Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Queen II (the second album) - review

Following the recent release of "Let Me In Your Heart Again", I have been listening to Queen intensively, and realised that I had not committed my thoughts on their second album to blog.
I have grown to see "Queen II" as a reaction to the circumstances under which the debut record was pieced together, and it is important to bear that in mind when placing it in the context of their discography. The first album was quite a frustrating affair, and the follow-up reflects the relief of a group given a bit more freedom and time. The entire "package", right down to the sleeve and the artwork, is more coherent and focussed.
It is often remarked that the most distinguishing feature of Queen's music is the multi-layered sound. I would contend that this is an over-simplification; to me, the "trademark" multi-tracking is less important than the individual instrumental and vocal sounds, and the keys in which many of the songs are written. I am insufficiently qualified to comment with great authority on the latter, but suffice to say that, in contrast to some people, I don't regard "Queen II" as the quintessential Queen album. It has a distinctive sound and feel of its own, more ethereal and elaborate in nature than the majority of their other work.
Going back to the peculiar circumstances under which the album was recorded, it has always seemed to me that the band compensated for the lack of time and continuity allowed on their first effort, and went all-out to produce an extravagant LP, getting much of the multi-tracking thing out of their collective systems In Roy Thomas Baker and Robin Cable, they had producers who were only too willing and able to help them accomplish this. The juxtaposition of band and producers' intent helped to bring about the finished product. The assertion that this record signified a "purging" is lent credence by the more stripped down and succinct musical statements which pervaded the next album "Sheer Heart Attack".
The "Side White/Side Black" idea on the original vinyl LP was another case of Queen flirting with the notion of concept albums without ever fully committing themselves to it.  It is an area of Queen's potential, like film soundtrack music, which they never fully explored. That said, the "white/black" theme helps to imbue the album with a kind of unity, the sort based on "duality"?
The songwriting duties continue to be dominated by Freddie Mercury and Brian May, although Roger Taylor chips in with "Loser In The End" (which admittedly is a touch out of place here).  Freddie's later signature style is continuing to evolve, whilst Brian is still exploring what on the surface appear to be philosophical and quasi-mystical themes.

A major pointer to the future was in the adroit use of "light and shade" - moments of chaos and intensity, followed by passages of delicacy and subtlety.  This is most evident on "Father To Son" and "March of The Black Queen".  The former betrays influences, both sonically and melodically, which are hardly difficult to discern, but both songs show the band learning how to construct music combining complexity with affecting hooks and chord changes.

"White Queen (As It Began)" has an eerie and esoteric flavour, accentuated by the acoustic and semi-acoustic guitar parts and the vocal "choir".  Although the song arguably worked better in the concert setting, the studio original has a charm all of its own. "Someday One Day" is another one of Brian May's poignant and reflective acoustic folk-inflected compositions, which he continued to contribute to the Queen canon until the early 1980s.

The "Freddie half" of "Queen II" commences with "Ogre Battle", a track which manages to combine real incisiveness and bite with an affecting melodic base. The two verses in the early stages are classic Queen. As with several other numbers on this record, there is a slightly nebulous middle section, which builds up tension for the final phase of the song. Some pleasing guitar riffery from Mr May here, too.

"The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke" is an intricate and appealing piece of work, with fine harmony vocals and the nice touch of the harpsichord.  The lyrics were seemingly inspired by a painting which Freddie saw, but the imagery is vaguely in keeping with the content of other songs at this stage of the group's career.  This song does not appear to have been played live that often, presumably because of its demanding technical nature, but evidently the boys made a fine job of it when they did.

"Nevermore" is a stylish vignette, containing those dreamy vocal textures which, for me anyway, scream "1974!". The piano also sounds great on this song. "Funny How Love Is" sounds a touch like a Phil Spector pastiche, perhaps hinting that Queen owed a debt to this other side of the pop music tradition, in addition to the "usual" influences (Hendrix, The Who, The Beatles etc). The song possibly stretches the boundaries of multi-tracking and overdubbing more than any other track on the album.

Although "Seven Seas of Rhye" was Queen's first hit single in many territories, in the context of this album it feels almost like an afterthought. I must admit that I have never particularly warmed to the track, for reasons which I find difficult to pin down. Although exhibiting some of the traits which permeate the whole set, the song is a little uninspired compared with what went before. 

"Queen II" is an uncompromising album in some ways, embracing excess and charm is equal measure, and it has inspired and influenced some unlikely people down the years. This wasn't the "finished article", as far as the definitive "Queen sound" was concerned, as there was some additional polishing and fine-tuning still to take place.  However, as both a staging post, and as a fine rock album in its own right, it is well worth a listen.

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