Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

Who killed Mary? That’s the takeaway on probably the finest concept album ever created by a prog-metal band. Before Queensryche’s third album, the band already had an impressive collection of unique metal material, but Operation: Mindcrime not only progressed their sound and voice, but added the element of a timely and complex plot that tied together the 15 tracks on this epic album.

The album tells this story, in a nutshell: It starts with a guy in a hospital bed, who is piecing together everything that happened to him recently. His name’s Nikki, and he’s sedated and in some type of prison/insane asylum, and a TV news broadcast about his crime snaps him back to the beginning. He was a junkie in New York City (this was the pre-Disnified NYC, I guess – he wasn’t a hipster doofus heroin addict in Williamsburg or anything) and he got pulled into this secret society planning a revolution, run by a guy named Doctor X. This X guy uses the heroin’s influence to train Nikki ala The Manchurian Candidate to kill people when he calls him on the phone and says “Mindcrime.” Nikki hooks up with Sister Mary, a former whore who is also brainwashed and is now a nun for a guy named Father William, a sort of archetype for all of the bad televangelism going on back in the late 80s. His relationship with Mary starts to snap Nikki out of the mind control funk. Doctor X sees the threat and commands Nikki to kill Mary and the priest. He offs the priest, but can’t kill Mary, and the two of them decide to split from this whole Mindcrime mess. X isn’t cool with this, and Mary ends up killed (this isn’t explained, more in second.) Nikki goes insane, is arrested by the police for the murder of Mary, and hauled off to the padded cell. By the end of the album, he leaves his catatonia and all of this rushes back to him, in a powerful conclusion.

The reason this really works is that it’s a timely message: televangelists ripping off old ladies; politicians ripping off the people; corporations ripping off the government. It’s every late-eighties demon from the Reaganomics era wrapped up in a nice little package. But unlike the metaphorical one-song stories of earlier albums, this one is set in present-day, and directly follows a protagonist. It doesn’t preach like later albums, which is a minor complaint I’ve had about Tate’s lyrics since Mindcrime. It’s the old Creative Writing 101 first lesson (and a song by Rush): show, don’t tell. If you write a song that says “the federal government doesn’t like black people” (“Empire,” sort of), it isn’t interesting. When you pull me through a story of a heroin junkie turned mind control puppet assassin, I get it.

Okay, so who killed Mary? This is left ambiguous, with at least three possibilities: One is that Nikki killed her, while in a trance. Another is that Doctor X or another mindcrime zombie killed her, and Nikki was set up to take the fall. Or, maybe Mary killed herself, either to get out of the futile situation, or because Doctor X commanded her to while she was in a trance. The lyrics of the album don’t make this clear, although (to ruin it for you), on the 2004 tour when the album was played in its entirety, it was made very clear that X called her and told her to shoot herself, and she complied. But for years, this wasn’t clear, and people micro-analyzed the lyrics like people micro-analyze the bible to find quotes that support video games and hybrid cars as being evil. (Check out this for a well-done example of this.) This was further confused by the Video: Mindcrime collection, which people also overanalyzed for clues. I remember following the metal usenet newsgroups back in the early 90s, and there was still an ongoing debate about this well after Empire was released. That drove me batshit at the time, but I have to admit it was somewhat genius to leave this ambiguous, and it’s a minor letdown to actually know the answer now.

(Another story line that is more ambiguous than you might think is whether Nikki and Mary were actually sexually involved, or just pals. For some reason, I always assumed they were, but as the site above mentions, it’s not explicitly mentioned in the lyrics. It’s one of those things like how you can read between the lines in the bible and see whether or not Adam had a wife before Eve. )

Mindcrime‘s sound in general is pretty lofty stuff. Produced by Peter Collins, it’s pretty dynamic, with a lot of power behind it, and ranges from the very mellow (“My Empty Room”) to downright speedy (“The Needle Lies”). The sound isn’t as thick or produced as Rage For Order, but there’s a lot more going on. Add to this the intros and performances that stitch together the album, and you’ve got some pretty impressive recording work. The production would be an order of magnitude better on Empire, but it’s pretty damn good here.

(Aside: the start of the album, in the hospital, has a sample of an announcement that says “Dr. Blair, Dr. Blair; Dr. J. Hamilton, Dr. J. Hamilton.” This is a stock sound effect and has appeared everywhere over the last few decades. I just spotted it last week in an AT&T commercial. I’ve heard it in TV shows, movies, commercials, and it even showed up in an intro in a Motley Crue album, which was pretty stupid to me.)

Another great addition to the album is that of Mary herself, played by Pamela Moore. Moore is a singer also from the Seattle area, who has since flirted with a pop/technica career over the years. For years I heard the rumor that she was Tate’s vocal/opera coach, but I’ve since read the band heard her in a commercial and recruited her for the album. She sings a duet with Tate in the song “Suite Sister Mary”. It clocks in at 10:41 (the entire album is just shy of an hour long) and features a mix of neo-classical elements and latin chanting with rock elements for a slower but very sinister and dramatic number, and Moore’s performance is absolutely spot-on and punches up Tate’s operatic abilities much more than was present in any solo work previous to this.

This album has a lot of personal meaning to me. I remember getting it the day it came out in 1988 and spending an entire weekend listening to it nonstop, trying to find clues. From the first second of the blasting beginning to “Anarchy-X,” I was absolutely hooked. I spent the summer of 1988 listening to this album constantly, and it carried over as a frequent listen well into the summer of 1989, too. (The album took over a year to gain popularity and reach gold status.) In my freshman year, when I started using the VAX mainframe computers, I set my process name to “Doctor X” and kept it that way for the majority of my time in college. For a while, this album seemed dated, and then suddenly, around 2000 or so, all of the lyrics made total sense again. That’s probably why they made a sequel, but it was nowhere near the quality of this masterpiece. As far as concept albums or examples of progressive metal, it does not get any better than this.

Rating: 10