Of Queensr?che’s eight studio releases, my best guess is that 1% (give or take a percent) would select any of their last three albums (Hear in the Now Frontier, Q2K, Tribe) as their best. For the majority of fans, their 1988 release, Operation: Mindcrime, will forever be the highlight of their career. It was no surprise how high the anticipation was when the boys from Seattle announced in 2005 that they would be recording Operation: Mindcrime II. (For those unfamiliar with the original Mindcrime – released in 1988 and certified Platinum, I’ll just briefly say that it was one of the most talked about, widely respected, and critically acclaimed albums of its time.)
“Why now?” some may ask. Lead vocalist Geoff Tate provides a frank answer in a recent interview: “I think we’re in even worse shape as a society than when we wrote the original. It’s something I couldn’t ignore. We’ve lost the capacity to know the truth because everything is spin.” True that.
With every member (except newcomer Mike Stone) now over the age of 40, I personally held little hope of R?che ever coming close to the brilliance of the original Mindcrime (which they recorded while all still in their passionate twenties), but I did hope the new album would surpass their last three (because, quite frankly, I was about to stop buying any of their new albums). Without key member Chris DeGarmo on board though, my hopes were slim, to say the least.
It was startling how anxious I was right before listening to this album. I wondered nervously if the old (intense) feelings that the original aroused in me would come back. Would R?che be able to work their black magic and draw people into another tormented alternate reality again? I won’t answer that question, but I will gladly say that Operation: Mindcrime II is far and away the best of their last three (now four) albums.
I considered summarizing the story and plot, but then decided I didn’t want to spoil it for anyone, because that’s half the fun of great concept albums – figuring it out. I will tell you the bare essentials: the story takes place 18-20 years after the original; Nikki has been doing time in prison while Dr. X has grown rich and powerful; after Nikki is released from prison, he’s hell bent on revenge against Dr. X. If you want to know more (including the identity of Mary’s killer), buy the album.
Musically, Mindcrime II is an intriguing mix of contemporary Metal and the early Progressive Metal (with lots of guitar solos and duets) that Queensr?che pioneered. It manages to sound both fresh and familiar at the same time. And most importantly, the spirit of the new album feels the same as the original.
The album explores several themes, with two of the most interesting and prevalent being the roles revenge and forgiveness play in our lives. How well does revenge work as a means to an end? Is forgiveness an alternative strategy? Lead vocalist Geoff Tate states in an interview that the whole album is really a study in revenge and what it does to a person.
Two other themes the album deals with are the ability to change and the impact love can have, as epitomized in the songs “If I Could Change It All,” “A Junkie’s Blues,” and the last track, “All the Promises.”
I believe any fan of the first Mindcrime will delight in this follow-up. It’s diverse, thought-provoking, and emotional. What I’m not sure of is if it will appeal to many new fans. Compared to most Progressive Metal bands these days, it’s not the heaviest music around, and not only is it musically (and story-wise) a mix of the old and the new, it is meant to be listened to as a whole. All 17 songs are arranged so that they flow into each other. As Tate says in an interview, “I’m proud of the fact that this album doesn’t make any compromises – it’s really an anomaly in an age where people have short attention spans and don’t listen to albums. The songs are strong enough to stand on their own, but the album was written to be played from start to finish – to be experienced as a whole – not shuffled around randomly.”
The album starts with a moody instrumental lead in, then there’s a short piece where we learn that Nikki is being released from prison, and then we get to the first song: “I’m American.” Right away, you know that R?che’s long absent cultural acrimony is back, this time lashing out at the culture of entitlement. The song, with its hardcore and punk-rock influences, is very different from any other song R?che has ever done. Admittedly, I didn’t like it when I first heard it, but it’s grown on me and I’m actually fond of it now.
The album proceeds from there much like the first Mindcrime – the story unravels and the songs and interludes vary from hard and aggressive to soft and mournful. There are repeating musical motifs throughout, and you’ll hear bits a pieces of melodies from the original Mindcrime – just enough to let you know this is the continuation of that album/story. Geoff Tate’s singing fits the album well. His vocals are older and deeper, reflecting perfectly Nikki, who is himself around 40 years old now. It may sound like there’s less passion at times, but that’s how it is growing older – you’re a little wiser, a little more even. There is a welcome return of guitar solos throughout, and even the Latin chants make a return (“If I Could Change It All”).
Ronnie James Dio makes a guest appearance as Doctor X on the song, “The Chase.” He and Tate sing an operatic duet that’s just plain great. The second half of the album has an ethereal, haunting sound to it that is quite moving. Pamela Moore (aka Sister Mary) returns to sing on “If I Could Change It All,” and also the last track, “All the Promises,” which is a beautiful, sad duet between her and Tate. This ending song is quite the contrast from the loud, aggressive conclusion to the original Mindcrime. The song fades away like a melancholy dream, the lyrics a shrewd reminder of what is truly important in this day and age of war and terrorism and non-stop entertainment.
It’s obvious the band members put a lot of work into this album: it is meticulously put together; the guitars and vocals are strong; and it all pays tremendous dividends. Clocking in at 59:42, Mindcrime II is 29 seconds longer than the original. How does it compare to the original? That’s an unfair question. Nothing could compare to the first Mindcrime. That said, Mindcrime II has surpassed all of my expectations and, in my opinion, is good enough to be a nominee for 2006 Album of the Year at TTM. (I won’t speculate on its odds of winning, but I think if there was a category for Comeback Album of the Year that it would win hands down.)
After the first Mindcrime, it seemed to me like Queensr?che got lost in the desert and didn’t know where to go. Fortunately, they found their way out of the desert, and they did it not by running away from their past, but by accepting it – embracing it even. And that’s a lesson we can all learn from.