly interwoven package. Frankly, Geoff Tate’s voice is like a fifth instrument, with its power and remarkable, soaring four-octave range showcased throughout the album, especially on songs like Speak and Spreading the Disease. In the chorus of The Mission, you can feel Nikki’s anger and wretchedness leaking through Tate’s vocals:
“I’ll wait here for days longer
Till the sister comes to wash my sins away
She is the lady that can ease my sorrow
She brings the only friend
That helps me find my way“
This brings us to the 10-minute magnum opus Suite Sister Mary; Doctor X instructs Nikki to kill Sister Mary, the one person who has shown him kindness and who he cares for in return. The style here is full-on rock opera – Geoff Tate’s and guest vocalist Pamela Moore’s soaring vocals, inter-cut brilliantly with Latin choral chants – it’s impossible to listen to this song and not get goosebumps or a lump in throat, as the seeds are sown for the unraveling of Nikki and Sister Mary’s ill-fated relationship.
Soon after, Mary is found dead and Nikki is arrested for her murder. Suffering from drug withdrawal, Nikki cannot process her demise or even be entirely sure that he was not her assassin. In I Don’t Believe in Love, his sorrow turns to helpless anger, directed at Mary for ‘abandoning’ him.
Finally, placed in a mental facility, his mind unravelling, Nikki enters a semi-catatonic state unable to recognize even himself; the tragic story comes to an end in the 7-minute Eyes of a Stranger.
“And I raise my head and stare
Into the eyes of a stranger
I’ve always known that the mirror never lies
People always turn away
From the eyes of a stranger
Afraid to know what
Lies behind the stare.”
Soaring vocals. Thundering bass drums. Screeching twin lead guitars. A compelling story. The perfect concept album!