Something Else! Featured Artist: More Queen

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All of sudden, there is a flurry of activity surrounding Queen — prompting a rare second edition for the band in the Something Else! Featured Artist series.

Queen, which received the Global Icon award on Sunday at the 2011 MTV European Music Awards ceremony in Belfast, Ireland, is at work on a second collection of polished-up demos featuring the late Freddie Mercury. The project would follow Made in Heaven, released 16 years ago. “The songs are there,” guitarist Brian May says. “It’s just a question of finding time to get the right production.” May and drummer Roger Taylor are also considering a sequel to the long-running London musical “We Will Rock You,” which opened in May 2002.

That got us talking again about a few more favorites …

“FLASH” (FLASH GORDON, 1981): The theme song of a justly forgotten 1980 film “Flash Gordon,” this UK Top Ten hit was part of a goofy, thunderingly melodic, simply unforgettable soundtrack that could have been composed and performed by no other band. Who else, really, would you call to score a movie about the fight by a football player and his friends (including future 1980s-era James Bond Timothy Dalton) to save Earth from the terrible machinations of a fu-manchu-ed overlord from the fluorescent world of Mongo?

Of course, the edited version of the dialogue on “Flash” is all you ever need to know about the film itself, a unwatchable bit of B-movie sci-fi schlock despite the presence of Max Von Sydow as Ming (no kidding) The Merciless. Still, taken together with Queen’s outsized sense of pop proportion — who can forget that thudding bass line, as May, Taylor and Mercury sing our hero’s name like a spark of ozone? — the band arrives at a kitschy hand-in-glove symbiosis. Flash Gordon actually works seamlessly within the movie itself, creating the kind of aural landscape that makes it inseparable from the work. (Like Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” soundtrack, though forgive me for saying it in this context.)

Composed by guitarist Brian May, “Flash” again incorporates the synthesized modern sound of their uneven project of the year before, The Game, because it was, in fact, recorded simultaneously. Still, you could argue that this album retains a fizzier creativity, despite the fact that all but two of the tracks are instrumentals. Paste “Under Pressure” on the back of this project, as the Queen did with 1982’s Hot Space, and it might be the better album — if only for the way Flash Gordon mirrors its subject’s story arc, from the title track here to Queen’s heavy-metal howl on “Battle Theme.” Well, and the fact that it sounds like they are having a whole lot more fun. — Nick DeRiso

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Did you miss our first Featured Artist piece on Queen? Click here for thoughts on key cuts from favorite albums like ‘News of the World,’ ‘Sheer Heart Attack,’ ‘The Works’ and others.]

“’39” (NIGHT AT THE OPERA, 1975): I can’t recall the exact date, but I do know it was during Christmas vacation of 1975. I was a freshman in high school, and hanging out at my friend Geoffrey’s house. Some of his friends were there too, and as usual we were listening to music. Geoffrey was especially excited that day, telling us we just had to hear the new Queen album he recently purchased. I, for one, was not overly enthused, as the only song I was familiar with by them up to that point was “Killer Queen,” which was OK but not really my cup of clam chowder.

So Geoffrey slaps A Night at the Opera, the album he was raving about, onto the turntable — and boy, oh boy, did it hook me something fierce! Everybody in the room was floored by Queen’s musical promiscuity, which for most bands would sound forced and phony, but these guys succeeded on every level. We were all literally hypnotized by the strange, powerful sonics streaming forth from the stereo. That evening, I bought my own copy of A Night at the Opera, and to this day, it stands as of my favorite albums.

And that brings us to “’39,” the song I have chosen to drool about. Written and sung by Queen’s lead guitarist, Brian May, the track is perhaps the only real “normal” song on the record. By that, I mean, it’s a standard folk-rock tune, and would have probably been a big hit single had it been released a decade earlier. Sporting an uncanny resemblance to bands like the Byrds and the Beau Brummels, “’39” blinks and twinkles with to the cackling beat of ringing guitar pickings, stirring rhythms, wistful vocals and chains of pretty melodies. A relatively cosmic vibe also glazes the track, which accounts for the fact that it’s a mini-science fiction story, dealing with time travel. “‘39” is not the kind of song Queen is typically associated with, but then again, they never did fit into any one set category, so there you go … — Beverly Paterson

“OGRE BATTLE” (QUEEN II, 1974): There were few years better for Queen fans than 1974. Toward the end of the year, came the release of their third record Sheer Heart Attack, a bona fide rock classic. But the early part of that year also saw the release of their oft-shortchanged Queen II. My major from the University of Geekdom is in hard rock and heavy metal, but I have a strong minor in fantasy and science fiction. In fact, it’s probably a double-major now that I think about it. So it should come as no surprise that Queen II is my favorite record in the band’s catalog and one of my favorite records, period. It should also come as no surprise that I’m more drawn to the Black Side, which features darker and heavier numbers like “March of the Black Queen” and “Seven Seas of Rhye.”

Among all of those songs, though, “Ogre Battle” stands above as my favorite for a few reasons. If you consider “Stone Cold Crazy” the first thrash metal song — and I do — then you’ve got to agree that “Ogre Battle” might well be the first symphonic power metal song. It has all of the hallmarks of the genre: heavier riffs, a galloping verse, some soaring vocals and an over-the-top arrangement.

In the true fashion of a riddle from fantasy, the song begins at the end. It fades in with the ringing of the final gong in reverse, which leads to a very “Flash Gordon” vocal high note as they play the tape of the last 40 seconds or so of the song backwards. Somewhere along the way, the noise becomes the main guitar riff of the song, a heavy thrash-like beast from Brian May. Then we’re in more familiar territory with the galloping rock verse and almost funky chorus that builds back up to that heavy riff and some soaring screams from Mercury. There’s some dirty, bluesy rock ’n’ roll sprinkled in, too. May’s solo really makes the song, though, mixed with pig-like squeals and some beats and bangs that simulate, well, what an ogre battle might sound like.

Queen II belongs in any discussion of the band’s best records, and for me, it even tops Sheer Heart Attack and the venerable A Night at the Opera. It’s a majestic beast, bordering at times on insane, and “Ogre Battle” is just one of many near-perfect symphonic rock pieces in the collection. — Fred Phillips

“INNUENDO” (INNUENDO, 1991): While Queen had gone in a bit more of a pop direction through the 1980s, the onset of the 1990s saw a return to the musical adventurousness they exhibited in the 1970s. Brian May’s guitar work is some of the best of his career, as heard on the title track from the last album Queen released before Freddie’s passing.

A Spanish guitar about halfway through the song segues into the tight trademark Queen vocal harmonies, then makes way for a great Brian May electric guitar — something that really put the exclamation mark on the band’s career, and on Freddie’s life. It’s sad we had to lose Freddie, but Innuendo shows he went out with a bang. — Perplexio, from DancingAboutArchitecture and The Review Revue

“YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND” (A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, 1975): This is the perfect pop moment for Queen, the crossroads where Freddie Mercury’s unerring command at the mic collides with composer John Deacon’s hooky pop brilliance, then is made complete by Brian May’s underrated facility at the hit-single burst of guitar verve. By the time this track is over, Queen has added the flaxen AM-era lovey ballad to a resume of things it did with an almost offhanded ease — everything from the operatic stuff to the heavy stuff, from the symphonic stuff to the showtune stuff, to the stuff that somehow combined all of the above.

Playing a barky Wurlitzer electric piano, Deacon opens “Best Friend” with a bubble-gum pop of sunshine — giving the tune a veneer so shiny that, at first, it’s difficult to pinpoint as a Queen song. If there were any doubts, though, in bursts Mercury — pushing his voice toward places that your average pop singer wouldn’t dare, sounding at times simply astonished and at other in the throes of a rapturous delight. (Always loved the way, too, that Mercury’s vocal is mixed to one side for a portion of the song, giving the lyrics a confidential urgency.)

May’s solo, meanwhile, is best described as a crafty wink. His drive-by burst of mirthful wonder is gone almost as quickly as it begins, becoming quickly obscured by the only thing that could — Queen’s soaring, impossibly luminous background vocals. Their message? “I’m happy … at home.”

It was the perfect message from Deacon, of course, who would retire from the band — leaving only May and drummer Roger Taylor to carry on after Mercury’s passing. — Nick DeRiso

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The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
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