Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime stands as one of the best concept albums ever

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“I remember now.”

Damn, this album is fantastic. I always seem to forget just how good it is when I go a little while without listening to it. Then, every now and then, usually when a disappointing new Queensryche record or solo album from former frontman Geoff Tate hits the shelves, I find myself reaching for it again. Each time, I’m amazed all over by how great it is and how well it holds up nearly a quarter century later.

I’m sitting at my desk on a Saturday night working when I pop Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime into my computer and put the headphones in. The opening of the concept comes on with the nurse coming in to check on the psychiatric patient, that deep “I remember now” after she leaves as he begins to recall events and the slowly building instrumental piece “Anarchy-X” that eventually explodes, after a brief lull, into the soaring “Revolution Calling.” By the time we hit the first chorus, I’m alternately playing air drums and guitar and bobbing and banging my head to the music. I’m getting strange looks across the room, but I don’t care. You have to enjoy this record properly.

I once saw an interview where Geoff Tate, who has tried over the years to distance himself from the metal label, said that Operation: Mindcrime — released this month in 1988 — wouldn’t be considered heavy metal by modern standards. I don’t know what record he’s listening to, but when the band rips into songs like “Speak” or the blistering “The Needle Lies,” I don’t know what else you could call it. Regardless of what some of today’s acts seem to believe, metal doesn’t require dissonant bashing or a screaming/growling vocalist. Yes, this is metal, and one of the finest examples of the genre.

Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime is a concept album, based pretty tightly on the story of a heroin addict named Nikki who gets involved with a secret revolutionary organization run by a man known only as Dr. X. As the album opens, Nikki is in a psychiatric hospital with amnesia, but reports on television of political assassinations suddenly bring memories flooding back through the rest of the album.

Controlled by his addiction, Nikki is put to use by Dr. X, but when he meets a prostitute-turned-nun named Sister Mary, he begins to question his actions. Seeing the threat, Dr. X orders him to kill Mary and the corrupt priest at her church. Nikki can’t go through with it, and tells Dr. X that he wants out, but Nikki is still controlled by his addiction. He returns to Mary only to find her dead and begins the rapid descent into insanity that lands us back at the beginning of the album.

Concept albums are tricky devils. Often, a slavish devotion to the story means that the music suffers. With Operation: Mindcrime, Queensryche delivered that rare example that remains completely focused on the story, but also provides an outstanding musical experience. Every song, every lyric on the record advances the tale of Nikki, yet never does the listener feel like that story is dictating the direction of the music. There isn’t a weak moment or a song that I ever skip from start to finish on this album. It features a great ebb and flow of contemplative pieces and instrumentals and raging rockers that keep the tension and drama up throughout.

I remember as a high schooler thinking the concept was one of the coolest things ever and debating with my friends for hours about what some of the passages meant. As I’ve grown older, the concept of Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime seems a bit less likely and what’s going on seems pretty straightforward — or maybe I’m just not looking for secrets anymore like I was then — but it hasn’t weakened the experience of listening to the record in any way.

For me, Operation: Mindcrime is easily one of the best hard rock albums to come out of the 1980s, more thoughtful and musically accomplished than many of its contemporaries, and it features some classic songs in the genre. Who can forget that sinister echoing main guitar riff of the title track, the epic “Suite Sister Mary,” the soaring “I Don’t Believe in Love” or the haunting finale to the whole tale, “Eyes of a Stranger?” That last song is, arguably, Queensryche’s finest moment — a perfect combination of moody brooding and blazing rock ‘n’ roll, accented by one of Geoff Tate’s finest vocal performances.

At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, they just don’t make rock concept albums like Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime anymore. Heck, very few of them were made at any time. You’ve got tight riffs and lead harmonies from the twin guitars of Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo, great hooks, an interesting — if not completely plausible — story and Tate wailing like an air-raid siren.

It’s absolute musical mastery. What’s not to love?

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelse reviews.com.
Fred Phillips
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  • Mason Leightle

    agree wholeheartedly…..the countless times I listened to this, that feeling I got after the last track of the album, Eyes of a Stranger, where you just felt like you listened to something great and shared in some amazing transformation of the genre ….Queensryche deserved their just desserts at this point. There were so many great moments on Rage for Order, and they capitulated on that and delivered an even greater follow up with Operation Mindcrime; and while Geoff delivered masterful concept/lyrics, it was Wilton and DeGarmo who delivered the musical cherry on top. To that point, there were quite a few metal concept albums, cuz there was so much devils/demons and dungeons and dragons b.s. you couldn’t take the them, music or the bands seriously. Operation Mindcrime? There is absolutely nothing wrong with this album. I still think today Operation Mindcrime is at level or even better than the other great concept album of the 20th century, Pink Floyd’s the Wall, with these advantages; The Wall is a personal diary, and you almost have to be willing to live vicariously through Roger Water’s vision to get what it’s about, Operation Mindcrime, with Revolution Calling, I Don’t Believe in Love, Eyes of a Stranger, these songs actually connect with feelings people have every day..the music propels it to even greater heights. Geoff doesn’t know what he is talking about the last 20 years and his disconnect from what Queensryche was, to his fans mostly, has left him ostracized from the band and their history.

  • Nancy Fox

    I was actually sitting here thinking this is the best album EVER. I really enjoyed reading your article. Perfect decription of a perfect musical masterpiece.

  • Hefty

    So, I’m listening to Debatable on the SiriusXM station Volume today where they were discussing various bands’ peak albums. Metallica, Bon Jovi, etc… A guy calls in and drops this album into the discussion. Boom.
    I was 17 when Operation: Mindcrime came out, and it simply flabbergasted me and all of my friends. We also poured over each lyric back then, looking for every possible meaning. The thing we all could agree on what the the music was KILLER front to back. When you put it on, there was no stopping until the whole album (and the ‘mental movie’ in our heads was over). Brilliant concept, excellent storytelling, but let’s be honest, this would have gone nowhere if the so gs were there. And goddamn, the songs were there.
    Funny thing is that when I listened back then, I always insisted that this was science fiction; it just had to be futuristic. Listening to it now, it seems modern, and I don’t see how I could have thought that this story took place in the future at all. Sickeningly enough, the topics in the songs are 100% relevant, perhaps even more relevant today than they were in 1988.

    A brilliant album then and now.

    • Traci Hoffman

      I was wondering when I was listening to this the other day what the band must think as they watch the news today. Crazy.

  • Traci Hoffman

    This is so funny to me now. I just did this exact same thing with Operation Mindcrime and even in my older age now i still think it’s hands down one of the best albums ever. I’m glad I found this review.

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