Album of the Year | Albums | December 16, 2014

1974 – Queen II

After a promising debut album, recorded in down time between bigger artists’ use of the studio, Queen had the confidence to demand more time on their own terms. The result, the somewhat unimaginatively title Queen II is their first masterpiece.

Queen IIDivided into sides White and Black rather than A and B, with pieces seguing into each other and (with the exception of Roger Taylor’s Loser In The End) a strong lyrical thread of fantasy there was more than a hint of “concept” to this album.

Opening Side White is a Procession, starting with a bass drum heart beat (in 3/4) and Brian May’s soon to become very familiar layered, violin guitar sounds leading into the first proper track, Father To Son. Although there is an underlying verse/chorus structure at the start it feels much more free, and this only continues as the song plays out through new theme after new theme, never quite stopping for long enough to let the listener settle and by the time it eventually comes circle only four minutes have passed. This is a song that could have easily been stretched to double its length but that is perhaps part of its appeal. In addition, the guitar work really gives an early view of Brian’s versatile but easily recognised style and the harmonies are recognisably the Queen that would eventually be producing Bohemian Rhapsody and the like.

The end of the track segues smoothly into the much gentler, sadder White Queen. Again, the song structure leaves the listener guessing for a lot of the song and while there is a more noticeable verse pattern they are anything but straightforward and predictable and there’s not really a chorus as such, more of an ever-changing set of alternatives to the verse. The track builds to a climax through an acoustic guitar solo which sounds almost like a sitar, and then eases out.

The first of the slightly out-of-concept tracks is the Brian May vocal track, Some Day, One Day which is one of my favourite things he’s done acoustically. Layered guitar lead lines weave over a very jangley acoustic guitar and vocals line with John Deacon’s bass work being well worth a little bit of attention in its own right.

Next up is Roger Taylor’s The Loser In The End which is even more out of character but forgivably so with its quirky drum intro and mini-solo and again both Brian and John play out of their skins with some outstanding parts. And of course, in any normal rock band, Roger Taylor would have been the lead vocalist. But normal rock bands don’t have Freddie Mercury.

Speaking of Freddie, his absence for the last two songs is rectified at the start of Side Black with the entry of the quite literally awesome Ogre Battle. Swirling cymbals, trademark “Ahh!” vocals and a guitar part which Brian May learned and played backwards, then reversed to give an otherworldly feel to the intro and then at one minute, Freddie starts telling his story. The relentless riffing and interjected vocal harmonies and screams make this a glorious track for turning up really loud.

Next up is The Fairy Feller’s Master-stroke, inspired by a Richard Dadd painting. More frenetic guitar and vocal lines are joined by a harpischord (used to surprisingly good effect) and by the time you reach Nevermore you’re ready for the light relief it provides.

The March of the Black Queen begins with ominous piano and guitar trills before leading through another disorienting array of themes and sections, building into a chaotic and poly-rhythmic chaos before settling for a a few verses of piano and vocal with interjections from the drums and guitar. The tempo picks up again and the song heads towards its false ending before a surprise epilogue bridges into the wall-of-sound track Funny How Love Is.

And then we’re at the last track, which is the same track which closed their first album. Except this time they’ve finished writing it. With added lyrics, a raised tempo and some more structure Seven Seas Of Rhye is transformed from its original somewhat flat version into something that would give Queen their first proper taste of chart success.

I suppose as an album it’s less polished than A Night At The Opera, but some of that rawness and the explosion of creativity you can feel from a band who finally have space to explore and to let their combined and individual genius shine results in something that I find lifts the album. It’s tied with ANATO and Innuendo as my favourite of Queen’s albums, and if you put a gun to my head, I might have to pick it above the other two.

 


Banquet This year’s Honourable Mention goes to Lucifer’s Friend for Banquet. This is a really, really tough call because Banquet is a also phenomenal album. John Lawton is one of my favourite singers and the rest of the band are superb and I have no idea why they aren’t more famous. Progressive rock with jazzy, latin  leanings and various orchestral instruments (including a really wild clarinet solo), this one only lost out to Queen II because the latter was such a formative album for me. I think in truth, I listen to Banquet more, but I’m going to stay with my original pick.

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