Bigelf, Agalloch (ok that's sort of a mix of folk and prog) and now Queensryche have all popped up in my playlists, and are all great in very different ways (60s/70s prog, black/folk/doom prog, and hard rock/hair metal prog, respectively). I like to mix it up.
Upon listening to the two of the best Queensryche albums (best by common knowledge, although long-time fans of the band may disagree), Empire and Operation: Mindcrime, I came to the realization that the latter of the two, is really out there. I am surprised that with the way it's constructed, how much press and acceptance it's received, both at the time (1988) and now. It is dark and brooding, is still in the vein of hard rock but has so many stylistic twists and turns you can't help but call is progressive. It's a great release, something that is still heralded over two-decades later, but I still can't believe that it was ever as big as it was.
The story (loosely gathered from the actual music, most from Wikipedia): Nikki is in a mental hospital, not remembering what had happened to him, when suddenly flashbacks of the past few days and weeks start to assail him. He recalls that, as a heroin addict, he was manipulated into joining a radical anarchist movement, headed by Dr. X. Dr. X combines Nikki's lust for heroin with brainwashing techniques to turn him into an assassin, and whose trigger word is 'Mindcrime' at which point Dr. X takes control of Nikki's mind.
During all of this Nikki befriends a prostitute-turned-nun, named Mary. With Mary's compassion and friendship, Nikki begins to question his dependence of the drugs and his role in the revolution that Dr. X is masterminding. Seeing this potential change in Nikki, Dr. X orders him to kill Mary. This ends up being the breaking point for the man, for he is unable to fulfill this task. He leaves Mary to tell Dr. X that he wants out, but of course Dr. X uses Nikki's addiction to heroin to pull him back in. Ashamed Nikki returns to Mary, only to find her murdered.
At this point Nikki snaps, both at the thought of losing Mary, and that it may have been he who did it (under control of Dr. X). He runs through the streets calling her name, eventually being apprehended by the police, who find a gun on him. Nikki is under suspicion for Mary's murder as well as several other murders, all of which Dr. X had Nikki complete (with or without his knowledge, it's never made clear). Confronted with his crimes, Nikki's mind shuts down, and the police send him to a mental facility. While there, lying catatonic, Nikki hears a news report of the recent murders, his murders, which begins a sequence of flashbacks, that returns us to the beginning of the story.
That is a cool-ass story but a lot to fit in, all in fifteen tracks. You honestly won't get half of all that, hell I've grown up with this album, and until now, when I actually read a synopsis, I always thought Nikki did kill Mary when ordered to by Dr. X. Learn something new every day. Anyway, what draws me to this album - and would draw many others away - is it's complexity. There are the obvious single-tracks; "Revolution Calling," "Operation: Mindcrime," "I Don't Believe in Love," and "Eyes of a Stranger," but there are also some tracks are are really for fans of Queensryche (more like their earlier sound); "Spreading the Disease," "Suite Sister Mary," and "The Needle Lies" - all decent songs, but not the 'sound bite' punch that the earlier ones have. The rest of the tracks (the majority) are filler, 'story' tracks, which are needed to get the tale moving, but really don't offer anything intrinsically great, as far as music goes.
Even with all of this working against it; the dark story, only a few real good singles, non-clear story, Operation: Mindcrime became Queensryche's claim to fame. It catapulted them into the popular rock/metal spotlight, which, as many long-time fans may claim, killed them. After the surprise success of the album (heck AllMusic has it tied as their best album), the band was pressured by their record company to create something even more friendly too the masses (which always happens). They answered with Empire, another good album, but full of radio-friendly tracks, was a far cry from the quasi-progressive sounds of Operation: Mindcrime and it's predecessors. The following albums were more and more mainstream, with the occasional throwback to their earlier (and better) days. It's not the same, nor ever will be. Their latest release, American Solider, was bad, no two ways to slice it. But they will always have Operation: Mindcrime, and that is something to be proud of.
Operation: Mindcrime is a progressive album for progressive fans, that's the best way I can put it. A normal hard rock fan, or someone who joined the fandom after their followup, Empire, would never get it. Operation: Mindcrime is filled with filler songs that move the story along (it being a concept album and all), which is pretty standard, but even the 'songs' for the most part are pretty spacey and loose. If I was to introduce a new listener to Queensryche, someone who had never heard the band before, and who weren't well dedicated to the styles of progressive rock, there is no way I would seat them down with Operation: Mindcrime. It is just too out there.