Album Review: Operation: Mindcrime – ‘The Key’

In the interest of full disclosure, I must be honest and admit that I’m MUCH more fond of Queensryche as a band without Geoff Tate than as Geoff Tate’s solo band. Some people will think this means I am not the best person to judge this album because I am biased against Tate. This might well have some weight: I grew to loath Tate as a person while the split between Tate and Queensryche was happening and it is only recently that I’ve come to let go of that anger and hatred for his actions in the split. Put it down to me having to grow up with a disturbingly similar situation happening when my parents were divorcing if you must, but the whole situation was one which I simply could not look upon Tate with any fondness for and I certainly was NOT eager to review this album.

However, there must come a time when one must take a bullet for the team. With the rest of the team comprising a metal fan with a far stronger dislike of Tate today than me and a rock n roll fan with no interest in Queensryche, that day has come. There’s no easy way to say this, but I have to: this album is simply not an album that I feel is worth recommending to most people. Not because of Tate being part of it (although I feel he is the weakest link on the album), but because, musically, it is a very weak album that tries to prove that Tate still has something to say, but fails to do anything except leave me wondering whether Tate’s got anything left to say that is actually worth hearing.

Let me start with the positives, because there are a few to be found in The Key: the concept behind the record is genuinely quite interesting. While it does lack some of the subtlety of Operation: Mindcrime, I must concede that I would actually agree with someone saying that The Key has taken a few cues from Operation: Mindcrime if they were only talking about the concept of the record, because there are genuinely a lot of things in the concept of The Key that reminded me a bit of those in Operation: Mindcrime: what are the implications of changing the world? It’s nothing really new (just about every science fiction writer in the world has at least asked that question once or twice in their writings), but it is a question that is still surprisingly interesting to explore, so credit where it is due to Tate for providing a take on it.

I also have to admit that the performances on the record are not half bad. Some of the performers on the record are quite surprising (I genuinely forgot that Dave Ellefson of Megadeth was on this record until I checked it while writing this!), but nobody on the instrument front gives a performance that I feel is bad, just not to the levels they’re known for.

That, unfortunately, is where my praise must end.

The BIG problem for me on the performance front is Tate himself. Let’s be fair for a second: after over thirty years of singing metal music, expecting him to sound like he did on ‘Damaged’ is unreasonable, let alone ‘Queen of the Reich’, so trying to hold him to those standards is flat out unfair to the guy. However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that Tate’s performance on this record is very poor. His vocal tone is very poor, his range is limited, he can be audibly heard struggling to hit notes throughout the record and he doesn’t even sound like he’s in the right key at points. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that I think the record might have actually been better had Tate not been singing on it simply because a well chosen vocalist would not have had those problems dragging down the record at every turn.

The songwriting also lets the record down. Now, the record DOES occasionally offer a few pleasant surprises here (I’ll freely admit, ‘Re-inventing the Future’ could actually have been pretty good with a better vocal performance on it), but, for the most part, there’s not a lot that’s worth getting excited over. It’s just generally unimpressive on the songwriting front: you’ll hear the songs and maybe like them while they’re happening, but chances are good you’ll have forgotten about them a few hours later and there’s little in the record that really improves the songs when you take deeper listens to them. Sonically, it just doesn’t sound like a progressive metal album: I actually got reminded more of alternative metal, except I don’t think there’s even enough metal elements to this record to justify calling it that. This wouldn’t be a problem for me if it weren’t for the fact that the band have named themselves after one of the greatest progressive metal albums of all time and that Tate was the vocalist on that album: with that fact in mind, it just feels baffling that the band haven’t even TRIED to sound like that record outside of ‘Re-inventing the Future’ (which feels like a worse version of ‘I Don’t Believe in Love’). I get that things have changed since the 80’s and Tate might not necessarily want to produce material like that for very valid reasons, but it doesn’t change the fact that the band have named themselves after an album that they sound NOTHING like.

The production is also not great. I can’t place exactly what’s wrong with it, but there’s just something about how it sounds which makes it difficult for me to click with it, and the fact some songs have noticeably louder mastering than others (‘The Stranger’ sounds like it’s had far louder mastering than the rest of the record) doesn’t help to convince me that this record was produced properly. I get that production work isn’t easy, as there’s so many ways it can go wrong, but this feels like a poorly handled production to me.

The sad thing for me is that, while Tate’s vocals were always going to be a problem for me, I could genuinely have seen this being pulled off well. If Tate had been paired with a much better songwriter and the production had been better handled, then maybe there could have been potential for Tate to prove that he didn’t need the Queensryche connection to continue making great albums and silence those in the metal scene who had written his career off as dead once the Queensryche court case had been resolved.

Well, those who doubted Tate definitely aren’t going to be doubting him any more…but not because he’s impressed them.

Ultimately, there’s no reason to listen to this record. It isn’t the worst record I’ve ever heard, but there is no real audience for this record that I can think of that would really enjoy the record as a whole outside of those who are diehard fans of Tate who feel Queensryche’s best records were post-Hear in the Now Frontier, and I’m not convinced that even they would find enough to enjoy about this record to make it worth purchasing. I might not have approached this record from the best of perspectives, I’ll admit, but I think even those who have never listened to Queensryche would agree that this is just not a good record. It fails as a project with a Queensryche connection because it doesn’t sound like what Queensryche’s iconic sound is and doesn’t represent what they stand for, it fails as the first part of a trilogy of albums because it doesn’t make you interested in hearing the later parts, it fails as a debut because it doesn’t do anything to make you interested in hearing the band more and it fails as an album in and of itself because it fails to be an enjoyable album on any level. It gives me no pleasure in saying this, but I genuinely wouldn’t recommend this album to most people. If you’re a huge fan of post-Hear in the Now Frontier Queensryche and are OK with Tate’s current vocal abilities, then there MIGHT be enough songs on this album you’ll be able to appreciate to make it worth a shot, but everyone else, do yourselves a favor and avoid this record.

The Key will be released on the 18th of September by Frontier Records. A promo copy of this album was provided for review purposes.

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