Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 352: Queen

I received three CDs for Christmas from Sheila (thank you!) and some spending money from my Mom (thank you too!). This - and about three months of not purchasing hardly any music - resulted in a ridiculous spending spree on Saturday during which I bought nine new albums.

I always regret buying so much music at one time, because I can't properly focus on each record, but yet I always do it at some point during the year. Still, I'm going to enjoy my new records - they are:

From Sheila:
Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys
So Beautiful Or So What - Paul Simon
Hank Williams: The Lost Notebooks - Various Artists

Christmas money:
Picaresque - The Decemberists
Stand Up - Jethro Tull
Blue Kentucky Girl - Emmylou Harris
Jazzmatazz Vol. II - Guru
Matapedia - The McGarrigle Sisters
Being There - Wilco
The Stand Ins - Okkervil River
Oh Fortune - Dan Mangan
OG Original Gangster - Ice T

Don't ask me how any of them are, though - I haven't had time to listen to them. I'll let you know when I roll them somewhere down the line. OK - on to the record I am reviewing.

Disc 352 is...Sheer Heart Attack

Artist: Queen

Year of Release: 1974

What’s Up With The Cover?: A picture of the band, laying about in a jumble. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be arty, sexy or whimsical, but it fails on all counts.

How I Came To Know It: I've been a Queen fan for a long time, but buying this record is just me drilling through their collection. I got this one comparatively early, and I've had it for over ten years now at least.

How It Stacks Up: I have 15 of Queen's studio albums, which I believe are all of them that feature Freddie Mercury. Of these, I'd say "Sheer Heart Attack" is somewhere in the middle of the pack at around 7th.

Rating: 4 stars.

"Sheer Heart Attack" is the second album Queen released in 1974, and proof that in that golden age of early seventies rock and roll, bands could do this and still deliver a quality product. To see the mediocre results of this being attempted in later years, see "Use Your Illusion Vols I and II."

"Sheer Heart Attack" follows roughly seven months after "Queen II" and fits nicely as the last of their early progressive sound. The album that would follow, "A Night At The Opera," would mark a bit of a departure toward a more showy sound that would make turn them from rock stars to rock superstars.

"Sheer Heart Attack" holds a special place in my heart partly because of its obscurity. The hit "Killer Queen" is a great song, but is almost always heard only as part of the Greatest Hits package I have grown to despise. The only other song on that album is "Now I'm Here" - also an amazing rock song, but these two tracks alone leave so much of "Sheer Heart Attack" woefully unexplored.

Among the lost treasures is "Brighton Rock," which features one of Brian May's greatest guitar solos, and a staple of many a Queen concert. "Brighton Rock" rivals "We Are The Champions" and in terms of innovation, is its superior. When I heard it this time I realized just how much Blue Oyster Cult would've been influenced on their "5 Guitars" live track from 1978's "Some Enchanted Evening." And if you know anything about me, you know that acknowledging a band is an inspiration to Blue Oyster Cult is high praise indeed.

"Sheer Heart Attack" is very much a part of Queen's early progressive sound, with many songs shifting gears so many times that even Rush would be proud. Progressive songs on this record like "Flick Of The Wrist" or "In The Lap of the Gods" are as good as anything you'll hear on Queen I or Queen II, meaning they are pretty damned good. Both strongly reminded me of some of the songs on Pink Floyd's "The Wall," and I wouldn't be surprised if Roger Watters knew it well.

The album isn't all progressive musical exploration however, there are plenty of songs that simply rock out; my favourite being "Tenement Funster," a Roger Taylor song that starts off like some kind of Alice Cooper alien western, but truly kicks into gear with Taylor singing out his request, "give me a good guitar" as Brian May obliges with a killer riff. As is so often the case, the songs that initially capture my attention on the album are written by Taylor and May (who writes the equally powerful "Now I'm Here.)" You could say their sound is 'Taylor May-ed' for me. Get it? Get it?

Man, I crack myself up.

Anyway, back to the music. "Sheer Heart Attack" fills a lot of the album's space with progressive seventies rock and heavy guitar, but there is still space for the showmanship of Freddie Mercury, adding his own Broadway musical-meets-rock Opera stylings. The record is a transition record into a later sound that would feature these elements much more heavily, but I like how at this stage Freddie is still letting songs like "Lily of the Valley" which could have come off like a showtune, get dressed up with harder elements. Regrettably the other showtune, "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" experiences no such reigning-in and suffers as a result. It is a rare miss, however.

The various stylings give this album a lot of range and keep your ear interested. At times, they also make it hard to hang your hat on just what the record is doing, and it can seem disjointed, but the overall quality is so good it didn't ever bother me. "Sheer Heart Attack" may be a mess in places, but it is a beautiful mess, and easily better than more cohesive records made by lesser bands that took twice as long to make music barely half as good.

Best tracks: Brighton Rock, Tenement Funster, Now I'm Here, In The Lap Of The Gods, Stone Cold Crazy, She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stillettos)

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