Well, today’s usual review has had to be pushed back due to some issues that basically mean I can’t actually hear the album at the minute. So I’m going to have to do another review at very short notice (I had to start writing this at 1AM on the morning that this was being posted!) instead. And I’ve not got anything new to talk about, because I have been busy with so much other stuff over the last few days that I literally haven’t had a chance to listen to anything else. Oops!
Good thing I’ve pretty much memorised this entire album, so…why not?
I probably don’t need to tell anyone who Queen are, because, well, they’re one of the most beloved rock bands of all time. This is a band who are idolised about as much as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, so most people already know who they are, even if it’s just on a casual basis. However, for the benefit of those who have been living under a rock for…well, pretty much the last four decades, I’ll give you a quick starting point. Long story short, Queen were a British rock band that formed in 1970 and are still going now, even if it’s purely as a touring entity nowadays after the passing of much beloved vocalist Freddie Mercury, who is probably the first bisexual musician that people will be able to name off the top of their heads (even if most people will mistake him for being homosexual: in fact, he was in a relationship with two women during Queen’s career, although he had several homosexual affairs during those relationships and his final relationship prior to his death was indeed a homosexual relationship, so the mistake is somewhat understandable, if still rather frustrating to Queen fans) and was known for his absolutely incredible singing voice and incredible composition skills (although, granted, all of the members of Queen were known for being strong songwriters). While Queen started out as a more typical hard rock band on their self-titled debut, their second record (Queen II) was a much more progressive affair (see “The March of the Black Queen”) and their third record, Sheer Heart Attack, was the point where they started to embrace a constantly varied sound. However, it was A Night at the Opera when Queen really became the band that they are known as today.
There’s a lot more history after that, obviously (I’ve not even touched Hot Space yet, the band’s attempt to step into disco, or the record that guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor did with Paul Rodgers), but, really, we all know that’s not what you’re here to read. Most of you reading this are wondering what I am going to be saying about this record. After all, this is regarded as one of the best records ever released and contains “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which is one of the UK’s most beloved songs (if not THE UK’s most beloved song), so this is one of those stone cold classics that is not easy to approach without some degree of reverence. And I am hardly known for giving records a free pass if I find issues in them, so some understandable curiosity as to what I must be about to say about this record must be on everyone’s minds.
So let’s jump forward a bit to reassure some people and get the obvious question answered: yes, this record is a genuinely incredible record that is worth your time and has held up very well over the years. I don’t think it is flawless…but it is the closest to a flawless record I can name because it has everything I would demand from a record, does it all incredibly well, is full to the brim of imaginative ideas and, even when I think stuff could have been better, still stands so far above the competition that it is actually quite fair to dismiss my complaints as a simple difference in opinion.
Let me get my criticisms of the record out of the way now so as to avoid coming across as completely fanboying over this record: I do think that there are two songs which I don’t think work on this record. Sadly, one of them is “The Prophet’s Song”, which is a nearly eight and a half minute long track that is basically a cappella for the most part. It’s certainly a creative idea and it certainly is interesting to hear at least once, but it ends up dragging due to the sheer length of it and could have done with a bit of trimming down because some sections of it end up repeating more than they really should do to keep interest up. I don’t hate this track, but it usually gets skipped whenever I casually listen to the record because I just lose interest in it. The other song is the band’s arrangement of “God Save the Queen”, which, admittedly, is nicely done, but, considering it comes directly after “Bohemian Rhapsody”, it doesn’t really need to be on the record because “Bohemian Rhapsody” closes the record off so perfectly that it feels unnecessary to keep on the record. It is nice to hear more of Brian May’s excellent guitarwork, but I think the record probably should have ended on “Bohemian Rhapsody” because that was basically the record’s proverbial microphone drop moment and this feels like the awkward attempt for the band to play themselves out when they should have just walked off the stage, if you see the point I’m making.
I also will acknowledge that, listening to the record on CD nowadays, you can hear stuff which you definitely wouldn’t have heard back on in the vinyl era which reveals some of the stuff that, had the record been done today, would have been recognised as an error in the production and removed. Probably the biggest example is part of “Good Company”, where you can hear a slight click when Brian May’s voice has been looped back around to repeat the word “own” in the final chorus. Most of them won’t be that noticeable unless you’re outright looking for them, however, so, with the possible exception of the highlighted example from “Good Company”, you can go through the whole record without any complaints about the production.
That…is the extent of my criticisms of this record. Yes, seriously: one song which I think could have done with trimming down despite having an interesting idea, one song which probably could have been cut because it tries to follow the epic closer that everyone knows and loves unnecessarily and some slight production errors which are more noticeable now than they would have been at the time are the extent of my criticisms with this record. That alone should say how good this record is, but, since ending the review here isn’t professional, I’ll continue.
The songwriting on this record is genuinely top notch, with incredible amounts of variety across the record to offer a varied listening experience, some incredibly creative ideas that are still pretty unusual nowadays (case of point, can anyone else think of a rock band doing an old time music hall-style track like Queen do here with “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon”? Because the only other example I can think of is My Chemical Romance with “Blood”!) and excellent writing to prove that all of the members of Queen can make this all work. From the faux-operatic stylings of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which is practically an opera in just under six minutes) to the folk-influenced “‘39” (which, interestingly enough, was influenced by the music of Lindisfarne: specifically, “Fog on the Tyne”) to the loud and proud rocker “I’m in Love with My Car”, there is pretty much something for everyone on this record (save perhaps rap fans, but this record does pre-date the popularity of rap music as well as the release of the first ever rap record, so this one is understandable) and it is all delivered with the skill and quality that one would expect from Queen nowadays. Even the earlier critiqued “The Prophet’s Song” has some great vocal lines to it and is catchy enough to be worthy of a listen, so it is hardly a bad song by any stretch of the imagination.
The performances on this record aren’t QUITE the best that the band members have ever produced (one would be well advised to check out Queen II on the instrumental front and Queen on the vocal front to hear the members at their absolute peaks of talent), but they definitely are not weak performances by their high standards and definitely do not drop the ball by any standards. While the level of talent in the music industry nowadays has increased enough for the performances on this record to not be as impressive as they would have been at the time (particularly if you follow progressive circles), it certainly says a lot that every performance on this record still holds up very well, showing off complexity while avoiding unnecessary flash. Many people will say that progressive music is purely a musician’s domain, but this record easily proves that this is not always the case! It’s not really fair to highlight any performance over the others, as everyone does such a good job on their instruments that you’d be hard pressed to name a single one as the greatest, but, if you had to tie me down to list one performance as my favourite on the record, I would have to go for cheat a bit and just say “‘39” as a whole, as the band transfers over to that environment so well that my inner folk fan cannot help silently applauding the band for their excellent use of tambourines, acoustic guitars and double bass to create a song that, while probably a bit on the overly technical side for what folk is really meant to be (especially the guitars), is so faithful to what a truly good folk song should feel like that it makes me feel humbled that the band put so much effort into doing it right. And all for a song about the time dilation effect, which is hardly something that most people would be particularly eager to hear on paper!
All of this and I haven’t yet talked about the vocals on the record. To say Freddie Mercury does not disappoint would, frankly, imply that he ever HAS disappointed vocally on anything he has done (which is not the case, for the record), but the core point still stands: on this record, he provides some truly great performances, with the obvious one, of course, being “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but even the less extravagant songs on the record which he takes up lead on (like “Seaside Rendezvous” and “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to…)”) still have Freddie selling the songs with the natural charisma and playful flamboyance that defines his every performance. Brian May’s more whispery voice (which I’ve always likened to the sound of winter, for some bizarre reason…) takes up the lead on “‘39” and “Good Company” and he does a pretty solid job overall, with each song he sings having a surprising air of maturity to them that is supported by his voice. Roger Taylor’s somewhat ferocious tenor takes the lead on “I’m in Love with My Car” and he certainly sells the song, giving it a much rougher and more macho edge than a song about being in love with a car probably needs! All of them also contribute to creating the choirs that are the band’s instantly recognisable trademark and they definitely cannot be said to have done anything less than an incredible job on that front, with high notes hit that would make Sweet blush and lower notes that many a baritone would be impressed with.
Lastly, we have the production, which, minor flaws that are more noticeable nowadays aside, is absolutely wonderful. Roy Thomas Barker and the members of Queen must have had a hell of a job in front of them when they had to mix this record, as they had to not only make sure everything was properly balanced in the record’s sound, but make sure the final result did not succumb to having so many layers on top of it that it became a wall of noise, which would be an all too likely scenario in the hands of many of today’s producers with the benefit of easier practises such as digital recording and all of the knowledge gained in the forty-odd years since this record was released, let alone being done on analogue back in the 70s when something as complex as this record was completely unheard of! Instead, the mix of the record is incredibly well balanced, with every performance being perfectly audible and having the space it needs to stand out without dominating the rest of the record. I have the 2011 remastered release of this record and, surprisingly, the mastering of the record does not succumb to the usual mastering issues of records today, having an incredibly dynamic mastering job that brings the record reasonably up to date in terms of what today’s market demands, but without sacrificing anything from the original record like the dynamics or the sound quality due to peaks caused from excessive loudness. I would really love more records today to sound like this rather than the brickwalled messes that so many of them end up being, because THIS is what stands out to me as a truly excellent production job and the remaster does not damage it in the slightest.
So yeah, at the end of the day, A Night at the Opera is a pretty amazing album that still holds up incredibly well now. While I do think some minor things could have been improved with it, it is still a record that truly deserves the reputation it has acquired and should be essential listening for music fans of all stripes. If you find a copy of this record and you have the money for it, then do yourself a favour and treat yourself to it. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed!
A Night at the Opera was originally released on the 21st of November 1975 by EMI Records.