In 1988, Queensryche was a little known band. They had recorded and released two solid, yet unspectacular albums, The Warning and Rage for Order. Their third album, however, would go on to both define them and set them up for long-term failure. Operation: Mindcrime was an anomaly - a concept album from a heavy metal band, rife with operatic music and vocals. It took a while for the album to gain traction, but when it did it exploded into the musical landscape.
The album’s concept was simple, and used many familiar tropes. The characters were over-simplified as well. There was a protagonist, the reformed druggie Nikki. There was his antagonist, the “mysterious” Dr. X. There was a corrupt priest named Father William, and there was a prostitute-turned-nun (I’m not kidding here) named Sister Mary. These were over generalized caricatures, falling prey to the easiest characterization allowed. However the sum of their parts made up for their lack of developed individuality. These people were part of a radical underground band of revolutionaries, and Nikki was the unwilling assassin, who was activated when Dr. X would call him on the phone and say, “Mindcrime.” Again, not kidding. Without spoiling anything, Nikki winds up in a mental institution and the album is his memory of how he came to be there. Believe me, the concept is not the reason to listen to the album, but some song lyrics are surprisingly relevant today.
The first song, “Revolution Calling,” speaks to the media and how networks like FOX are unable to remain unbiased:
I used to trust the media to tell me the truth, tell us the truth/But now I’ve seen the payoffs everywhere I look/Who do you trust when everyone’s a crook?
The song “Speak” talks about how the government is irrevocably corrupt and broken:
The system we learn says we’re equal under law/But the streets are reality, the weak and poor will fall/Let’s tip the power balance and tear down their crown/Educate the masses, we’ll burn the White House down
Another energetic cut is “Spreading the Disease,” with music to match the surprisingly potent lyrics:
Fighting fire with empty words/While the banks get fat/And the poor stay poor/And the rich get rich/And the cops get paid/To look away/As the one percent rules America
The final song I’ll share isn’t shared so much for what it says but for how it’s said. The song is about a dependency on opiates, specifically shot through needles. This song fucking blisters, turn it up:
Wet and raving/The needle keeps calling me back/To bloody my hands forever/Carved my cure with the blade/That left me in scars/Now every time I’m weak/Words scream from my arm
These are just a few examples of what you’ll find on Operation: Mindcrime. While the album was fantastic, it became something that would unfortunately overshadow the band and turn them into something the public wanted. After three years, the album finally reached mainstream success, going platinum. However by this time, the band was looked upon as a heavy metal version of Pink Floyd; a hybrid prog-rock/arthouse/metal band. This narrative was pushed when the band released their follow up, Empire. Empire went on to achieve great acclaim, most notably with the singles Jet City Woman, Empire, and most famously Silent Lucidity, which did nothing to quell the Pink Floyd comparisons. Things went downhill from there.
Queensryche would forever after chase the shadow that Operation: Mindcrime cast. The band eventually split up, with the singer Geoff Tate leading a solo act, and the band replacing him and continuing to tour as Queensryche, constantly replaying the old hits. After having listened to the album over and over in high school, I recently got Mindcrime from iTunes, and I have played it fairly consistently over the past month. It still holds up. It’s not an album I’d bring if I were stranded on an island, but it’s still a solid listen. Give it a shot and let me know what you think in the comments.