Album Review: A Night At the Opera

As a band, Queen simultaneously came of age and sharpened their skills during the age of glam rock in Britain, a period in music when being androgynous was common place, the costumes and guitar riffs were wild, and the instrumentation was nothing short of being over the top. In their native country, Queen competed for chart attention alongside the likes of Ziggy Stardust era-David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, and T. Rex, and shared a similar penchant for theatrics. But, as it turns out, Queen took as much influence in their sound from bands firmly in the burgeoning hard rock scene, including Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin. It was by combining these two musical worlds together that Queen created their best known and career-defining album, A Night At the Opera.

At the time of its creation, A Night At the Opera was the most expensive album ever created – on paper, this could come as a relative shock to some given that the band had still had not reached their commercial potential as the glam era (and some would say their window of opportunity for further commercial success) was coming to a close by the time 1975 rolled around, but, it should come as no surprise that, aurally, A Night At the Opera sounds like a million dollars. From the building piano arpeggios at the beginning of the sharp “Death On Two Legs (Dedicated To…)” to the acoustic science fiction skiffle of “39,” to the closing sky-reaching guitar of “God Save the Queen,” A Night At the Opera is produced to the very limit without muddling any of the arrangements or dynamics. As was typical of Queen throughout their career, Brian May’s guitar playing stands out as the instrumental highlight, with producer Roy Thomas Baker layering and doubling his guitar tracks together to the point that the reel of tape being used was famously completely see-through. Needless to say, May’s theatric and melodic playing on this album are what air-guitarist’s dreams are made of. Of course, the real highlight of any Queen album is the incomparable Freddie Mercury, who was at the top of his game during this period. Mercury sweetly croons his way through the more accessible moments on this album; the sublime, “You’re My Best Friend,” and the operatic ballad “Love of My Life,” while showing the true range of his vocal talents during more progressive, hard-rock based songs such as the spit fire kiss-off “Death on Two Legs,” and the driving “Sweet Lady.” But, Mercury really shines on the two epics on this album, “The Prophet’s Song,” and, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” songs that were more in line with their earlier work. Regardless of the tone of the song, every note that Mercury has the chance to sing is pure, melodic, and perfect, and it is difficult to think of a better overall, wide-ranging vocal performance in the history of rock than Mercury’s vocal contributions on this album.

Because of their glam rock influences, Queen was also substantially more camp, and more fun than other heavy metal and hard rock bands of their era, a fact which can be traced back to the album that proceeded this one, Sheer Heart Attack. On A Night At the Opera, there are many appearances of the camp sense of style that the band possessed – perhaps most famously during the operetta section of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but there are also many tracks on this album which take direct influence from music hall, including “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” and “Seaside Rendezvous.” Even the May-penned ukulele jam “Good Company” is certainly not meant to be taken seriously in comparison to his other work. All of these tracks add a much needed sense of depth to the album, and ultimately make the more serious songs hit even harder. You would think that all of these different styles of music on the same album wouldn’t work, but the sheer strength of each individual song, alongside some wildly innovative and, in retrospect, genius production techniques, make the album cohesive, despite it not being anything close to a concept album.

Since its release, many members of Queen have stated that if A Night At the Opera had failed commercially, the band may have called it quits, and we may have remembered them as nothing but a glam-rock one hit wonder. Luckily, the six minute manifesto, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” became as unlikely a number one hit as there ever has been, “You’re My Best Friend” became a radio hit, and Queen enjoyed many more years of success dabbling in various genres such as radio pop, dance, and rockabilly. While not as seamless in construction as their previous three albums, A Night At the Opera, ultimately became their most electrifying and memorable work, and holds up to this day not only because of the band’s fearlessness in exploring different musical styles, but also due to its superb songwriting and arrangements, production, and fantastic individual performances from each member of the band. Long live the Queen.

[originally published 6/16/16 on Sputnikmusic.com]

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