Thursday, May 21, 2009
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA
Quite a bit of time and money went into the fourth Queen album, all of it well spent. There is much to be commended from a production standpoint as the group members utilized every inch of track space imaginatively, guided by co-conspirator Roy Thomas Baker. Walls of vocal harmonies, stacked guitar parts and innovative structures grace this collection of diverse, ambitious compositions.
Taking up where "Sheer Heart Attack" left off, this is where the Queen legend really begins.
"Death on Two Legs" provides the opening dynamite with a short, classically tinged keyboard flourish that dissolves into a tape collage of miscellaneous effects that all come to a screeching halt on a lone, insistent piano chord. The band kicks into a lyrically scarifying rock tune, apparently directed by Mercury at a former manager. Devastating intro.
Just as the layered voices hit the last "I feel goooooooood", a jaunty melody right out of British music hall breaks the tension and the lads take a huge cue from Ray Davies' vaudevillian leanings with "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon". It is an over the top exercise in campy fun with May adding those trademark harmonized leads. "Seaside Rendezvous" is also very much in this vein. The sheer whack of this disc is provided by matching the light and heavy sides of the group's personality with each theme blending seamlessly into the next. Big rock tracks ("I'm In Love with My Car") are followed by mid tempo, radio friendly ear candy ("You're My Best Friend"), written by Taylor and Deacon, respectively. Make no mistake that this was a four way street when it came down to writing, though Mercury and May have the majority of those credits here.
Prog in it's mildest form shows up in the multi-part "The Prophet's Song", which ranks high on the list of "songs that open side two with a bang". It plays its own role amongst a dazzling array of styles that keep you interested throughout. They didn't quite abandon heavier music completely on "A Night at the Opera", though it was slightly submerged in favor of the eclectic avenues that studio work allowed them to travel down. Live performances still showcased their harder edge.
Inside the gatefold sleeve, which I was glancing at while listening, is a proud declaration of "No Synthesizers!" at the bottom of the liner credits. In all of the years that I have had this album, that particular bit never really caught my attention. Looking at it now is just a reminder of how much effort they put into producing sounds from scratch, without recourse to the button pushing that is so commonplace in the digital age. Kind of funny, as well, when you look at how their output in the 80s was plastered with synths.
Closing with what would become the cornerstone of this set, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a brilliant suite that incorporated 180 overdubs, 70 hours to nail the vocals and first rate performances from all involved. Roger Taylor recalls Freddie Mercury playing "Bohemian Rhapsody" to the band at the piano. "And here, darlings, is where the opera section starts," he would say. "Freddie had the bare bones, even the composite harmonies, written on scraps of paper," said Taylor, "So it was quite hard to keep track of what was going on."
This ingenious creation is a testament to the rare talent that Mercury possessed and a crowning achievement in a career that featured so many highlights.