|What's The Big Idea?
by Malcolm Dome
DRUGS, MURDER, RELIGION, MIND control... it's all part of the 'Operation: Mindcrime' fabric, one woven on both conscious and sub-conscious levels to strip away the decaying edifice that is American society. In many ways'.. .Mindcrime' is more of a rock opera than just a concept album, although it doesn't strictly adhere to the rock opera guidelines laid down by The Who with Tommy'.
'Operation: Mindcrime' came at an interesting time for both the band and rock music. Queensryche had arrived on the scene in the early 80s with a flamboyant, unique mix of great riffs and epic attitudes. Their two albums before'.. .Mindcrime' - 1984's "The Warning' and 'Rage For Order' two years later - were frustrating in that they showed a band desperately trying to break free of the restrictive constraints applied by the metal genre, yet somehow inextricably reliant on these self-same limitations. But in 1988 Queensryche found their mark and their range with one of the most extraordinary albums of its time, and one that set such high standards that it has since become something of a millstone around the necks of the Seattle band that recorded it.
The late 80s weren't a time for conceptual records, so it was with something approaching trepidation that many learnt of Queensryche's plan. But as guitarist Chris De Garmo pointed out at the time: "A concept album was something the band had fancied doing for some time, and was extremely challenging to put together. We wanted the music to paint a picture. We had a vision, and worked very hard on the segues."
The concept itself seems rather simple on the surface. There are three main characters: Nikki is a down and out who lives on the street and fuels his hatred via the needle and the vein, injecting heroin to numb the pain, but he only succeeds in adding more twisted bitterness to his unreasoned hatred. Nikki's life takes a turn into a very dark alley when he encounters the sinister Dr X, who directs his own fury and violence towards revolutionary ends as he seeks radical political changes for his own ends. The third character is Sister Mary, hired by Dr X to become Nikki's conscience so that he can go on his murderous spree without recourse to remorse. The problems arise when Nikki and Mary become lovers, and when Dr X believes that the latter has outlived her usefulness. The doctor orders Nikki to kill Mary in one final act, which would render the drug-addled killer completely without conscience or individual thought.
What happens next is open-ended. Nikki refuses to carry out X's orders, but finds Mary dead, hanged by her rosary. Is he responsible? Or did X find someone else to carry out his instructions? It never becomes clear. What gives the entire storyline a neat twist is that it's told in flashback as Nikki - now under arrest for several murders - tries to piece together the tattered and frayed remnants of his memory of events. The album ends with the unmistakable whisper: 'I remember now'. What does he actually recall? We never quite find out. And where is Dr X? In fact, does he really exist at all, or is he merely a figure conjured up by Nikki to explain his indefensible actions? Once again, it's left to the listener to examine and resolve.
"The story is set in contemporary times," DeGarmo said of the record back in 1988, "and there is a bit of finger-pointing at certain things going on in America. It has a cynical edge to it, but disguised in a fictional tale." You have to remember that in the late 80s America was gripped for the first time by the specter of TV evangelists, preaching their bigotry as a religious crusade. In many ways Queensryche used the metaphor of physical addiction to mirror spiritual enslavement. The right-wing polemicists who dominated American society are really all Dr Xs - and still are to this day. They try to sway and persuade in any way, shape or form in order to give the repressive regimens a decent, reasonable face. They use any outlets or public figures for this end -even rock stars, hence the Sister Mary figure. As for Nikki, isn't he the ordinary person on the street, driven to acts of incalculable horror because they believe in a cause that has robbed them of individual thought? The pressure of society for us all to conform can be a deadly killer - never question, only obey.
Some people found Queensryche's failure to resolve the whole story both annoying and also a sign that the band themselves were unable to come up with a convincing ending. But the beauty of this concept is that it does make us all think. It isn't a far-fetched universe, with a trite beginning, middle and end, but a resolute piece of challenging prose, poetry and music.
What sets 'Operation: Mindcrime' apart from many other concept albums is not the way the storyline is developed, but the fact that there is an extraordinary synergy between the music and the lyrics. The whole record has a range, depth and edge that never slips or stutters. While much of the credit for this should be given to the band and producer Peter Collins, they also took the bold step of using renowned British actor Anthony Valentine to voice the words of Dr X. It was an inspired move, as he brought a velvety yet menacing iciness to the role that gives the malevolence a sense of purpose.
'Operation: Mindcrime' was released in May 1988 to almost universal acclaim, and it quickly became easily the band's best-selling album (and would remain so), reaching No.58 in the US chart and No. 50 in the UK. It continues to sell consistently even now, and long ago passed the million-selling mark in America. But in a way, the record sounded the death knell for Queensryche. The album cemented them the reputation as the "thinking man's metal band', and although the five-piece studiously avoided the concept route ever since, the long shadow cast by '.. .Mindcrime' is one from which they've never managed to escape.
In May 1991, while touring with their next album, 'Empire', the band filmed and recorded shows in Milwaukee and Wisconsin when they performed the whole of their celebrated conceptual piece. From this material came the box set 'Operation: LIVEcrime', containing a video and album of these events. The album and video have subsequently also been issued separately.
'Operation: Mindcrime' is arguably the greatest metal concept album of all time. Only Iron Maiden's 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son' and Savatage's 'Streets: A Rock Opera' come even close to matching its majesty, allure and enduring appeal to generations of fans. It was as if Queensryche were always destined to make this one album. Post-'.. .Mindcrime', their career never quite seemed the same. They may not have gone into commercial decline for some while afterwards, but nothing they've done since comes out of the comparison looking more than just ordinary.
There has been constant talk of a'.. .Mindcrime' movie or play, but as yet nothing has come to fruition. One day, however, we might see Queensryche's finest moment translated onto another medium. It's also worth noting that the warnings and prophecies contained within the album's storyline have never been more relevant. Now that is scary.