Queen II is the closest Queen ever got to a concept album (with the possible exception of Made in Heaven), thematically split into Side White and Side Black – the former written largely by Brian May, the latter entirely by Freddie Mercury. Co-produced by the band with Roy Thomas Baker and Robin G. Cable, here prog, metal, psychedelia and pop combine with lyrics rooted in fantasy to create an overall dark, gothic atmosphere.
The funereal instrumental Procession is an early example of May’s signature guitar orchestrations which sets up the first of two epics on this album, the dramatic Father to Son. With late-’60s The Who serving as an influence, an opaque lyric and layered guitars-and-vocals populate a multifaceted structure before fading through to White Queen (As It Began). A gorgeous prog ballad, White Queen‘s fantasy imagery is lent weight by the melancholy-to-bombast spread of its instrumental arrangement. Some Day One Day is one of a handful of great psych-pop numbers written and often, as here, sung by May during Queen’s ’70s heyday.
The side ends with the rude awakening of Roger Taylor’s percussive rocker, Loser In the End. Apparently not buying into the fantasy themes cooked up by Mercury and May for the album, Taylor (billed here for the last time as Roger Meadows-Taylor) instead offers an acerbic take on cutting the apron strings, arrived at via a memorable drum intro and some caustic soloing from May. Significantly, Taylor’s lead vocal serves to remind that there was more than one great singer in the band.
Side Black, Mercury’s brainchild, is full of lyrical invention and musical audaciousness. Kicking off backwards, Ogre Battle is brutal, Queen at their heaviest, the whole band in full flight with May’s guitars commanding the most attention. This glorious racket is still fading out when some spirited harpsichord playing heralds The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke. Mercury’s musical take on the painting by Richard Dadd turns what is essentially a detailed description of that painting’s narrative into some entertainingly florid wordplay (“Pedagogue squinting, wears a frown/And a satyr peers under lady’s gown/Dirty fellow … Tatterdemalion and a junketer/There’s a thief and a dragonfly trumpeter/He’s my hero”). All this against a baroque mix of multi-tracked vocals, pianos, guitars, John Deacon’s impressively intricate and melodic bass playing and even Baker on castanets.
The brief piano/vocal interlude Nevermore hardly prepares us for The March of the Black Queen, the antithesis of May’s White Queen. Long, ambitious, complex and batshit crazy, there is so much going on in there – including, I swear, bell ringing – it beggars belief. At one point the song builds to an ear-crushing crescendo with multi-overdubbed everything before stopping in its tracks to make way for a solo Mercury vocal taking on the subjects of angels, love and joy, though lyrically it’s otherwise a character study of an evil fairy queen. Or something. We’ve got “Water babies singing in a lily-pool delight/Blue powder monkeys praying in the dead of night” while people are put in a cellar and tortured with baby oil and something distressingly called “nigger sugar”. It is completely unhinged. After six and half minutes of this mentalness, acoustic guitars start fading through and we’re in Phil Spector territory for Funny How Love Is, which ends the seamless five-song cycle. Then it’s That Piano Riff, and the album bows out with the still-impressive Seven Seas of Rhye. The band’s first hit single, it is a reminder that, even at their most Top of the Pops friendly, Queen could still be more than a little out there. The song fades on an old-school organ-and-crowd singalong of I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside. Of course it does.
Queen II marked the start of a near-untouchable five album run, completed by Sheer Heart Attack, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races and News of the World. Queen’s other albums are worthwhile, some of them even great, but to me that run is just about perfect. No filler, no compromise. “No synthesisers”! Of the other four titles in that list though, only A Day at the Races comes close to matching Queen II‘s dark vibe, undercut as they both are with wit, measured absurdity and a rarely matched creative daring.
The tape I picked up is a crappy Fame reissue. EMI put out no-frills versions of some of its back catalogue in the early-mid ’80s under the Fame imprint, perhaps because their existing budget label MFP was by that time mostly associated with the easy-listening and MOR of the day. Here there are no lyrics, not much in the way of credits and even the sides are listed simply as “one’ and “two”. Whatever, it was cheap – about a quid online – and still plays well.