Operation: Mindcrime: How Queensryche’s masterful concept album changed my life

I was twelve years old when Queensryche released their rock opera, combining hair metal essentials with a subversive storyline about a heroin addicted assassin working for an underground revolution.  For me, it radically changed my perspective on what a genre could be, introducing concepts I’d learn more about and fully embrace in the years to come, including the aesthetic equation.

Operation: Mindcrime was released on May 3, 1988 as the hair metal craze was reaching its peak.  I’d just turned twelve, and Def Leppard’s Pyromania was torching the Billboard charts, producing monster hit after monster hit, from “Pour Some Sugar on Me” to “Love Bites.”   Europe dominated MTV for a brief period with their timeless, lovesick ballad, “Carrie,” and the far more thunderous “Cherokee.”  Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction rocked the metal world with its more raw, almost retro style around the same time, and the heavy metal movement that birthed all this commercial success, sometimes described as the second British invasion, was already well established.  Dio, a perennial favorite in the Twiste household and the man who I consider the most underrated singer and songwriter of all time, released his fourth solo studio album, Dream Evil, in 1987.  In my adolescent mind, rock music was either the glamor, excitement, in your face fun, and accompanying beautiful women that typified hair metal on MTV, or the mythic fantasy of Iron Maiden or Ronnie James Dio, less popular in polite circles but just as addictive to me.

Even at such a young age, I’d already been a fantasy geek for years.  I hadn’t discovered J.R.R. Tolkien yet, but was well versed in the darker, headier Michael Moorcock and his twisted saga of an evil sword wielded by an emperor of a dying race in love with his cousin.  I considered myself an expert at Dungeons & Dragons and what passed for fantasy video games back then.  Together, these two spheres largely defined my cultural world:  Hair metal, heavy metal, and fantasy.  At the time, Operation: Mindcrime was unlike anything else I’d ever encountered, the same in some ways and yet completely different.  The music itself was certainly hair metal.  There were the pounding guitar riffs and soaring solos, thunderous drums and heavy bass, operatic, epic vocals, and necessarily slick production values.  The sound was clean and tight as was typical of the era.  Geoff Tate’s voice and Chris DeGarmo’s guitar seemed to rise up out of the music, crisp and clear, lightning bolts cutting through a storm of heavy music.  The content, however, was radically different.  For starters, it was a concept album or rock opera that told a coherent story across its entire running time, very rare in that period.  Of course, The Who, Pink Floyd, and others had invented and perfected the format decades earlier, but at twelve years old, I’d barely heard of those bands and the idea seemed revolutionary, practically visionary.

The subject matter covered in this new medium in my eyes was also completely unique:  The protagonist in Operation: Mindcrime is a heroin addict turned assassin who is recruited by a shadowy anarchist organization, but when he falls in love with a prostitute turned nun, he grows dissillusioned with the group.  The story begins with our anti-hero, Nikki, waking up in a hospital bed, unable to remember who he was or how he got there.  The listener is given a clue that all is not well, however, when a nurse muses that he might need another shot and refers to him as a bastard.  Throughout the album, we learn the details that led to his predicament in flashback as his past returns to him bit by bit. Nikki was a hardcore heroin addict, an outcast from society, down on his luck, and “for a price he’d do about anything, except pull the trigger.”  For that, “he’d need a pretty good cause.” This cause was supplied by the head of the anarchist group, the mysterious Dr. X, “the man with the cure” for society’s ills.  Ultimately, Nikki is picked by Dr. X to “displace the leaders countering objectives of this new underground reality.”  He is manipulated by the group using both his addiction and a brainwashing process that forces him to respond to the phrase “mindcrime.”  During his tenure, Nikki executes an unknown number of missions for this “underground revolution working overtime,” convinced for a time that he is making a difference at last and that his life has meaning, believing “My mission saved the world, And I stood proud, My mission changed the world, It turned my life around.”

When he is tasked with targeting a corrupt priest, however, he meets Sister Mary, a fallen nun. In her, he finds some sort of kindred spirit, a woman who can wash his sins away.  “She is the lady that can ease my sorrow, She brings the only friend, That helps me find my way,” even though she is also involved with the priest, who takes her “once a week on the altar like a sacrifice.”  Somehow, Dr. X becomes aware of Nikki’s affair with Sister Mary, and orders him to kill both her and the priest.  The priest, he has no qualms about killing, shooting him in the face in church, where “on his knees he fed, from my barrel of death, he turned the holy water red,” but Mary is different.  He confronts her outside her apartment, and tells her the truth:  He’s been ordered to assassinate her, “Thought you had them fooled? Now they sent me for you, You know too much for your own good.”  Instead, he tries to convince Mary to escape with him, pleading “What we need is trust, to keep us both alive, Help us make it through the night.”  Mary refuses, however, saying “I’ve no more want of any faith, Binds my arm and feed my mind, The only peace I’ve ever known, I’ll close my eyes and you shoot.”  Nikki leaves Mary and succumbs to his heroin addiction, but this time he finally realizes how Dr. X has been manipulating his weakness.  He rants, “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.”

He tries to escape, making a run for it, but how far can you go wearing the “black mask of fear?”  He sees Mary everywhere he looks, knowing he’s lost everything, believing “nothing we shared means a thing.”  He cries for her at night, but she never answers.  Ultimately, he is picked up by the police sometime later as the “criminal mind found at the scene of the crime,” and he learns that Mary has been killed as well.  He is unsure if he did it himself and blocked the memory, or if Dr. X sent another assassin.  To a large extent, none of it matters when he’s locked away and confronts himself in a mirror, only to see the eyes of a stranger.  Nikki’s story ends with him aware of his actions and hating himself for it, haunted forever by Mary:

All alone now
Except for the memories
Of what we had and what we knew
Every time I try to leave it behind me
I see something that reminds me of you
Every night the dreams return to haunt me
Your rosary wrapped around your throat
I lie awake and sweat, afraid to fall asleep
I see your face looking back at me, looking back at me

Perhaps needless to say, this wasn’t your regular hair metal story line.  Whether you call it a political thriller or a tragedy, the protagonist didn’t often kill the girl at the end of an 80’s ballad, nor were topics like hardcore heroin addiction and brainwashing frequently broached, much less the killing of corrupt priests, bleeding out into holy water.  The underlying politics were also far outside the mainstream of the era.  Forget Morning in America, Queensryche presents an almost anarchist vision, where every institution is corrupt and the only recourse is revolution.  Washington DC is “just a power mad town.”  Nikki used to “trust the media” to tell him the truth, but then he saw the payoffs, everywhere he looked.  “Who can you trust when everyone’s a crook?”  The religious establishment is no better, just “shady preachers, Begging for my cash, Swiss bank accounts while giving their secretaries the slam.”  Everyone has become obsessed with fame and celebrity above all else, “They’re all in Penthouse now, Or playboy magazine, million dollar stories to tell, I guess Warhol wasn’t wrong, Fame fifteen minutes long, Everyone’s using everybody, making the sale.”  In this world, you “gotta make a million, doesn’t matter who dies.”

Altogether, I’d never heard anything like it, certainly not on MTV or the radio.  There was a gritty darkness there, though not one I thought was real by any stretch of the imagination.  I didn’t believe America was on the verge of a revolution pushed by heroin addicted priest killers in love with prostitute nuns.   Instead, it was like a surreal fantasy, a nightmare vision that combined assassins and shady deals with drugs and corruption, packaging the story in a medium I loved, making it deliciously subversive to my young, inexperienced ears.  The soaring guitars and vocals.  The pounding drums and catchy lyrics, all of it made this dystopian story readily accessible.  Repeatable.  You could sing along with it, and that served to expand my vision of what music and storytelling could be. So much so, I tried to incorporate it into my schoolwork at the time.  For example, I somehow managed to convince our school’s Odyssey of the Mind team to use the heroine addict framing for the 8th grade competition.  If you aren’t familiar with Odyssey of the Mind, it’s a contest among schools where you enter both something you build, in our case it was known as the car problem where you have to make a device that moves, and then place it in a story you choose.

Well, I chose to shoot up on the sidelines, rubber band around my upper arm and all, while our car raced back and forth to pick up drugs, Queensryche blaring in the background. You can imagine the look on the judges’ and other parents’ faces as this was coming from a group of eighth graders.  Jaws were dropped.  The gymnasium, though mostly filled with people, was completely silent.  No one knew precisely what to think; it was so far out of the box for these sorts of things, they had no frame of reference whatsoever.  They could only stand there and stare.  Perhaps needless to say, we didn’t win any awards, but certainly shocked the shit out of them, and that I liked almost as much.  Despite the loss, this expanded view of genre carries with me to this day.  In college, I would learn the different cycles a genre goes through in its development, and I would come to understand that Queensryche helped take hair metal into a “multimodal” phase that expands the scope of what came before by bringing new elements from outside.  They didn’t invent the concept album, nor were they the first to write music about addiction and death.  Guns N’ Roses certainly touched on those issues as well. They did, however, bring it to 80’s metal, suggesting to my young mind that there was something outside the mainstream constraints of any genre.  A subversive edge, just waiting to be explored by the intrepid artist and audience, if only both have the will to go there.

This desire to seek the far edge of any genre would continue, allowing me to be both a consistent genre fan (to this day I read almost no fiction outside of fantasy and science fiction) and also expand my horizons. This combination of packaging out-of-the-box ideas in existing structures is crucial to most popular art, a topic covered by the late great Harold Bloom in a scholarly fashion under the guise of The Anxiety of Influence.   A genre, and the mind that absorbs it, is a product of both. There’s even an equation for it, which balances how an audience needs to both know what to expect and still be surprised.  I learned this a few years later reading Manfred Schroeder’s Fractals, Chaos, and Power Laws, though didn’t immediately put the two together. The equation was discovered by the mathematician George David Birkhoff in 1993.  In his words, “The ‘complexity’ of paintings is usually so considerable that they are analogous to ornamental patterns whose constituent ornaments must be appreciated one by one. However, it is decidedly interesting to remark in this connection how a fine composition is always arranged so as to be easily comprehensible.”  His equation, M = O/C, balanced the two where O is aesthetic order and C is complexity, meaning beauty increases as complexity decreases, but both are needed.

Alas, Queensryche also taught me another lesson before they were through, this one much less positive in nature, but valuable all the same.  While they achieved far more commercial success with their follow up album, Empire, anchored by the hit “Silent Lucidity”, they never again produced anything like Operatation: MindcrimeEmpire was a good album by any definition, with some truly stand out tracks, but what came after continued a decline and a band I idolized, assuming they would continue at the peak of their powers for decades, fizzled into irrelevance. After bending and breaking the genre they grew up in, they had no idea where to go from there and ultimately split up before reforming in various incarnations.  Sadly, this is the lifecycle of most artists, even very successful ones:  They bust on the scene by copying the past, create something new and great, and then find they have nothing more to say.  It taught me two things that I still carry with me to this day:  Cherish the great art you have, and cherish even more so the artists that can do it again and again, decade after decade, for they are rare creatures indeed.

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