100 Essential Albums of All Time – Queensrÿche, Operation: Mindcrime (1988)

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One of the greatest purposes of music is its ability to tell a story. Even if you go back to the times of Beethoven or Mozart, the purpose for their creations was to entertain an audience with a tale through musical composition. There is a modern-day equivalent to the masters of yore and their symphonies: the concept album.

Concept albums have been a part of the music landscape since the 1940s, believe it or not. The idea behind such creations is that the whole of the songs together on an album tell a larger story, rather than the individual songs themselves standing alone with different tales. It is thought that the first “concept album” was the 1940 release Dust Bowl Ballads from folk legend Woody Guthrie and crooner Frank Sinatra’s works through the 40s and 50s had elements of a concept album in their creation. To be honest, however, the concept album has been best done by the world of rock music.

There are several legendary rock groups that can potentially lay claim to the creative idea regarding the concept album. The Beach Boys (Pet Sounds), the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and The Who (Tommy) are some of the groups that are credited with bringing the concept album to rock music, with the term “rock opera” being bandied about, in the 1960s. As the 70s came, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway carried the torch.

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By the 1980s, however, the “rock opera” seemed to be a dying art. With the advent of Music Television (MTV), though, it became a prime opportunity for the concept album to make a return. Duran Duran did it well with an unofficial concept album in Rio (the songs weren’t necessarily telling a story, but the videos supporting the album were all filmed in Sri Lanka and Antigua, giving them an exotic feel and a common thread).

The concept album would make its biggest return in the world of hard rock/metal in the mid to late 1980s. Foremost practitioners of the concept album was the Seattle band Queensrÿche. Building a growing following with their early releases, the band was searching for a story that they could bring to their stage performances. They would come up with one of the classic albums in the history of heavy metal and a definitive entry into the concept album/rock opera Hall of Fame with the record Qperation: Mindcrime.

Operation: Mindcrime is the story of Nikki, a recovering addict who hates the corrupt, totalitarian society that he lives in. As Nikki lies in a near amnesiac state, memories slowly come flooding back to him. As a result of his dislike of the current socioeconomic state, Nikki joins a group that is thought to be “revolutionary” but, in reality, is a team of political assassins. Nikki is used by the leader of the group, the mysterious Dr. X., who looks to use certain members of the group for his own nefarious purposes. Dr. X uses Nikki’s heroin addiction to get him to submit to brainwashing techniques that, upon Dr. X uttering the word “mindcrime,” puts Nikki in a submissive state. This is what enables Dr. X to use him for whatever purpose he desires, in particular using Nikki to kill on command.

Nikki’s humanity begins to creep through, however. A corrupt priest who works for Dr. X gives the services of a prostitute-turned-nun named Sister Mary to Nikki. It is this relationship with Sister Mary that Nikki begins to question why he is doing the evil that Dr. X orders him to do. As his love for Mary grows, Nikki begins to assert himself, first killing the priest and then telling Dr. X that he no longer wants to work for him. Dr. X threatens to withhold his daily fix of heroin from Nikki to keep him in the fold, but Nikki refuses.

As Nikki returns to the church to tell Mary what has occurred, he comes upon her lifeless body. Not knowing whether he killed her or not due to his blackouts from his addiction, he slowly begins to go insane. The story ends with Nikki in a mental hospital under suspicion of killing Mary, now fully recovered from his amnesia but not knowing how he became the person he is today.

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Pretty intense stuff, huh?

When it was released in 1988, it WAS pretty intense stuff, especially for what some considered a “hair metal” band. But it was also hailed as one of the greatest concept albums ever done, put up beside The Who’s Quadrophenia and Floyd’s The Wall. The album made Queensrÿche superstars in the music world, spawning a sequel in Operation: Mindcrime II in 2006 (in which we learn that Sister Mary actually committed suicide after Dr. X threatened to kill Nikki to keep them apart) and sparking a musical career for the band that still exists today (albeit not with the same lineup; Tate left the group after Mindcrime II and Queensrÿche continues as a band without him).

What makes the album incredible is the story that is told. Sometimes you have to stretch to be able to grasp what an artist is trying to do with their work. With Operation: Mindcrime, however, there is absolutely no question of right or wrong in the story; it is entirely the case that Dr. X, with his evil organization, is attempting to use Nikki and, by extension, Mary, for his criminal ways. Another great thing is that, with Queensrÿche and Operation: Mindcrime, you can pick up at any point in the album and immediately know where you are in the story. The album also captures your attention, from Geoff Tate’s outstanding soaring vocals to the dual guitar attack from Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton, with the combination forming an all-out sonic assault that seems fitting for the story that is being told.

Operation: Mindcrime is not going to be for everyone’s taste. Some people won’t like the raw edge of the hard rock sound of Queensrÿche. But if that’s the only reason that people have for not hearing one of the most outstanding rock operas/concept albums of all time, then it is their fault for closing their minds.

Previous entries in the 100 Essential Albums of All-Time

Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)
The BusBoys, Minimum Wage Rock & Roll (1980)
Rockpile, Seconds of Pleasure (1980)
Metallica, …And Justice for All (1988)
Rick Wakeman, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974)

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Halestorm’s “ReAniMate 3.0,” Letters from the Fire’s “Worth the Pain” Two Worthy Hard Rock Efforts

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I’ve long been a music aficionado, especially the hard rock/metal genre. Sure, I’ll enjoy a Billy Joel concert (as I did most recently in Orlando) or even the newer pop music out there (my lovely wife and I went to the 2016 Jingle Ball, featuring Pitbull, Fifth Harmony, Martin Garrix, Chainsmokers and many other artists residing in the Top 40 today), but I always come back to my home. Perhaps it is the power of the guitars or the political nature of many of the lyrics (yes, they are saying something with their words and commentary – take the time to read the liner notes if you miss them the first time around), but hard rock/metal speaks to me more than many other genres in the industry.

Honestly, today’s hard rock/metal scene isn’t your granddaddy’s brand. The blues rock that such groups as Led Zeppelin, Cream, the Who and the Rolling Stones (yes, I am going to toss them in the hard rock genre – for their time, they were the “punks” of their era) bear little resemblance to the power drivers such as Metallica, Disturbed or even more pop-driven hard rock/metal bands like Breaking Benjamin or Shinedown. But they’re still hard rock/metal and still damned entertaining in their own right.

There’s a great deal of hard rock/metal out there right now, but these are two efforts that have caught my ear of late. If you’re looking for some great music, you might want to look these up.

Halestorm, ReAniMate 3.0

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Halestorm is one of the preeminent bands in the hard rock/metal genre today. Powered by the blistering vocals of Lzzy Hale (who happens to throw in badass guitar work also), the nimble and crushing lead guitars of Joe Hottinger and the guttural tempo setters in bassist Josh Smith and drummer AreJay Hale (Lzzy’s brother), Halestorm is one of the most popular acts in the business. That perch has allowed them to take on some pet projects, including the continuation of this series of cover EPs.

ReAniMate 3.0: The CoVeRs eP is the third in a series of “cover Eps” that Halestorm has issued over their career. The first, naturally called ReAniMate: The CoVeRs eP and released in 2011, brought a diverse selection of songs such as Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (one of the best covers of all-time in this writer’s opinion), the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and Skid Row’s “Slave to the Grind” under one artist. In each case, Halestorm took the songs and added their own touches to them, basically creating their own versions of songs people thought they knew (the exact challenge facing anyone who takes on a previously released tune).

That highly successful EP (how successful? A recent eBay auction for a signed copy of the CD went for $175) begged for a follow up and, after releasing a CD of their own material, Halestorm obliged their fans. ReAniMate 2.0: The CoVeRs eP was released in 2103 and followed in the same format as the first. This time around, Hale & Company took on Judas Priest (“Dissident Aggressor”), Daft Punk (“Get Lucky”), Pat Benatar (a natural in “Hell is for Children”) and Fleetwood Mac (“Gold Dust Woman”). It also seemed to leave the audience wanting more and, earlier this month, Halestorm would deliver again.

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ReAniMate 3.0: The CoVeRs eP rockets out of the gate with arguably the best song on the disc. The remake of Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” gets the unmistakable treatment from Hale and her mates, hedging close enough to the original that it is familiar but applying their own touch. Hale’s voice gives Whitesnake lead man David Coverdale a run for his money and the rest of the band is more than able to power out the song.

The second-best song on 3.0 is Halestorm’s take on the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts classic “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” On the first two discs, Hale and her group did not touch any Jett tunes, either solo or from her days in the Runaways. It seems as if it would be a perfect match and, in this case, it was, as Halestorm takes the Jett standard to new heights.

There was one clunker on the disc, however. I never was a fan of Sophie B. Hawkins and perhaps that is why I didn’t really care for the Halestorm remake of “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” While Hale can pull off the poppy tunes like this (and she’s already put some country artists to shame who dared try to match her on stage), it didn’t work for the remainder of the band, in my thought. This is the only down point of the record, however, as the rest of ReAniMate 3.0: The CoVeRs more than makes up for it. These cover Eps are nice, but it really whets the appetite for original Halestorm material that is supposed to come later this year.

Letters from the Fire, Worth the Pain

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Trying to reach the rarefied air that Halestorm exists in, the band Letters from the Fire have had a jaded history. Originally formed in 2007 as Park Lane, guitarist Mike Keller and high school friend Grayson Hurd found bassist Clayton Wages and singer Eliot Weber and mucked around the San Francisco area, eventually changing their name to Letters from the Fire in 2012. Following their debut release Rebirth, there was apparently another overhaul of the band, with Cameron Stuckey coming on as rhythm guitarist and, perhaps most importantly, shifting from Weber’s male voice to the female voice of Alexa Kabazie (with Hurd and Weber departing).

The changes have made a great deal of difference for Letters from the Fire. Their latest full-length album, Worth the Pain, is a magnum opus of their career. From start to finish, Keller, Kabazie and Company have put their entire heart and soul into the record. For that effort, they have created a 13-track crusher of an album.

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Where to start with the best songs of Worth the Pain? It comes out of the gate with “Perfect Life,” featuring Keller’s excellent lead guitar efforts and Kabazie’s emotional and powerful vocals. “Mother Misery” continues the high level of excellence out of the band and “Give in to Me” is simply outstanding. The title track is a powerful tune…it is angry, aggressive, and appropriate. “My Angel” has excellent tempo and mood changes throughout the song and “Holy Ghost” starts quietly but turns into a raging storm by the end.

If there were one qualm to have with this record from Letters from the Fire, it would be that the lyrical content could reach out a bit more. Most of the songs are of the “fuck you, you broke my heart” sentiment; there are indicators, though, that the band could stretch beyond this with some deeper lyrics. As this is the first effort from this lineup, it really raises some expectations for the follow up.

Letters from the Fire’s Worth the Pain is reminiscent of Amy Lee and Evanescence, but to lop them in with that band would be doing them a disservice. They’ve got the chops to stand on their own and they’ve got the experience. Now it is just a matter of driving to the end and the success that they seem destined for…and Letters from the Fire seem to have the spirit to do just that.

When U R Gone, What 2 Do with Ur Legacy

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It’s taken me a few days to come to grips with the death of the legend that is known as Prince and, to be honest, there aren’t words that can express the depths of the impact of his death. Barely older than myself at 57, Prince Rogers Nelson stepped into his elevator on Thursday last week at his sprawling Paisley Park recording studios/home in Minneapolis and, with no one else around, passed away inside the car. In one moment, another icon of the music industry had been stolen from the world.

2016 has been a particularly difficult year for iconic musical legends. The one most applicable to Prince was David Bowie (who also had a seismic impact on myself) and the two, if not cut from the same cloth, at least were in the same skein of fabric. Both were innovators in the music they created; they followed the path of their own choosing and, upon their death, it was automatically known that there would be no one else like either of them. Add in other legends like B. B. King, Merle Haggard, Paul Kantner, Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister and Maurice White (just to name a few) and, if there’s a Heaven, then the joint is rocking pretty hard lately.

Perhaps the Grim Reaper can leave musicians alone for a while…

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There are several other legendary performers that Prince has a great deal in common with, however. One of the big issues that has come out is that Prince was notoriously known to keep a humongous stash of his own recorded materials on the grounds of the Paisley Park studios. A past studio musician who worked with Prince in the 1990s stated that, at that time, there were at least 50 albums of unreleased material that were in basically a bank vault inside the home. Now that Prince has passed away, will there be similar comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson as to their posthumous activities?

Hendrix only released three albums of original material prior to his death in 1970 but, following his passing, it seems there were tracks just laying around that he had worked on. Between 1971 and just last year, 59 total albums have been released bearing Hendrix’s name (12 studio, 25 live and 22 compilations) and this isn’t even counting Extended Play (EPs), singles or “official bootlegs” of Hendrix performances. The same is true in the case of Shakur; he released four albums prior to his death in 1996 and seven albums after his demise. Hell, Shakur even came back as a hologram at Coachella in 2012 to “perform” for the crowd.

Jackson didn’t escape this type of action either. While he was a bit more prolific with his career prior to his death in 2009 (ten solo albums plus his work with his brothers as the Jackson 5 or the Jacksons), he – or, better yet, the Jackson estate – has released two albums of work posthumously, Michael and Xscape. There was also a documentary movie released, This Is It, that detailed out the preparations for the World Tour that Jackson was set to embark upon before his death.

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Estimates on Prince’s entire estate at the time of his passing have been put at $250 million (probably much better off than any of the men whom we’ve discussed previously when they left this mortal coil) and it is conservatively thought that, over the next five years through just what is in the marketplace currently, another $100 million could be earned by the Prince estate. The question becomes what do you do with that wealth of material that Prince put in the vault.

If there were 50 albums of material in the mid-90s, with someone like Prince there are probably a couple of hundred albums of FINISHED product there now, waiting for eager fans to hear. There’s probably another couple of hundred of albums consisting of bits and pieces that could be cobbled together into some form of functional music. The question becomes do you just keep it locked away? Or do you go ahead, realize the potential goldmine that you have and release it?

There are plenty of cases where a writer or musician will leave a piece unfinished because it just doesn’t feel right for a particular mood that they are working on at that moment. In other cases, they lose the momentum that drove them to write the piece in the first place or they simply forget that they were working on it in its entirety and move onto other things they feel are more challenging. These things really happen – you ought to see the number of things I start writing that either never reach fruition or fizzle out…if I revisit them today, they move forward hesitatingly again until that fateful moment that they get forgotten about.

Since I am in no manner as productive as Prince, as musically talented or as in demand as to my product (I’d like to think I can turn a phrase or two sometimes, however), the dilemma becomes whether he left explicit instructions for his family members following his passing. It is possible that he detailed out what to do with this vault of recordings down to the T and his family will follow them faithfully. It is possible that he dictated that those recordings never reach the ears of the civilized world, which would be a true tragedy. Then again, the family may go against any of Prince’s postmortem wishes (or a court might) and just release things as they need the money and it will seem as if Prince never left us.

The worst thing that could happen is that Prince’s family sells the rights to Prince’s legacy to either a record company or another artist. This is what happened in the 80s when Jackson bought the rights to The Beatles catalog (and destroyed the friendship he had with Sir Paul McCartney, who encouraged him to get into music rights ownership, over the issue). Simply the material that is in public today should be enough for Prince’s family to be able to not only live well but be able to erect some sort of appropriate way to memorialize their loved one who left far too soon. To sell off his legacy in such a manner would be heresy to his memory.

I personally hope that we do get some more QUALITY Prince material – in my opinion, there’s a reason that Prince put those recordings in a vault…he didn’t feel that they were of the standard that he wanted his audience to hear. But if his family were to deem those recordings should stay unheard by the public – or if Prince himself explicitly dictated that they weren’t to be released (the worst thing to hear would be that they would be destroyed – it would seem like another fire at the Library of Alexandria for music lovers), then those wishes would have to be respected. There is one thing that is clear – we’d love to not be thinking about this issue and instead wondering when Prince would either perform next or what would be the general groove of his next album.

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