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Taken from Wall Street Journal (Mar 06, 2024)

'Queen II', A Royal Rock Album, Turns 50

With its flamboyant compositions and Freddie Mercury's pleading power vocals, the British group's second record provides a glimmer of the glam extravagance that would go on to define the band.

by Marc Myers


Queen. Photo: Redferns/Getty Image
Queen in performance circa 1974. Photo: Redferns/Getty Image


Soon after Queen formed in London in 1971, the band played locally for nearly two years and taped much of its first album without a record deal. In early 1973, EMI signed the group and released that initial LP, but the eponymous record reached only No. 83 on the Billboard 200 chart. As the band worked on songs for its second album, Queen added heft and drama in the studio and EMI had the quartet open for Mott the Hoople to build a following.


After "Queen II" came out 50 years ago this month in the U.S., the LP peaked at No. 49 on the Billboard chart. The album combined glam and progressive rock, complete with classical, Elizabethan and mystical touches. Sales were helped by Queen's 19 tour stops in the U.S. as an opening act. What made the record special was the emergence of a new thunderous hard-rock sound accompanied by a sea of multitracked vocals.


At the time, "Queen II" was skewered by critics who found the record's prog-rock approach a bore. Robert Christgau summed up that sentiment in a scathing one-sentence Creem magazine review without punctuation: "Wimpoid royaloid heavyoid android void." But following the band's decades of success, critics now exalt "Queen II" for taking glam to the next level and for the emotional excess that soon dominated the group's high-drama hits.


The album also has been hailed by metal rockers such as Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses, Paul Rodgers of Bad Company, and Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. All praised the heavy, churning interactions between guitarist Brian May and bassist John Deacon, the pounding of drummer Roger Taylor, and Freddie Mercury's impassioned vocals and precise, percussive piano.


Most important, on "Queen II" we start to hear the band shift to the operatic concept suites that would populate future albums and animate massive stadium audiences. In support of the group's audacious name-there already was a Queen of England, after all-and hyper-pop image, "Queen II" fed more deliberately into regal pretension and rock extravagance.


The quartet's flamboyance on "Queen II" extended to the LP's packaging. The first side was labeled "Side White" and the second "Side Black"-with White hosting the record's more emotional songs written mostly by Mr. May. Black showcased darker theatrical tracks penned by Mercury. Cover photos by Mick Rock featured the band dressed dramatically in black against a black background on the front, while the reverse side portrayed the band in white against a white backdrop.



Songs on Side White sound like a lavish metal suite suitable for a royal ascension. Mr. May's opening instrumental, "Procession," seems to herald a reborn band while bidding farewell to the old one. The 72-second piece appears to combine the flavor of Handel's "Zadok the Priest," played at British coronations, and Chopin's "Funeral March," heard at several monarchs' funerals. Mr. May created an organ effect by multitracking his guitar.


"Queen II" then launches into "Father to Son," which extends the succession motif with a heavy-metal churn and fierce solo by Mr. May: "Don't destroy what you see, your country to be / Just keep building on the ground that's been won." On "White Queen (As It Began)," we're given a glimpse of Mercury's power-ballad vocal style and the band's knack for choral layering.


Mr. May's acoustic guitar and lead vocals give "Some Day One Day" a troubadour feel: "A misty castle awaits for you / And you shall be a Queen." The White side closes with Mr. Taylor's "The Loser in the End," a bump-and-grind rocker.


The Mercury-composed Side Black springs into "Ogre Battle," the album's heaviest, thrashing piece. It feeds seamlessly into "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke," named for Richard Dadd's 1855-64 painting at London's Tate Gallery. Here we are treated to glimmers of Queen's operatic approach to hard rock.


The ballad "Nevermore" is a breakup song that showcases Mercury's classical-inspired piano and his pleading vocals: "Why did you have to leave me? (nevermore) / Why did you deceive me? (nevermore) / You sent me to the path of nevermore."


His piano opens "The March of the Black Queen," the album's high point. The densely layered, 6:23-minute track sounds like a prototype for the band's 1975 operatic opus, "Bohemian Rhapsody," complete with shifting, complex themes, supersized vocal overlays, rabid guitar solos, a polymeter and odd narrative: "Fie-fo the black queen tattoos all her pies / She boils and she bakes and she never dots her i's / She's our leader."


Pop influences from the early 1960s, such as the Ronettes' "Baby, I Love You," color "Funny How Love Is." "Seven Seas of Rhye" closed Queen's first album as an instrumental. This time, the song features lyrics and quickly explodes in a prog-rock firestorm, wrapping up gently with a madrigal vocal chant.


It's easy to understand why serious rock critics found "Queen II" cheesy and overbearing in 1974. What they didn't fully grasp is how large a canvas the band was aiming to fill and how well its campy rock approach would play in Super Bowl-size settings. "Queen II" provided an inkling.




 
 

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