There are many albums out there in music-land which are described as concept albums, concerning themselves with a particular theme. There are a handful which are more ambitious, pushing beyond a unifying theme and attempting to tell one story from beginning to end. Of those that fill this latter camp, I don’t think there are any that do it as well as Queensryche’s superb Operation: Mindcrime.
My first exposure to this album was when I saw Queensryche live at the Edinburgh Playhouse during their Building Empires tour (in support of their Empire album) way back in 1990. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and had only just purchased Empire (on a whim). It totally blew me away and when I discovered (by chance and just a few days before the gig) that Queensryche were playing the Playhouse I felt compelled to try and get a ticket. My luck was in and so I went to see the show with only Empire as a point of reference.
The set list during that tour included a complete performance of Operation: Mindcrime, 6 or 7 tracks from Empire and a handful of songs that I later learned were from The Warning and Rage For Order. The first half of the show contained mainly Empire material and it was as good live as on the album. But then came the Mindcrime segment of the show. It was incredibly impressive both musically and visually and it was obvious that the story being told hung together cohesively. I had no choice other then to get me hence and acquire the CD as a matter of urgency. My local HMV was only too willing to oblige and a day or so later, Mindcrime joined Empire on my creaking CD shelves.
Musically, the album is guitar driven and at the more complex end of the progressive metal spectrum. The musicianship of all players is outstanding but, for me, Geoff Tate’s vocal gymnastics steal the show. From angst torn whisper to full on metal scream his voice soars up and down to draw out a range of emotional responses as the Mindcrime story unfolds – a truly memorable performance.
But, I hear you cry, what about the story contained in the album itself. Well, based on my reading of the lyrics, here’s my interpretation of it.
(Note – what follows may differ from the tale as told on the Queensryche web site.)
It begins with our anti-hero waking up in a hospital, unsure of who he is or how he got there. This scene is set for us in the opening track, I Remember Now, which begins with sounds of a hospital ward – doctors being paged, the sound of footsteps, a tv news bulletin announcing that a suspect is currently in custody as a rather unsympathetic nurse gives the suspect another shot.
Nurse: Sweet dreams, you bastard.
And slowly, the bastard – Nikki – begins to remember what he has done.
Scene thusly set, the opus proper begins with the driving instrumental pulse of Anarchy X. This is followed by Revolution Calling, in which we learn of Nikki’s disaffection with the American way and how he yearns for, well, revolution
I’m tired of all this bullshit
They keep selling me on T.V.
About the communist plan
And all the shady preachers
Begging for my cash
Swiss bank accounts while giving their
Secretaries the slam
Up next is the title track, in which we are introduced to Dr. X who pushes the drug and talk of revolution that seduces Nikki, turning him into “a one man death machine” that will “make this city bleed”.
In Speak, Nikki tells of how he has become a “Death Angel with a gun”, doing Dr. X’s bidding each time he is called upon to do so – all the while believing that he is making a difference by creating a new Utopia.
Let’s tip the power balance and tear down their crown
Educate the masses, we’ll burn the White House down
The album’s sixth track, Spreading the Disease, introduces us to the other main players of this tale. Mary, a young prostitute who became a nun, and Father William, the corrupt priest who “saved her from the streets” only to use her for his own dark ends. We are also given further insight into how bleak and immoral the world has become in Nikki’s eyes.
Religion and sex are power-plays
Manipulate the people for the money they pay
Selling skin, selling God
The numbers look the same on their credit cards
Politicians say no to drugs
While we pay for wars in South America
Track seven Nikki reflecting on his life and The Mission he is undertaking. We also learn that he is growing increasingly attached to Sister Mary. She is the one who takes care of him, salves his conscience and washes his sins away. We also learn of Nikki’s hope that the new world will look back kindly on his mission.
They’ll say my mission saved the world
And I stood proud
My mission changed the world
The underground will rise and
Save this world we’ll all stand proud
Our mission changed the world, we’ll change the world
We’ll all stand proud
Suite Sister Mary is, as the name suggests, Operation Mindcrime’s magnum opus. It opens with the lines:
Dr. X: Kill her. That’s all you have to do.
Nikki: Kill Mary?
Dr. X: She’s a risk. And get the priest as well.
As commanded, Nikki sets off to kill Mary. He is able to kill Father William but his attachment to Mary has become too great and he cannot kill her. He flees the scene having decided to tell Dr. X that he will kill no more but the good doctor reminds Nikki of his dependency and addiction and how getting out is not all that simple. Nikki is also reminded of how the addicts impression is not to be trusted after all, The Needle Lies.
Nikki returns to the church to get Mary so they can flee together but to his horror finds that she too is dead – Electric Requiem. Once again Nikki is forced to run as the illusory world that has been constructed for him begins to fall apart – did he kill Mary without realising it? Breaking the Silence describes his headlong flight and the madness that besets him as he screams into the night, desperately calling for Mary even though she is gone.
As the next track, I Don’t Believe in Love, begins Nikki is captured and taken into custody by the police.
I awoke on impact
Under surveillance from the camera eye
Searching high and low
The criminal mind found at the scene of the crime
Handcuffed and blind, I didn’t do it
She said she loved me
I guess I never knew
But do we ever, ever really know?
She said she’d meet me on the other side
But I knew right then, I’d never find her
Mary is gone, his life is in tatters and he is in the grip of both madness and denial. He tells himself that none of it was real and that all he has to do is forget Mary and everything will be all right. But despite his efforts he cannot blot Mary’s face from his memory.
After the chaos and heart-stopping pace of Nikki’s deterioration into madness the instrumental Waiting for 22 is something of a gentle interlude. It slows things down and sets the scene for My Empty Room, in which Nikki recognises the horror of what he has done, committing murder to remove those Dr. X wished to silence. He cannot pretend that he is innocent but must instead face reality and accept the consequences of his actions.
And so the album closes with Nikki both reflecting on what he has done and considering his reflection, only to find that he is looking into the Eyes of a Stranger. Confined and alone, he no longer recognises himself. All that remains is an existence haunted by the memories of what he has done as he relives them again and again.
All alone now
Except for the memories
Of what we had and what we knew
Every time I try to leave it behind me
I see something that reminds me of you
Every night the dreams return to haunt me
Your rosary wrapped around your throat
I lie awake and sweat, afraid to fall asleep
I see your face looking back at me
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
~ fin ~
So there you have it, Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime as interpreted by me. All mistakes are my own and should in no way reflect on what I consider to be one of the finest concept albums yet released.