Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"I reign with my left hand, I rule with my right"

A few weeks ago I was having a phone conversation with my friend Michael Anton Parker- discussing some important shit- when Mike suddenly made one of his characteristically bold statements, causing my brain to shake in my head a little bit. I tried to formulate a response to this grenade that he just tossed at me over the phone, but at the time I was too baffled and unprepared to do so. This event in telephone history prompted me to enter the blogosphere and release my inner prog lady. The brain-shaking statement Mike made was that the first, self-titled Queen album is better than Queen II.

I'll admit that when I talked to Mike I hadn't even heard the first album, although my appreciation for the "black side" of Queen II runs deep enough to incite a profound skepticism of the comparative value of any of the band's other efforts. Since then Mike has thoughtfully emailed me the first album, and I've listened to it several times. Unfortunately I've also over-listened to Queen II so much that its sweet progmetal has merged with my bloodstream, my awe has extended to the formerly disposable "white side" (which is mostly written by guitarist Brian May), and any scrap of objectivity I may have once held is now completely obliterated. The only song on the album that I find even mildly questionable now is "The Loser in the End"; the only track written by the drummer Roger Taylor, with Brian May singing like an angry Rod Stewart. That being said, I'm still going to try to draw a comparison.

The first album really is good. "Great King Rat" is a lot of fun, "Liar" has handclaps (always a plus), "My Fairy King" and "The Night Comes Down" are both excellent. The parts that I think are incredible, however, are fragmentary--the unbelievable instrumental section near the end of "My Fairy King," for example, or those killing first few seconds of "Son and Daughter" before the song dissolves into a headbanger--whereas Queen II maintains a seamless continuity throughout the entire black side (as every good concept album should). The self-titled is a sort of prog / hard rock hybrid, which holds its own appeal, while QII has a metal edge that's more proud spandex and calculated guitar gymnastics than Hot Topic wallet chains and beer-soaked tailgate parties. The first album was an unwarranted failure, and so QII on the whole is more insistent; it demands your attention with higher shrills, greater bombast, sweeping arrangements and thank god--more overdubs. I may be a little biased on that last observation, though- I'd probably buy an album with an overdubbed harmonica on it.

Certain details of the black side elevate QII over the self-titled for me--Roger Taylor's falsetto is better utilized, providing a foreshadowing of his total emasculation in "Bohemian Rhapsody," and the vocals are so intricate and multi-layered they seem to twist shapes in the air. There's also a split-second of "The Fairy-Feller's Master-Stroke" that serves as a real selling point for me: smack in the middle of the song, Freddie Mercury dangles an absurdly dainty harpsichord riff, sandwiched between orchestral guitar and pounding dude-bass-it's like he just dips Louis XIV in a pool of shred and then pulls him right back out. And then of course there's "The March of the Black Queen." That song is pure genius, the highlight of the album. It's unfortunate that the band would eventually devolve into a flaccid collage of Wayne's World, Live Aid, and hockey games, although it could have been worse. And there are some noteworthy moments on most of their later albums- Jazz has some special parts, too, but that's a whole other BLOG-- getting back to my original argument: like I said before, the first album rocks ... but does it rip?

"Ogre Battle" Hammersmith 1975

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