It’s Only a Victory If We Let Them Win.

I have been going to concerts since I was 8 years old. I’ve been fortunate to have seen some incredible acts put on amazing shows over the years.
 
At their best, concerts represent what music is all about: coming together, uniting us under a shared passion for a particular artist or song that has impacted our lives exponentially. Some of my fondest memories as a concert goer are those communal moments: chatting with strangers about past concerts and favorite songs as if we knew each other forever, the high fives being passed around as the lights went down, the artist-goaded audience singalongs of “Born to Run” or “Hey Jude.” It’s what great art is all about.
 
I’m sure those seeing Ariana Grande last night were looking to share the same experiences. Many may have been kids going to their first concerts.
 
When news about the bombing ripped through the headlines last night, my blood ran cold. I thought about how scary it could be to be in that environment, how dumbfounding it must have been when the mood changed from joyous to terrified in an instant. I thought back to 9/11, where security at Madison Square Garden was at an all time high and we lived with our own fears. To see them come to life is surreal.
 
The natural response to this is fear. It’s what they want. It’s what they thrive on. We can’t let it win. We can’t let them win.
 
My heart is sick this morning: for those killed or maimed, for their loved ones, for Ariana Grande. An attack on music is an attack on art, which is an attack on the human spirit. The proper response is to fight back.
 
Go to concerts, go to festivals, revel in that communal spirit. Remind yourself of how music is there to bring us together. Dance, sing, embrace. Laugh, cry. Do it all and do it together.

REMEMBERING CHRIS CORNELL, THE DEFINITIVE VOICE OF ROCK AND ROLL.

The first time I heard Chris Cornell’s voice, it was like getting a high five from God: the force and might that it hit with you with seemed something otherworldly. As a singer, Cornell was a sort of Frankenstein in the best possible sense: he could wail like Robert Plant or Steven Tyler, belt like Freddie Mercury or Paul McCartney, croon like Smokey Robinson, and emote as convincingly as Sinatra; his stylistic range ran the gamut from his signature rock belting to soul to blues to folk. Best of all, Cornell used these traits to create a style distinctly his own, an imitable instrument that influenced the future and forced the past to step up their game.

Vocally and as a writer, Cornell stood head and shoulders above his compatriots in the grunge scene: Weiland sang as good as him, Vedder wrote as good as him, and Cobain and Staley captured emotions as well as him, but no one could do it all like he could. To hear Chris at his absolute peak, one needn’t look further than 1991, when he released Badmotorfinger with Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog with the short lived supergroup of the same name; songs like “Slaves and Bulldozers,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” rank among the finest vocals the human voice has ever produced, filled with soul and power. The next five years were filled with incredible highlights showcasing his talent, soul and versatility: “Birth Ritual,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Like Suicide,” “Pretty Noose,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” and so much more.

After Soundgarden broke up and the grunge scene faded, Cornell adapted accordingly, releasing the brilliant and pitifully underrated Euphoria Mourning in 1999; songs like “Can’t Change Me, “When I’m Down,” and “Wave Goodbye” showed a mature, introspective and quieter side to his artistry that wasn’t appreciated at the time. In 2003, he formed Audioslave with Tom Morello, introducing his beastly voice to new generations with songs like “Gasoline,” “Like a Stone,” and “Doesn’t Remind Me.” He also recorded You Know My Name for the 2006 James Bond revival Casino Royale, expanding his audience and influence further.

In 2010, Cornell reunited with Soundgarden, returning to the sound that made him famous; though his high range weakened slightly, he still sang with the same soul and verve as in his prime. The last decade of his life, however, were defined by his transcendent acoustic shows; during these, he ascended to the realm of ‘troubadour,’ commanding the stage with just his voice, his guitar, and his unique charisma, humor, and stories. Knowing what new ground he was covering and how vibrant, active and seemingly happy he seemed to be makes Cornell’s death (ruled a suicide as of now) all the more shocking and tragic. He was a once in a lifetime talent. I’m just glad it was my lifetime.

“No one sings like you anymore.”

1964-2017.

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REVIEW: HARRY STYLES – HARRY STYLES

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Is former boy band heartthrob Harry Styles the new Jeff Buckley? No, of course not, that’s silly, but you’d be forgiven for initially thinking that when hearing the opening track of Styles’ eponymous debut album, “Meet Me in the Hallway,” a somber acoustic ballad whose ethereal quality and wisp-y vocal performance would not be out of place on Buckley’s seminal Grace.

Buckley is one of several artists to whom the sonic landscape of the album harkens back to; the elegiac “Sign of the Times,” the album’s debut single, recalls the grandiose power-pop ballads of Badfinger and The Raspberries. “Only Angel” sounds like an outtake from Chris Cornell’s 1999 solo debut Euphoria Morning.

If, however, you think I’m accusing Styles of shamelessly imitating artists with richer, more dynamic careers than him in an effort to be taken seriously, I am not. While he certainly wears his influences on his sleeve, Styles still brings his own unique personality and charisma to each of the album’s 10 songs, all of which range from ‘good’ to ‘excellent.’ Some of the album’s highlight include the aforementioned “Sign of the Times,” the slinky “Carolina,” the seedy ‘girl gone bad’ blues rocker “Kiwi,” and the somber “Ever Since New York,” another song with a very Buckley-esque quality.

More impressive than the quality of the songs is Styles’ vocal capabilities; even in the slightest 1D songs, Styles showed himself to be quite a formidable singer, but here he really shows his chops, taking on a variety of tones and colors that show incredible prowess. “Sign of the Times” is probably the best example of Styles’ newfound capabilities, alternating between full throated, emotive belting and tender, Buckley-esque falsetto crooning with incredible ease.

Time will tell if Styles’ debut is a signpost for future greatness for the maturing former teen idol or a fluke; either way, he’s got my attention.

Harry Styles is available through Erskine and Columbia Records. Always support the artist.

No, I Won’t Start Respecting Kenan Thompson

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Earlier this week, the Huffington Post posted an article entitled, ‘After 14 Years, It’s Time to Give Kenan Thompson the Respect He Deserves,’ imploring critics and longtime Saturday Night Live fans to give the veteran cast member recognition as one of the show’s greatest performers.

I wretched.

I have been watching Saturday Night Live for 15 years. I’m a huge fan. I’ve obsessed over every facet of the show, from the sketches to the sordid and endlessly fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ politics. My parents raised me on the works of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Hader and numerous other legendary cast members who bought a dynamic, versatile and unique range of impressions and characters to show.

Kenan is in no way on their level.

Kenan is always Kenan. His trademark mannerisms and quirks never seem to change no matter who he is playing; he doesn’t disappear into a role the way Phil Hartman or Dan Aykroyd or Will Ferrell or Bill Hader did. His Al Sharpton, his Steve Harvey, even his Bill Cosby carry much of the same peccadillos, even though they are three very distinct personalities. As the article correctly points out, Kenan doesn’t have the prestigious sketch comedy training of The Groundlings or Second City; he is a t.v. actor, and has always been one, and his acting skills aren’t all that advanced from his time on All That. His bug-eyed mugging, exaggerated reaction shots, and contorted facial expressions are not the mark of a truly experienced actor; they’re novice at best. At his most obnoxious, Kenan’s portrayals harken back to the unsavory and thankfully long gone Steppin Fetchit minstrel acts of the 1940s’.

Even if you want to play on SNL’s notorious racial politics and how Kenan could be seen as the first African American performer to really hold a commanding presence in the cast, it still doesn’t make him better than Tim Meadows, Garrett Morris, or numerous other more talented former cast members who are far more diverse and dynamic than Kenan. Chris Rock, as underutilized as he was during his time in the cast, was still a more original and unique voice. Hell, even Tracy Morgan, while not the most technically gifted performer, was funnier, more original and more dangerous than Kenan. Leslie Jones brings me more to the table now, comedically speaking, than Kenan has in his 14 seasons. His most popular sketch, What’s Up with That?, got old after about three installments, because it was built around a thin premise that never changed much from one to the other.

Does it sound like I have a personal vendetta against Kenan? Well, kind of, yea. As an SNL fan, Kenan has kept the show in a limbo stage where it can’t transition from one era to the next. While newer, talented cast members still struggle for airtime, Kenan is out there taking time from cast members who could bring something far more original to the table than his bug eyes and shouting.

No performer should stay on SNL for seven years, maybe eight if you’re an MVP (Hader, Hartman, Jason Sudeikis). Darrell Hammond was a waste of space his last five years on the show. Fred Armisen has 11 seasons to his name, but it was clear by his 7th year he had run out of ideas and became a shadow of his former self. Kevin Nealon went from being a prominent cast member to a glorified extra in his final season. It’s time for Kenan to bow out gracefully. He’s not adding anything to the show. He never really has.

ONE YEAR WITHOUT PRINCE.

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I remember the headline, via Esquire Magazine, vividly:

“There has been a death at Prince’s Paisley Park estate.

A chill ran through my blood. Could it indeed be Prince? The endlessly creative, seemingly ageless juggernaut who as of a week ago was still on tour? It seemed unfathomable; sure, a few days previously he was hospitalized for the flu, but who dies from the flu anymore? Especially someone of his stature.

At first I tried to assure myself that maybe it was an elderly servant who was working a night shift. Surely 2016, which already removed David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey and several others from mortal dwellings, couldn’t claim Prince, too?

But Prince lived alone. He’d famously retreat to Paisley Park for days. He’d lock himself away to write or record. All signs pointed to a grim outcome.

And grim it was.

Within 15 minutes of the initial report, it was confirmed that the death was Prince’s. In a frighteningly ironic twist, he had been found in an elevator, the symbol of downfall in one of his biggest hits, “Let’s Go Crazy.”

It felt like an electrical outage: sudden, unpredictable, leaving nothing but darkness and confusion. I’ve heard his death being described as like losing a color, or something elemental, like the wind or light.

I first became aware of Prince when I was six, and he appeared on The Muppets Tonight. At the time, he was still going by the unpronounceable ‘love symbol,’ and I thought he was incredibly weird. A man with no name? Singing about starfish and coffee (which I later found was not written specifically just for the Muppets)? Why was he so loved?

About two years later, I saw the videos for When Doves Cry and Raspberry Beret on VH1’s Pop Up Video (man, I miss those old VH1 shows). It was the first time I heard either song, and I loved them. When Doves Cry was unlike anything I had heard up to that point in my life (yes, I knew the song was written about 14 years earlier), and Raspberry Beret reminded me of Sgt. Pepper’s era Beatles, which was my favorite album growing up. I wanted to hear more.

I bought The Hits 1 & 2 / B-Sides set at Best Buy, and I listened intently to all three discs. The song that really cemented my fandom was “Little Red Corvette.” I had no idea at the time that the title was a vaginal metaphor, or that the whole song was supposed to mirror an orgasm; I was captured simply by how the song built so excitingly to each chorus, and moreso by those otherworldly shrieks and howls during the song’s climax.

Even though he had long abandoned it by the time I discovered him, the image Prince built his career on still fascinated me: the way he mixed the carnal and the spiritual within his lyrics, how he could come off as both macho and flamboyant with equal conviction, how he could wear lingerie and still come off as more masculine than most men, and subsequently seduce any woman he wanted. He was one of a kind.

Prince always seemed to be engrained in our cultural fabric: he released four albums between 2013 and 2015 alone. He had been tour every year since 2010. He had just launched his first ever solo tour, featuring just him and his piano, and it was hailed as a triumph by fans and critics. Most tellingly, he had announced that he was working on his memoir, entitled “The Beautiful Ones.”

And yet, a deeper look into Prince’s final days reveal a man who may have been more aware of his mortality than he let on. For a man constantly looking forward, the Piano and a Microphone shows had Prince unusually sentimental as he recalled his early days, his collaboration with Wendy & Lisa and the Revolution, his relationship with his father, and even paying tribute to his old protege and lover, Vanity, after her passing in February. Prince was looking back with a fondness and melancholy he had never displayed before.

Photos and videos reveal that despite the excellent musicianship, vocals and overall showmanship of the concerts, Prince had become frighteningly frail. His sickly appearance sucked the life out of his mega-watt smile, and he often looked pain while playing. His face was skeletal, his eyes had no life in them. His clothes hung off him.

Of course, the circumstances of his death – an overdose of a powerful, addictive painkiller most likely brought on by chronic hip pain – have been splashed across the morning papers for the last year or so. It’s still hard to accept that someone as in control of his health and protective of his image as Prince could succumb to addiction, and fans still speculate what really happened: was he murdered? Suicide? Nothing seems to add up.

Prince’s death was like his life: enigmatic, unpredictable, and endlessly fascinating.
The best thing we can do today is to simply listen to the gifts this man gave us, in the form of 39 albums, hundreds of classic songs and a career that will never be matched.

God Bless You, Mr. Nelson.

ELTON JOHN vs. BILLY JOEL: MY TAKE

Billy Joel and Elton John in ConcertIt’s one of the most hotly debated topics in rock and roll, up there with ‘Beatles or Stones?’ Elton John and Billy Joel have drawn comparison to each other for over 40 years, with each artist’s fan base making a compelling case as to who’s better. I decided to my own in-depth take on it, by comparing them based on the following factors: Albums, piano playing, vocals, songwriting, and live performances.

Here we go.

ALBUMS

Elton has 33 studio albums, Billy has 13. With Elton’s significantly larger output, he’s bound to have a few stinkers, and man does he: the infamous disco experiment Victim of Love, the interminable Leather Jackets, and the bloated The Big Picture all qualify as some of the worst records ever put out by an acclaimed artist.

With his smaller discography, you could argue that Billy is far more consistent in terms of quality, and to a degree it’s true: none of Billy’s album qualify as bad, and at least two of them (The Stranger and The Nylon Curtain) are perfect. With that said, Billy’s best albums don’t stack up to Elton’s best: every other Billy Joel album has at least one song that is totally forgettable, whereas I could name five Elton albums (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tumbleweed Connection, Songs from the West Coast, and Sleeping with the Past) that are absolutely perfect from start to finish, with no filler weighing it down.

The amount of rare gems to be found in Elton’s catalog as opposed to Billy’s is simply unbeatable. Billy has always been reticent to release unfinished tracks, demos and live material, whereas Elton has released several compilations swimming with rare, hard to find gems that deserve listening. He has entire albums (The Fox comes to mind) filled with songs that probably no Elton fan born after 1995 or so has even heard.

I will give Billy credit for making no two albums sound the same: each one has its own identity, from the jazzy 52nd Street to the New Wave sound of Glass Houses to the doo-wop and soul throwback of An Innocent Man to the slick 1980s’ pop sounds of The Bridge, Billy has always been reasonably successful in attempting new sounds and styles, which is probably his greatest strength as an artist. That said, his best work doesn’t stack up to Elton’s, and his refusal to release a new album for 24 years hurts him, as we never got to see how his writing would progress.

WINNER: Elton

PIANO PLAYING

[DISCLAIMER: I don’t play piano, so anyone who has more technical skill could feel free to tear me apart on this one.]

Billy himself said it in Rolling Stone:

“Elton kicks my ass on piano. He’s fantastic — a throwback to Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and Little Richard. His spontaneous, improvisational playing always challenges me. And that is his contribution to rock & roll and pop: his musicianship. Before him, rock was a bunch of James Taylors — guitar-based singer-songwriter stuff. Elton brought back fantastic piano-based rock. Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don’t strum a piano. You don’t bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano. Elton knows exactly how to do that — he always had that rhythmic, very African, syncopated style that comes from being well versed in gospel and good old R&B.”

Is Billy a slouch? No. The prelude to “Angry Young Man” alone would solidify him as one of rock’s Top 5 ivory ticklers. Elton and Billy certainly have the same influences – Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. However, Billy has rarely if ever shied away from the style of his mentors, whereas Elton has often veered into classical, baroque and a host of other genres that deviate far from his most familiar sound. Elton received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music when he was 11 years old – he’s a fucking prodigy.

Elton’s percussive playing is essential to his sound, whereas some of Billy’s most beloved songs either don’t feature piano or relegate it to the background. Elton’s solo shows are a testament to his skills: he rearranges songs on the fly, playing solos and long passages that never get boring due to the unpredictable nature of Elton’s playing, and his ability to always land on his feet just when you think he’s deviated too far from the main melody line (check out the epic solo performances of “Take Me to the Pilot” for an example). Billy has always played it safe, almost never challenging himself to rearrange his songs or show off his skills beyond his pop-influenced sensibilities (aside from that one boring classical album)

WINNER: Elton

SINGING ABILITY

An interesting comparison indeed. When they both first began in the 1970s’, Elton had the clear lead: his soaring, powerful tenor falsetto and emotional singing was light years ahead of Billy’s New York accented generic pop voice. Sure, Billy could sing well, but he wasn’t nearly as dynamic as Elton could be in terms of delivery and versatility.

Elton had the clear advantage up until about 1984, where both singers hit their peak. Elton’s falsetto had more weight and character to it than it did even in the 1970s’, and his timbre as a whole had developed a warmth and body it never had before, including a surprisingly strong lower register. Billy went through a similar change: An Innocent Man was his best album to date vocally, from the soaring falsetto of “An Innocent Man” to the soulful, Ray Charles-esque crooning of “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” to the Little Richard-esque belting of “Christie Lee.”

By 1986, Elton had abused his voice to the point where he could barely sing and required surgery for nodules. While Elton gradually lost range and shifted registers throughout the years, Billy continued to improve as a vocalist, expanding both his higher and lower registers and developing a devastating ability to manipulate his tone to fit whatever style he has felt like doing; Billy’s versatility is staggering, as he is able to sound like everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Rotten. Furthermore, he has maintained his voice exceptionally, still able to hit tenor high C’s at the age of 67, and his classic tone is intact.

Elton’s voice is still good but hasn’t fared as well; after his surgery, he was very inconsistent up until he got sober in 1992, where he settled into the warm baritone that has been his sound since then. He hit a real sweet spot with this newer, more mature sound from 1997 to 2003, but then his voice began aging rapidly and his tone and diction really suffered up until late 2009. Since then, he’s been doing well, but his voice is almost unrecognizable compared to his prime and he no longer has his falsetto.

WINNER: Billy

SONGWRITING

It is difficult to really analyze this since their methods are so different: Billy writes his own lyrics and music, while Elton has always worked with a lyricist. Initially I was going to give Billy the edge here, since he does it all himself, but what Elton has to do is pretty daunting: he has to accurately frame the melody around a particular set of lyrics, making sure it’s appropriate in conveying the writer’s words properly. His primary partner of 50 years, Bernie Taupin, often writes about his own life experiences, and it’s up to Elton to write something sympathetic to that.

Furthermore, Elton’s melodic capabilities outstrip Billy. As stated, Billy’s is generally rooted in the classic pop sensibilities of the Tin Pan Alley writers as well the Great American Songbook composers, while Elton draws on a variety of influences. I could see Elton writing something like the melody for “You May Be Right” and it being fairly similar to Billy’s take, but I don’t see Billy being able to craft “Cage the Songbird” or “Tonight” or any of Elton’s more classical based material.

That said, Billy’s lyricism needs to be commended, his ability to create vivid, colorful characters and locations and make them come alive through song is a skill matched only by Bruce Springsteen. Billy’s songs are like five minute movies, with incredible attention to detail: when you listen to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” you almost instantly know who Brenda and Eddie are, you can see them in their head. You can envision the stale, smoky bar where the ‘piano man’ plays every night. At its best, it can go head to head with the greatest songwriters of his day.

WINNER: A draw.

LIVE PERFORMANCES

Having seen both, Elton wins.

In their primes, both were very exciting to see in concert, but Elton was always more of an entertainer whereas Billy was more professional in his approach. Elton’s lavish costumes and physicality (dancing on the piano, playing on the floor) added extra energy to his shows, whereas Billy approached live performing like it was some ordinary job: he’s always dressed conservatively, and you know what to expect in terms of set list and stage banter.

This is where it gets frustrating being a Billy Joel fan: he hasn’t put out an album in over 20 years, and yet he still performs consistently. I’ve seen him four times since 2006 and each concert has been progressively worse: his two shows in 2006 during his ’12 Gardens’ run were both incredible, filled with an excellent mix of hits and deep album cuts. The next time I saw him was his first show at Shea Stadium in 2008, which was very good, but quite disappointing considering the next night (the last before the old Shea was torn down for CitiField) had Sir Paul McCartney come out to play a couple of Beatles tunes. The next time I saw him was in 2014 for his 65th birthday show, and It was the most workmanlike show I’ve ever seen. Billy pulled out no stops, and I had seen 95 % of the songs performed. Maybe I’m jaded, but there was a distinct lack of energy in addition to the staid show, not to mention a wasted song slot for Jimmy Fallon to do his ragtime shtick. It was…sad.

I saw Elton once in 1999, and it was the first concert I ever went to. He had no band. I didn’t know a lot of the songs, since he tends to include a lot of deep cuts in his solo shows. I can still recall every note he played and how transfixed I was seeing him in action. And this is what makes Elton a special artist: he never rests on his laurels, he is always exploring new territory. His improvisations, engaging stories, and charisma are eclipse the by-the-numbers Vegas revue that is a Billy Joel these days.

WINNER: Elton

FINAL VERDICT

Both Elton John and Billy Joel are phenomenal singers, songwriters, performers and musicians. It feels almost unfair to judge their careers against each other like this, but I always wanted to do an in-depth take on the many comparisons drawn between them, using largely qualified if not quite objective factors.

In the end, I feel Elton John is the overall better artist in terms of quality output, musicianship, and sheer longevity and influence. Billy’s strengths are in his story telling, vocal abilities and versatility, but his reluctance to go outside his comfort zone as well as his lack of output in the last 20 years hurt his status in my eyes.

This is not meant to influence anyone’s opinions on the two artists, and if you have disagreements, I’d love to see them.

MUSIC IN THE AGE OF TRUMP, PT. 2: Queensryche’s “Operation: Mindcrime.”

Operation Mindcrime

Fake news. Collusion. Distortion of the truth. The 1 % running the government from behind the scenes. An effort to turn everyday citizens into sheep at the expense of an uprising against the status quo.

Think all of these came about because of the election Donald Trump? Think again.

In 1987, the big story was Iran-Contra, in which the American government secretly sold arms to Iran despite an embargo, a violation of several standing laws and treaties. Iran was certainly not a friend to the U.S., much like Russia now. A Supreme Court vacancy went a record amount of time without being filled (albeit for different and more ethical circumstances than Mitch McConnell’s rejection of Obama). Black Friday drove a stake of any economic confidence the country may have had.

Sound familiar.

Queensryche, the Seattle based metal outfit who had two moderately successful albums with The Warning and Rage for Order (both great records, by the way) were certainly abreast of these issues, and singer Geoff Tate and guitarist Chris DeGarmo became the primary architects behind Operation: Mindcrime, an ambitious concept album tackling government corruption, media manipulation, religious hypocrisy and numerous other topics via the story of Nikki, played on the record by Tate.

The album begins with the dialogue snippet, “I Remember Now,” which finds Nikki coming out of a deep sleep unable to recall his past, left to piece everything together throughout the record.

The instrumental “Anarchy-X” follows as a sort of overture, but it’s the third track, “Revolution Calling,” that really sets the record in gear. It’s the story of a man disillusioned with the world, unable to trust the media, the government or anyone, really. Take a look at these lyrics:

“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?”

Pretty damn cryptic, eh? Now read this verse:

“I used to think
That only America’s way, way was right
But now the holy dollar rules everybody’s lives
Gotta make a million, doesn’t matter who dies”
Now think about the health care debate raging on today.

The eponymous next track details Nikki’s recruitment by the mysterious Dr. X, a demagogue of the highest order hell bent overthrowing anyone who gets in the way of his own ideals, which hinge on radical political and religion upheaval. Dr. X becomes quickly aware of Nikki’s political radicalism as well as his heroine addiction, both of which he uses to control Nikki mentally, physically, emotionally. X’s primary mission is layed out in the following track, “Speak”:

“Seven years of power
The corporation claw
The rich control the government, the media the law
To make some kind of difference
Then everyone must know
Eradicate the fascists, revolution will grow

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.”

At this point, it had indeed been seven years since Reagan was elected, and while he is remembered as being a largely beloved and popular president, a significant number of blue-collar Americans faced serious hardships due to the failure of his trickle-down policies that ultimately benefited the rich. It was Reagan who ushered in the influence of the religious right, refusing for years to provide any medical funding towards AIDS treatment out of fear of alienating that particular base due to the stigma of it being a ‘gay disease.’

The attitude towards Donald Trump, justified or not, has been similarly intense: people have destroyed property both in support and opposition of him, he is heavily involved with big business, he doesn’t seem to care the poor, and there have been threats against him.

“Spreading the Disease” follows, and introduces the character of Mary, a former prostitute who has been ‘saved’ by the corrupt Father William, and is now a nun. The song doubles as an indictment of religious corruption, particularly how it interplays with politics:
“Religion and sex are power plays
Manipulate the people for the money they pay
Selling skin, selling God
The numbers look the same on their credit cards
Politicians say no to drugs
While we can pay for wars in South America
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 Mission” begins with a televangelist asking for money as Nikki asks for God’s forgiveness. It brings us back briefly to the beginning of the album, with Nikki vaguely being able to recall Mary and his relationship to her. The next song, “Suite Sister Mary,” begins with this chilling bit of dialogue:

“Kill her. That’s all you have to do”
“Kill Mary?”
“She’s a risk, and get the priest as well”

This is the mission he sang about in the previous track, and also the turning point of the record, a 10-minute detailing of Nikki going back on his mission when he falls for Mary and instead tries to save her by convincing her that the monastic life she chose is hollow and mired in corruption:

“Mary, Mary just a whore for the underground
(They made you pay in guilt for your salvation)
Thought you had them fooled? Now they’ve sent me for you
You know too much for your own good
Don’t offer me faith, I’ve got all I need here
(My faith is growing, growing tight against the seam)
What we need is trust, to keep us both alive
Help us make it through the night.”

After having killed the priest, Nikki realizes that Dr. X is the real villain, in his manipulation and mind games:

“No time to rest yet
We’ve got to stop his game
(Before madness has the final laugh)
Too much bloodshed
We’re being used and fed
Like rats in experiments
There’s no final outcome here
Only pain and fear
(It’s followed us both all our lives)
There’s one thing left to see
Will it be him or me?
There’s one more candle left to light.”

“The Needle Lies” is another fast-forward, with Nikki in his cell recalling his heroine addiction and how Dr. X preyed on it. The song is basically a realization of how any peace he may have achieved in his addiction was false. “Electric Requiem” takes us back, to when Nikki finds that Mary is dead, leading us into “Breaking the Silence,” realizing how bleak and empty his mission was and how it stood in the way of what really mattered:

“They told me to run, but just how far?Can I go wearing the black mask of fear?
The hate in my eyes always gives me away
The tension building slowly
Now I lost everything I had in you
Nothing we shared means a thing
Without you close to me
I can’t live without you.”

“I Don’t Believe in Love” continues on this theme, and was also one of the album’s major hits. It is the culmination of how severe Nikki’s paranoia and isolation has become, leaving him unable to feel, to trust, to love, while trying to convince himself in vain that he never loved Mary:

“No more nightmares, I’ve seen them all
From the day I was born
They’ve haunted my every move
Every open hand’s there to push and shove
No time for love it doesn’t matter
She made a difference
I guess she had a way
Of making every night seem bright as day
Now I walk in shadows, never see the light
She must have lied ’cause she never said goodbye.”

“My Empty Room” is a prelude to the album’s final track, “Eyes of a Stranger,” the album’s best known song. Nikki is now fully aware of what has happened. He is alone, feeling like a stranger, unable to go back to what he once was in lieu of the chaos that has occurred in his wake. The album’s last sound is an ominous drone with Tate as Nikki reaffirming the album’s opening: ‘I remember now.’

Operation: Mindcrime is a brilliant record, filled with great songwriting, musicianship, and outstanding vocals from Geoff Tate. The songs are deep and complex, but also completely accessible, with powerful hooks, riffs and choruses that draw the listener into the story without sacrificing the depth of the lyrics. Its top-class craftsmanship combined with its searing relevance to this day make it an essential listen in these times.