Queen, Queen II, UK, EMI Records / US, Elektra Records (1974)
Ahead of the worldwide release of the Freddie Mercury / Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” in November 2018 – instinct tells me this will be an enjoyable piece of tosh, not particularly deep, and probably not revealing anything from singer Mercury’s early background and experiences that motivated and drove him on his personal quest for recognition and wealth that in the end destroyed him with material and carnal excess – I thought I’d visit an early album of Queen’s that I’m not familiar with, at least not until now. Over the 40+ years since its release, “Queen II” has become a cult album not just among Queen fans but among music critics and musicians as well, and is now regarded as a musicians’ album. It’s the first album in Queen’s discography to feature elements of the band’s signature style: the multi-layered guitar overdubs, the vocal harmonies, complicated musical arrangements, song contributions from the majority of the band members and the eclectic musical syncretism that encompasses blues, heavy rock, prog rock and whatever else inspired or intrigued the band members that could be thrown into the mix.
The recording is strong and energetic, with a heavy and powerful soaring guitar sound, complemented by those vocal harmonies and Mercury’s distinctive voice, at this point in time (1974) youthful and smooth as silk with an edge sometimes cutting and sometimes sinuous and creamy. The songs revolve around a hazy concept of a fantasy world divided into two rival kingdoms, each a polar opposite of the other, and preparing for war The first half of the album – on a vinyl record, this would have been Side 1, which on “Queen II” becomes Side White – features four songs written by guitarist Brian May and one, “Loser in the End”, by drummer Roger Taylor, and for the most part these are sane, serene and straightforward affairs, quite emotional and even a bit melancholy in parts, mixing passionate heavy rock and gentle acoustic guitar and sitar-like melodies. Lyrics speak of an impending invasion of Kingdom White by a foreign army, the royal family rallying the people by a procession, a general call to arms and a feeling of foreboding that the war won’t end well and the kingdom’s days of independence have come to an end. The singing on this side of the album, lacking affectation, is beautiful and pure, with a honey-like flow.
After “Loser in the End”, which works as an interlude and doesn’t quite fit the overall concept, we come to Side 2 or Side Black, featuring Freddie Mercury’s songs, and here is where the album goes bat-shit scattershot crazy with more musical ideas and vocal gymnastics than this part of the recording – or the whole album, really – should have been allowed to have, not to mention the lyrics that detail the oddball culture of Kingdom Black where we can watch gladiatorial combat (“Ogre Battle”) or a parade of its more illustrious citizens (“The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke”) in a three-song medley that ends in the piano ditty “Nevermore”. The song that dominates this side though is “March of the Black Queen” a Gothic creation that can be considered a prototype of “Killer Queen” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” with its choral passages, lead guitar runs and lyrics of debauchery and potential chaos beneath an apparently ordered veneer. While this side of the album does have its attractions, it has a fussy quality as well and obscures as much as it reveals of the band’s creativity and talent.
Certainly this album is uneven in its pacing, style and emotion – it’s like hearing two mini-albums – but that’s to be expected in a recording riffing on a theme of duality, expressed in the black-and-white concept that pervades the album’s original packaging, the division of the songs and their individual and collective personalities. A world of light, order, openness and innocence is threatened by its mirror-image world of cunning deviousness and deviation that revels in darkness, disorder and deceit. A parallel with the worldview of Zoroastrianism, the religion Mercury was born into as Farrokh Bulsara in 1946, in which the forces of light and goodness and of darkness and evil are opposed, can be seen here. From the opposition of polarities arises an album brimming with energy, power and ideas – some of which do end up at loggerheads and neutralising each other – and promising much more potential to come.
The concept of the two Kingdoms inhabiting the fantasy world of Rhye is vague enough that listeners can overlay it with whatever interpretations appeal to them that make sense of this world. I like to think that on the surface, it’s a tale of invasion and colonisation of one Kingdom by the other; but beyond that familiar stereotype, the invasion carries a seed of its own destruction, the destroyer ends up being destroyed by the very thing it vanquished due to contact between the two. That the album is actually sketchy on its subject matter yet elaborates on it through opposed ideas and structures, even musical approaches, and ends up very self-coherent is quite an achievement.