Procession

Procession

As I unfold my creased and battered body out of a week with no internet and half a week of bedridden acheyness, I’m greeted by a heartbeat.

I don’t feel very well, and if I don’t start reviewing Queen II, Christmas will be ruined.

To make it easy for me, it starts with a track only a minute long.

ūüėź

Procession.

Conveniently, it’s surprisingly lovely.

That near heartbeat drumline, the marching melancholy of the guitars marching in.

That sudden uncomfortable shift to a shriller guitar in one ear, and a warmer, almost celloish guitar in the other. The call and response. The slow melding of tones.

The fade into the noodling intro of the next track, the album proper.

If Queen intros are important, the album intros are even more so, right? What can we expect from this opener?

Something ceremonial? Funereal? Something majestic? Something royal?

With a Queen in the title, a Queen in the band name, and a Queen on each side of the record, I suspect that last one’s a given.

Really, I think we’re being welcomed in. A fanfare, a sense of place. We process down the carpet into Queen’s throne room, ready to be introduced to the people within. We know from last time where we’re going to end up (taken to the Seven Seas of Rhye), but for now, we are presented to the court.

This album is, by my understanding, the full fantasy record. As well as two queens and Rhye, we’ve got fairies, ogres, and the implied ravens of ‘Nevermore’. We’re in a land of strange archetypes and parochial visions.

So naturally the first step is a procession.

An excuse to borrow the heartbeat drum effect from the Dark side of the Moon, to open the light side of the record.

Queen II is split into ‘side white’ and ‘side black’. As well as featuring the relevantly toned queens, this actually divides the album roughly according to songwriter. May is in charge to begin with, Taylor fills in the first side, and then Mercury is unleashed upon the second side, given free rein.

May gives us some baroqueish song writing, prefiguring his later versions of more traditional marches (God Save the Queen and the Wedding March, challenging the mind of a writer¬†near you soon). It’s adept, and oddly welcoming. An excuse to sit yourself down and settle into the space you’re going to occupy. I like a record that takes the time to do this almost as much as I like something that just blasts into your living room without warning.

There’s that harsh transition, though. About halfway through, when one guitar’s reverb is cut to make room for the duet portion. So abrupt. It feels totally wrong, but not. I have a few favourite moments in music that are nearly-subtle smash cuts like this, unpleasantly cut together to make sure you’re listening. Brian Wilson does it a lot. I like it.

It’s out of keeping with everything else here though. This is an entrance, carving out a space, leading us into a world, discomfort doesn’t belong here.

It’s okay though, it sets us up. Gets us ready. Reminds us to be on our toes.

 


Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Advertisements

Father to Son

Print

Wasn’t this how all fantasy films in the eighties started?

Particularly if the protagonist was a young boy who was about to go on a great adventure.

Those noodling dew drops of feedback, those cascading bell like arpeggios, those uplifting crunches of guitar.

I don’t know where the template came from, but it’s being followed.

Father to Son.

Once it gets going, it gets going. Full raging guitar, and a homily in praise of patriarchy?

Don’t destroy what you see, you country to be

Just keep building on the ground that’s been won

Hmm.

It’s a big rolling beast though, with a really pleasing structure. Sailing through history on a massive patrilineal boat. And the lyrics can at least be dismissed as lightweight tosh.

The music though, the performance, has nothing lightweight in it. Freddie sings with a real longing. The guitars rage and underpin a constant evolution.

There’s a pleasing high end feedback motif, preparing us for the intro to the next song. And a really lush midsection pseudo solo, where a looping pounding guitar riff hammers from side to side, with other lighter layers of guitar washing around it.

If this song isn’t set on a boat, then it has missed a trick. There’s no boats in it though. Just an oddly over-reverbed Freddie, and words passed from Father to Son about passing words from Father to Son.

Sigh.

We’re still, I think, at the point where May’s lyricism has not caught up with his guitar work. His guitar work is utterly stunning here, engagingly simple on some levels, with a smear of complexity running over the top.

After that pseudo solo (I believe bridge is probably the technical term), there’s a raging drum solo, followed by what I think is the actual guitar solo, where the convoluted guitars dance around each other until they can slow down around a break for Freddie’s voice (and a hint of piano, that’s been washed out of the mix for the rest of the song).

It’s quite powerful.

The final phase as well: I think this is the first time we hear Queen alluding to their anthemic stadium filling future. The final looping chorus, slowly fading, with spontaneous lead guitar dancing around a solid riff and a thing to sing along with.

It’s got heart, sonically. The song builds up slowly, dances confidently at its peaks, and then fades into the distance, ever confident, singing to itself, pulling you in.

I have no idea what that musical journey is supposed to have to do with telling a¬†son important things. The drama here is strong, but the narrative isn’t.

It really does seem to just be a song about celebrating fathers talking pompously about nothing, as if it is important, to their male children.

Joyful the sound, the word goes around.

From father to son, to son…

Which is weird, because it’s soundtracked by the discovering of new lands on powerful boats. It’s a swashbuckling explorer of a song, all movement and passion.

We should probably expect this. Queen aren’t known as a band to weigh in on heavy issues. They are at their best singing about friendship, dragons¬†and bicycles. But sometimes they want to talk about being a Dad, whilst not having much useful to add.

It’s a nice song. It blasts. It powers. It just doesn’t say much.

But words aren’t everything.

 


Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

White Queen (As It Began)

WhiteQueen-01

Another slab of tedious manfeeling, over a pretty glorious arrangement of guitars.

I appear to still be in a mood with Brian May.

But to my credit, he does use the line ‘stars of lovingness in her hair’.

As usual, Freddie salvages, and turns the fairly humdrum poeticals into something that feels surprisingly honest.

White Queen (As It Began).

To be fair to the lad, it is based on a confluence of Robert Graves poetry and fancying a girl in Biology. So I shouldn’t get all uppity about a clich√©d turn of phrase or eight. There’s no need for nastiness here.

It’s actually quite nice.

It’s harder to write about the slow ones though. Less thundering (though it gets there in the end), more meandering.

A few introductory chords make way for a spare acoustic guitar. It’s a lovely little bridge between the looping singalong of the last track and the delicacy of this one.

Freddie sings a little prologue, and the song proper begins.

It’s got that slightly unnerving minor guitar key guitar sound, echoing around the vocals like it’s following them down an alley. Hints of Abbey Road era Beatles guitar work, a kind of deft unhappiness. Longing, I guess. That’s certainly the theme here.

And it keeps being contrasted with these bursts of louder guitar, complementing the softer noise.

The second part of quietness is wrapped in expansive drums and haunted by lingering guitar thrums.

Eventually the balance tips, and the rock has it in hand for a while.

Spanish guitar helps build up to it. With raging high pitch guitar tones.

That thundering noise dances around the same sort of vocal lines, but lifts them into a greater urgency, a weightier sense of flight. Drums clatter through and upwards. Until it falls back down again. Sinking into an inversion of the prologue.

So sad it ends

As it began

It’s true; it’s a fair assessment, the piece ends as it began, looping around the internal structure that drove through it.

You really should be reading the much more accurate and thorough¬†Queensongs.info¬†(aka ‘the competition’ if I’m willing to let myself get blown out of the water) if you want an actual assessment of the musical elements of the works of Queen, but I do want to talk about structure a little.

Queen write pretty complicated songs. A lot of their biggest hits don’t really have conventional choruses (and one of the biggest is¬†a bloody rhapsody, never really repeating a theme in full).

Here we do have a chorus but it’s different every time. A pattern of vocal with entirely different lyrics each time, and an instrumental version in the middle.

It’s actually pretty gripping. You get used to hearing that structure, and forget to think of it as a chorus. It’s more a of a motif. So that ending, bringing back the beginning, makes you realise you’ve already heard it three times, in three different modes. Quiet, loud, wordless (still loud). And back to quiet.

It’s a lovely structure for the rest of the work to pass between. This isn’t just a simple battle between the loud bits and the quiet bits (although these dynamics are used pretty emotively throughout), it’s a web of intrigue: four statements of longing and sadness, and a shifting net¬†of suspended emotions (made more delicate by Freddie’s delivery).

The music is just so much more honest and open and heartfelt.

Maybe this is a fallacy. Music is inherently meaningless, not capable of the lies and charmlessness of attempting to actually say something. Can I really call something that only really abstractly indicates emotion as more emotionally honest than something that is actually trying to say a thing?

Yes. Yes I can. I just did.

Words a rubbish. Music’s great. Listen to this. Do you really care about the words being a bit trite? Are you really not buying into it anyway, just because the music tells you there’s a real thing going on?

Music’s amazing. I love it.

I think I love this.

 

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Some Day One Day

SomeDayOneDay_StefanKovacTheNounProject

Brian’s doing a sing!

Some day one day.

On one level, this is a pretty drab folksy guitar piece, a very simple rhythm hook, and a somewhat longing vocal part. The absence of Freddie makes for a much tamer sounding piece, although May’s voice is a better fit for his own lyrics in many ways. It means I may manage to skip over my now habitual lyric cussing.

I think I do like it though, and there’s one main reason.

The overlaid electric guitars.

It’s such a simple arrangement underneath, such a simple song, and then it just has this additional texture on top. By the end, three different guitar voices are dancing around each other. The fade out is lengthy, but as you strain to listen, you can still hear these circuitous guitar solos still looping and swirling.

It’s quite the thing.

I think texture is what May is best at, and it’s probably the easiest thing to forget about with Queen. This album is only four tracks in, and it has already had more than four entirely different textures. The sheer breadth of their oeuvre, even at this early stage, is ludicrous. That pretty much everything is immediately identifiable as Queen is even better.

So textures.

We introduce a jangling acoustics, some light cymbal play to beckon in the drums, and before the vocal starts, the electric puts its stamp down, introducing what will be its key theme throughout the piece.

The verse swings in, some words are said, and as it closes out, the electric slowly drifts back in, expanding out the sweep of the sound.

Second verse introduces the harmonies half way through, another thickening.

Then it’s time for the guitars to take over. The main theme repeats, and loops, varying each time, but as it starts its repeat, another guitar swings in, another more distant variation. Then a third.

Put it’s just a tease.

The verse comes back, and it’s only once it finishes, with the final development of the single line refrain.

Everything draws to a close, and then swings back in, with the electrics all blasting out. Expanding outwards, layer upon layer.

And it all slowly fades, with electricity cascading all around.

It’s a beautiful textural piece. Lacking the drama I describe as the quintessence of Queen, but replacing it with a wistful openness. It’s a nice cup of tea rather than a dip in an icy plunge bath. May’s guitar squadron gives it a warming depth, a cosiness.

May closes out his portion of the album with a mild mannered tour de force. It’s mellow, but it’s rich. It’s surprisingly powerful, for all its quietness.

We need these moments. If anything, I suspect the album’s split into separate sides for separate writers means that these more open calm spaces don’t have quite the same impact as they do sandwiched between bombast.

You never heard my song before the music was too loud

I’ve been putting off this review for a week because I thought this track was too boring (and I was looking forward to the next one too much). But it really isn’t. A close listen reveals a really heartfelt construction. Simple and intricate at the same time.

Which is a treat, in itself.

Thanks Brian. Sorry I’ve been being a dick. I love you really.

 

 
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma using an icon by Stefan Kovac for The Noun Project.

The Loser In The End

Loser

This is my love letter to a woodblock.

Emma’s just leaned her head in, and said ‘I’ll grant you: the drums at the beginning of this…pretty clever.’ This is the second biggest¬†praise I’ve ever heard her give a Queen song, so there’s something going on.

Roger Taylor is in charge again, acting as vinculum between May and Mercury.

And it would just be a fairly heavyweight but standard crunchy metal song (Sabbathy, to my ear).

Were it not for that woodblock.

The loser in the end.

It won’t be first time a track has won me around with one single sound. Perhaps I’m shallow. At least sonically speaking.

And I’m now faintly terrified it’s a straight up cowbell, but it sounds like a wooden tone to me, so I’m sticking with my instinct.

It is a good intro. Hard, heavy drums slam in, dark and brooding and urgent and echoey.

Then the woodblock. Jumping in, three tones, two notes. A cheeky triplet.

It punctuates the rest of the track, not quite routinely enough to be predictable, but enough to charm and fill in around it.

It’s texture again. Lay down a solid guitar, some concrete guitars, a gruff vocal. Then pierce it all with a woodblock.

It’s adorable. It’s strange. It’s playful.

And it draws attention to the percussion throughout. The finale of the song is a blistering drum solo (alongside an equally blistering guitar solo). Taylor takes ownership of the song from all directions, thundering throughout the track, and then ending with a long winded flourish of drumplay.

And still finds time for the woodblock.

I imagine it being overdubbed as a sing part. The rest of the song plays, and every now and then Roger hits the wood. Waiting for the perfect moments to bounce us out of the rhythm and into his little lump of wood.

There’s other lush percussive touches. I’m particularly fond of the door slam at the end of one line’s ‘goodbye Ma’. Just another thudding full stop, an aural pun.

The comparison between percussion and punctuation is an interesting one. It’s not fair. Punctuation is way of representing the natural breaks and rhythms of speech, whereas drums are the actual core rhythm of music. But when you step out of the core rhythm, and think about those additional percussive elements, it’s easy to read them as exclamations and blocks and pauses. Things to draw attention to a break, to frame a particular phrase or moment.

And Taylor is good at this. Not necessarily following the strictest rules of grammar (though by god his rhythm is tight as hell, even in that explosive end section), but open to using his different tools to frame and hold and imply.

So here, my hero is the humble woodblock, turning something that could be drab into an energetic and faintly absurd romp. Adding a single tone of interest to a raw and pumping bit of metal, to mark it out and make it Queen.

And that outro. It’s a blast.

Good work Roger. I’ll take it.

*woodblock triplet*

 

—-
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Ogre Battle

Ogre

We flip the record, and hit Side Black.

Mercury is ascendant.

And the first thing we hear is ridiculous.

Everything in its right place.

Come to the Ogre battle.

The intro is a clever, but cheap trick; it works in the execution. The end of the track is played in reverse, the final gong and screams and hammering riffage all running backwards, until it’s joined and matched by the same riff going forwards.

It really shouldn’t be gotten away with.

It is.

Come tonight –

Come to the ogre site

Come to the ogre – battle – fight

Because everyone knows that the place where ogres fight is called an ogre site, right?

Right.

I think we’re in Rhye. Glorifying in fantasy battle with crunching guitars, battered drums, gongs, screams and guitars being pulled apart.

The solo is literally this, multiple layers of stupid noises, all piling in to represent the titual battle. The guitar riff is simple but powerful, the lyrics are stupid but endearing, the screams are eternal.

Oh my god it’s brilliant.

The first side of the record took time to grow on me, revealing different delicate facets of Queendom. But this, this is pure Queen. All the weight of the fantasy. All the studiocraft of the multitracks. All the power of the voice and guitar. All the drums, all over the place.

And full, full drama.

It’s a lovely bit of story telling. Vivid as it is absurd. But most of the story is noises. The chorus is the advert for the fight, but the guitars, the noises, the screams, that’s what we’re here for.

It’s one of Freddie’s early compositions, apparently. Written on the guitar much earlier on, but delayed until the second album because they wanted to get the production right, needed the time and capacity to make this happen.

And I love that. A song about ogres is worth holding on to; to wait until it can be done right.

And it is done right.

Constant forward motion. Not so much layering louder, but getting deeper when it needs to. Part of the ‘fight scene’ solo really does sound like someone ripping a string off a guitar, and the remaining drone lasts throughout, so it’s a shock when it drops out again for the verse.

Freddie’s vocals are also multi tracked in that way that has him singing over himself. Not much, no actual overlap, just cut in a way to make it sound at points like he’s singing¬†in conversation with himself.

It’s not about the production techniques though, however much they add to the environment.

For me, it’s about the glee. A band sounding as excited as an old man telling a story about the time he watched ogres fight.

To manage to sound so authentic and heartfelt about fantasy battles? That’s what we’re here for, and it’s a treat. Everything pounds and thrums, like battles in dreams. It’s a childish fantasy, but its just so enthused that you get carried along.

Weirdly, along with upcoming track ‘The March of the Black Queen’ this gave it’s name to a SNES game.

I can’t work out if it’s a coincidence or an in-joke. There doesn’t appear to be any straight up correlation, except ‘fantastical cliches a-gogo’.

But these guys sell it. No idea if the SNES game feels as honest and open-hearted as this lovely little ogre riot.

It’s a treat, and it lays down the scene for what feels mostly like a march through Rhye, ending at the sea.

Let’s go watch an ogre fight.

Sounds fun.

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Fairy

This. Is. Amazing.

If the opening procession wasn’t baroque enough for you, here we go full harpsichord, with a song title that sounds like a fantastical euphemism.

The song is riot of colour and joy, everything bursting with action, like a filthy car chase.

And more than that, it’s actually just a song about a painting.

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke has it all.

It’s a pretty literal description of Richard Dadd’s painting, which still hangs in the Tate Britain. Apparently Freddie used to drag the band there on a regular basis, just to look at this painting. If that story doesn’t warm your heart, I suspect you might not have one.

And it’s all just the humble story of a guy who’s really good at chopping up logs.

No, really.

Well, okay, he’s surrounded by some kind of fairy court, apparently impressed by his lumber methodologies.

Fairy dandy tickling the fancy of his lady friend

The nymph in yellow “can we see the Master-Stroke”

What a quaere fellow

I’m making light of it, but it’s a beautiful ranting description of a beautifully detailed ensemble painting. The painting is a perfect visual equivalent to the gloriously decadent fantasy of Queen at this point in their career. That Freddie amps up the suggestiveness wherever possible just rams this home.

Now I’m doing it too.

Anyway, the key is, we’ve got a short, hard blast of filth and fantasy, and it’s perfect.

As the last track’s gong fades out, there’s a clicking, and a joyous harpsichord, some swanee whistle, and once the guitar comes in, we even get some castanets.

The vocal ranges around the painting, bringing in some delightful backing vocals for key lines. And there’s choruses of voices and guitars bouncing from channel to channel, blasting from left to right and back again. Freddie is actually pretty low in the mix, and oddly restrained for someone singing at such pace, but his rhythm is punctilious where it needs to be, and lugubrious when it doesn’t.

I’m so in love here. This is beautiful. It’s just over too soon, although in fact, this is mostly for a perfect segue into the next track, which to be honest, feels like it’s the second part of this piece, a calming longing counterpoint to the sound and fury of the Fairy Feller.

I want to throw some more of these lyrics at you.

Ploughman, “Waggoner Will” and types

Politician with senatorial pipe – he’s a dilly-dally-o

Pedagogue squinting, wears a frown

And a satyr peers under lady’s gown, dirty fellow

What a dirty laddio

Tatterdemalion and a junketer

There’s a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter –¬†he’s my hero

There is just so much delight here. Freddie revels in the language, gambolling like Puck through the scene, picking friends and heroes and dirty laddios.

Dude rhymes ‘junketer’ with ‘trumpeter’.

He’s my hero.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s all just silly words, but it seems to show so clearly exactly how possible it is to use words joyfully to celebrate something you love and care about.

Next time I’m in London, I’m going to the Tate with this in my headphones. Until then, I’m going to shut my eyes and let Freddie and the band take me on a tour of the painting, introducing me to friends and heroes.

My fancy is so thoroughly tickled here.

Come on Mr Feller, crack it open if you please

 

 

 
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Nevermore

Nevermore

Och, this is a sweetness.

My favourite bit comes before it even starts. The track transition is hidden, with the opening arpeggios of Nevermore appearing in the end of The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. I said already, I actually think these are two parts of the same composition, they share a something. I can’t tell if it’s in the rhythm or the chords, but they feel really tied into each other by more than a segue.

Anyway, the piano starts in the last track, glistening arpeggios slow down and settle into themselves, and the transition is actually marked by a shift in the stereo, the piano becoming ever so slightly less clear.

Making room for Mercury’s Poe inspired break up song:

Nevermore.

It’d be simple, if it weren’t for the constant tempo shifting. This piece holds its energy and stores it and releases it with its speed. It feels so much longer and more elaborate than its minute and a bit length.

It’s simple though. Just a piano sequence, Freddie and some lush backing vocals, a little bit of bass to thicken it out towards the end.

At one point it sounds like it’s planning on bursting out into a similar uplifting segment like the one from My Fairy King, but it’s just a tease. The speeding and building are released into something gentler.

Which makes sense, it’s the theme of the song: ending, not building. Regretting, leaving behind, forbidding.

I think the second side of this record is all intended as one structure. It’s not just a set of segues and transitions, but a single march through a particular fantasy land, and a particular set of emotions. I’m not entirely sure I include Ogre Battle in that, which feels more like the invitation than the actual event. Nevermore provides a note of melancholy humanity to the ebullient tree¬†shaking of the Fairy Feller, making way for the enormity of the Black Queen (which is a giant, brutal and ridiculous cipher, but we’ll get to that).

It’s a fragmented burst of emotion, in a heaving mass of story telling.

It’s also bloody lovely. Not given time to bloom into a full on love song, but also stopped from being too mawkish. It carries you along it’s surging and swelling, while Freddie’s vocal is almost restrained.

Well. Perhaps restraint isn’t the word.

There’s something so beautiful and iconic about the image of Freddie at the piano, though. Just spilling his heart into the sky.

It’s him thrusting his mic stand or fist into the air that gets put on shower curtains and statues, but I think we all fell just as in love with him at the piano, eyes half closed, belting out something more delicate.

Delicate belting. That’s Freddie. And often Queen. The ability to be bombastic and heartfelt at the same time.

Nevermore hits that note. In such a short time.

Sure it’s had a lot of the lifting done by being the cool down after Fairy Feller’s ridiculousness, but it’s such a lustrous tiny ice palace that it doesn’t matter.

It fits perfectly.

Trivia time: Apparently this was one of the tracks where people accused Queen of breaching their ‘no synthesiser’ claims, but what sounds like a ‘ring’ effect (I don’t know what it means either) is actually someone plucking the strings of the piano while Freddie plays the same notes.

The more you know!

 

 
Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

The March of the Black Queen

BlackQueen

This is enormous. I can’t believe it fits into six and a half minutes¬†(although to be fair, it does bleed into and out of the songs on either side).

There’s too much going on here to really keep track of, I don’t know how to approach it. I mean, look at the density of the technical breakdown over at Queensongs.info. This is a rhapsody on a par with the obvious one, and I think even more ambitious and striking.

The March of the Black Queen.

First, I need to get something out of the way.

This song engages with race on at least some level, so I’m can’t¬†dismiss the white queen/black queen duality of this album as just being a bit of fantasy clich√©. There’s an n-word in the middle (“a little n– sugar and a rub-a-dub-a baby oil”), and it’s really not clear what sort of ‘black’ the titular queen is meant to be. (And even some of that’s assuming that light/dark duality narratives deserve a free ride, which they don’t).

I’m not qualified to talk about if this is problematic or not.

I’m not a big fan of moral relativism (or any sort of absolutism, for that matter), so I don’t think¬†‘it was a different time’ washes. But then, I’m also conscious that Freddie is the writer, and a Parsi¬†Londoner, no doubt¬†much more intensely familiar with the period’s racism than I am. But of course, being part of one oppressed and colonised¬†ethnic group, doesn’t mean you can’t have problematic attitudes¬†(or songs) about others. Racism and colonialism is¬†part of the British cultural history, and at the very least, this song uses images of slavery, violence, sexuality and abuse that are relevant to that, possibly attaching them to a black queen character.

The lyrics are dense and lurid throughout, and it’s really hard to piece together who is who and what is what. I don’t want to excuse anything here, but my feeling is that this song is more complicated than any simple problematic reading would be. For a start, I get the sense at different points in the song that Freddie is casting himself as both the one thrown in the cellar and the powerful, sexualised and abusive queen.

I’ve been digging around for interpretations, and I find people saying it’s about being in an abusive relationship, people saying it’s a description of illicit sexual acts, people saying it’s a fantasy piece about an evil ruler.

All fit. All make sense. All could be entirely misguided. All of it sounds a bit too simple.

I still can’t work out who is speaking in the song. Who to identify with. It’s kind of fascinating, and the problematic undercurrents add to this. I’m uncomfortable with the amount of praise I’m about to heap on it, but given the density of the lyricism, I suspect any simple interpretation is immediately undermined enough to let the artfulness stand as art.

But like I say, I’m not qualified to say what’s what here.

I hope that makes sense.

Because what I really actually want to talk about is not the dense and unsettling imagery and lyrics, but the immense, rich, and terrifying tapestry of music.

This is an opus. A grand and ambitious work. Nestled into an early album, setting an operatic precedent for the band, but hiding in the back catalogue, too complicated to ever make it to stage. (Apparently the band used to do a medley that included little chunks from one of the sections here, but the piece couldn’t make it to stage, and it’s understandable.)

A piano intro stretches out from the track before, only to be halted by abrupt screams, guitar and Freddie’s recursive lyrics. The amount of screaming and harmonising here is almost immediately immense. With repitched vocal parts joining together in a downward spiral of noise.

This makes way for a long section that could be a song in and of itself, a dense one, pitching one way or the other, making space for intense rhythms¬†and screaming guitars. There’s a lot of repetition and riffing here, with moments repeated and reshaped.

But there’s a distinct change of pace at one point, hammered piano and throbbing guitar, joined by church bells, and a further cascading piano part, and eventually a stunning vocal part that eventually starts looping like a skipping record.

Before dropping out to some naked vocal harmonies and barely there piano. The harmonising here is gorgeous, mostly multi-tracked Freddie, to my ear, but occasional bursts of the rest of the band. Again, it could be its own song in its own right, one of those sensitive piano moments.

Its position in the wider piece though, means that as more instruments pull in, it has to make way for something approaching a more simple rock section, where Taylor provides some light dueting, and some of the earlier themes are restated by guitar.

Eventually the drums take control of the march, but almost as soon as they do, a faintly regal guitar lick slows everything down to what sounds like an ending.

But isn’t, because vaudeville piano.

Or something like it.

The final section really does sound like an intro for the next track, detached from the march almost completely, but it’s here in this song, and it forms the end of the enormous and monstrous cycle.

That’s the quickest I can clatter through the piece. It’s a storming mass of sections and themes and ideas, all vying for position around each other. Except they don’t really compete, they complete.

Sure, like a microcosm of this whole side of the album, each part could be considered an isolated song, joined by connective melodic tissue. But this isn’t a simple patchwork, it’s an elaborate and convoluted structure, it begs you to dive in to it’s strange and threatening world. It dares you to follow along, to guess what to expect, and even within individually identifiable sections, it defies those expectations. Whether it’s a shift in rhythm, tonality, tempo, instrumentation, panning or harmony, every moment seems to offer up something; some new immensity.

The size is the thing. The scope is the thing. It’s not just that it’s a long track, it’s nowhere near as long in time as it feels to listen to it.

That looping trap in the middle. It’s such an intensity, such a huge and unsettling thing to insert into a piece of music. It’s not just a way of linking two different musical moments together, it’s a beast of production, a striking and challenging element of a striking and challenging piece of musical storytelling.

I could drown in this. I suspect I’ll be haunted by it.

According to that analysis linked to earlier, the song contains 24-30 different chords, using each note of the chromatic scale as the root at least once. The piece uses polyrhythms and irregular rhythms almost casually, as throw away moments in service of the wider density here.

In short, musically, it’s a marvel.

And I think you can hear it throughout. It bears a close listening, but it also rips forward at such a pace that it has to carry you along. It’s strange and engrossing, even without the dense and convoluted lyricism.

Whilst digging around for interpretation, I found a thread of people arguing about whether it was better than Bohemian Rhapsody. I’m probably going to hold back my feeling on that until I get to that particular piece of musical history, but I will say that I’m not surprised people raise the question. This is a similarly over the top elaborate and yet gripping structure.

It’s not a blueprint though, it’s its own thing. A huge blast of musical strangeness that stands alone as a wonderfully powerful suite of feelings, themes and motifs. It’s a beast. It’s not a march, it’s a cavalcade, a fury. The centrepiece one of the most fascinatingly ridiculous sides of vinyl I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering.

I just really hope it’s not being racist.

 

 

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Funny how love is

Love

There’s such a different tone here.

Presumably a place of rest after the preceding tumult, here we replace rhapsody with nothing but repetition. The simplest structure on this side of the record, and something pretty straightforward

Funny how love is.

The arrival from the previous track (after the somewhat out of place coda) is marked by a clear and abrupt shift in production style. Apparently this is a concrete example of the ‘wall of sound’ production style, and it’s really nice to hear something transition into it, makes it really clear what that turn of phrase means. My reaction was ‘very 60s, mostly Beach Boys’, which might be easier if you don’t want to think about Phil Spector too hard.

Anyway, the sound is thick and lush, and the vocal is surprisingly low in the mix, drowned in the multiple layers of instruments in unison, and the prominent as hell maraca shuffle (or something like it).

After having way too much to say about the last few tracks, I’m struggling here.

It’s not a bad song, it has a striking vocal motif, with Freddie in a higher range than normal. It borrows from a slightly older aesthetic than the rest of the album, which is interesting, but more texturally. It doesn’t quite fit into the fantasy styling of the rest of the side, perhaps feeling more like a simple listless dream. A break from the weirdness, to think about love. But where Nevermore is surging poetry, this feels a little trite.

I mean, lyrically, it’s essentially a sequence of ‘Love is….’ greeting cards. So about as trite as you can get.

But the sound is there, washing around you, soothing with familiarity and nostalgia. It’s a textural thing, letting you know that the world is still out there, you haven’t been drowned by the surging waves, the world is still there.

So I don’t like it much as a song, but I think it situates within the album quite well.

Although I also think it’s the weak link in my ‘this side of the record is like a little fantasy opera’ theory. The story isn’t moved on here. It’s a simple celebration of love.

I think it is intended as a tribute. A shout out to various hip communities and musicians of the sixties. It sounds so like it belongs in that scene, not just in production but in sentiment and theme.

If you gotta make love do it everywhere

That’s what love is, that’s what love is

Maybe it is just intended as a reassuring hand on the shoulder. A reminder that Freddie and the band want you to be safe, not just battered by dense imagery, strange monsters, and underlying threats.

Like I say, it makes sense in the album, have a chance to speak about love, make it central, push it out to everyone.

And I think it succeeds in that. It’s a tonal break, but also a purely positive and heart filled piece.

It’s sweet. And that’s nice.

Funny how love is coming home in time for tea

Sometimes a greeting card is what you need.

 

 

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.

Seven Seas of Rhye

Print

And we’re back in the Seven Seas.

This time in full. This time the one we all know.

Those piano arpeggios ring, the guitar sings out and the drums hail the launch.

Into the Seven Seas of Rhye.

It’s the first hit. Reaching number 10 in the UK charts. Starting as a sketch on the first album, it was worked up and when they got a chance to go on Top of the Pops, this was what they played. It was rushed to single, and the album came later.

And it stuck.

It’s an interesting coda to the album, it feels simpler than a lot of what’s going on here, but it is very much it’s own thing. A self contained journey to Rhye, with dramatic and intense lyrics, and so much energy.

For me, it’s a track made up of stitched together glorious moments. It hangs¬†well, not feeling like different pieces sewn together, but it still seems like it occasionally glows brighter, for tiny moments.

That intro, for a start, the keening guitars over the heralding piano. Mirrored in the pitching up scream as the band sings ‘forever’.

The way Freddie promises his smile at the end. The way the guitar hangs off that smile, beckoning you in.

The middle eight (May’s composition) features these gorgeous harmonies, preparing for May’s solo.

It’s all thunder-fire, titans, unbelievers, privy counsellors, troubadors and smiles.

And then the sing song at the end. To end the whole album, something of a rock opus with a crowd of strangers singing ‘Oh I do like to be beside the seaside’ over a stylophone?

Actually, it’s been noted that Roy Thomas Baker, the producer here, playing that stylophone is a critical breach of the no synth credo. I don’t care, I just love the ridiculousness of it.

The song does feel like nostalgia. It’s hard for me to separate that¬†from it’s position on the greatest hits, and how¬†deep it is buried within every crevice of my mind. Am I being seeing performative nostalgia or just being nostalgic?

The seaside likers are a¬†clue. For all the song’s bombastic cast and blustering egotism, I think this really is a song about visiting beaches. The seas are a promise, somewhere you’ll be taken. Freddie is clearing a path for you, getting rid of distraction so he can take you to his seven seas.

Like at the Ogre Battle, we’re being promised a show.

You are mine I possess you

I belong to you forever

On the other hand, looking down at the lyrics, I can imagine them being thrown down in any rap battle. Aggression and self aggrandisement are the order of the day. It’s a wonderful heap of ridiculous boasts and audience disdain. A courtroom defence, or an unlikely gangfight.

I love the posturing, the preening, the glam violence of the thing.

But I still come back to that smile.

And it’s all done for love.

I don’t know how much we know about Rhye, but I’ll tell you one thing for certain.

I’d let Freddie take me there.

I often do.

 

 

 

 

Queen: An Exploded Diagram is me having big and little thoughts about every Queen song in chronological order. If you want to support me, making it more financially viable and easier to explain to people at parties, please back my patreon.

Illustration by Emma.