Chapter IV: Breaking the Silence
After toying with themes on both of its previous albums, Queensryche finally tackled a full-on concept record, delivering an album and story fans and critics put on-par with legendary recordings such as Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Who's Tommy. That album is the much-heralded Operation: Mindcrime.
Operation: Mindcrime is considered a heavy metal masterpiece by most critics and recently landed in the top 100 prog albums of all time, as voted by the readers of Prog magazine. The album features Geoff Tate's operatic vocal range in full effect, displaying the tension and emotion of both Nikki and Dr. X. Ripping guitar leads by Chris DeGarmo and Michael Wilton – both solo and harmonized – are in abundance, while Eddie Jackson and Scott Rockenfield's pounding rhythm section enhances the story's drama.
Lyrically, the concept was the brainchild of Tate, who got inspired during his time living in Montreal during 1987 and his observations of a terrorist group while in the city. Tate found himself at a Catholic church late one evening and was hit by a flood of ideas about characters and the outline of the story.
Operation: Mindcrime begins with the spoken word cut “I Remember Now,” where the main character, Nikki, reflects on his memories of getting involved in a revolutionary group led by “Dr. X.” Throughout the opening salvo of “Anarchy-X,” “Revolution Calling” and the title track, Nikki becomes an assassin and protester for the organization. As the story progresses, Nikki starts a relationship with a prostitute-turned-nun named Mary.
On the album, Tate and a local singer by the name of Pamela Moore sing the vocals of Nikki and Mary, respectively. Moore was contacted by Queensryche to record the vocal parts for Sister Mary after the band discovered her doing radio and television commercials for a music store she was working at part time in the late 1980s.
In an interview with The Breakdown Room, Moore categorized the experience as "a whirlwind." She remembers getting a call from DeGarmo about the part of Mary and then flying to Montreal the next day, where Operation: Mindcrime was being recorded. Tate and DeGarmo explained the album concept and the Mary character to Moore, handed her a cassette of the song “Suite Sister Mary,” and the next day she cut vocals for the track.
"Geoff's vocals were already recorded, so I recorded my parts separately," Moore said. "I think the first time we ever sang the song together was when I toured with them on the [Building Empires] tour."
"Nothing can ever compare to the adrenaline rush you get singing in front of so many fans," she added. "It was then I realized how fortunate I was to have been able to participate in something so special."
As the Operation: Mindcrime storyline moves along, the bond deepens between Mary and Nikki. Dr. X then orders Nikki to kill both the priest and Sister Mary, fearing both had too much knowledge of his revolutionist plans. Mary dies, but the band was coy on how it happened. Was it Nikki? Did someone else kill her? The answer was revealed in Video: Mindcrime, a home video (later re-released on DVD in a special edition of Operation: Mindcrime). If you let the video go past the credits, the answer to the riddle can be found.
The approximate hour-long tale concludes with the epic “Eyes of a Stranger.” At the end of the song, Nikki brings the story full-circle, saying “I remember now,” harkening back to the opening track, leaving the listener to wonder whether the events actually happened or, as some have suggested, they were just all in his mind.
It was around this time in Queensryche’s career when the group started being dubbed “the thinking man’s metal band.” While the moniker was complimentary in nature, many band members scoffed at the nickname, thinking it pretentious. But the descriptor is still prominently used by journalists when describing Queensryche today.
Editor’s Note: A later lineup of Queensryche went on to release a sequel to Operation: Mindcrime in 2006. While Geoff Tate spearheaded the project and claimed in promotional interviews that a sequel to the story was “always planned,” that was not the case. The band emphatically stated in interviews from 1989-2005 that Operation: Mindcrime was a standalone story.
Touring for Operation: Mindcrime was a challenge. At first, the record did not sell well. Opening for Def Leppard and then Metallica, the band could not (and ultimately did not, until the next tour) perform the album in its entirety. It wasn't until a video for "Eyes of a Stranger" appeared on MTV that listeners caught on to the story. The video rocketed Queensryche to mainstream attention and the band went from being an underground secret to the rising stars of heavy metal and hard rock in a span of three months.
By April 1989, the band was headlining its own shows across Europe, Japan and the West Coast of the United States to crowds in the thousands. The setlists drew heavily from Operation: Mindcrime, featuring all of the record except for “Suite Sister Mary” and various segues. But the live shows were notable for the performance of songs such as “Prophecy” and “London,” which would not be played again by the original lineup of the band.
-- Brian Heaton
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