Album Review: Sheer Heart Attack

Despite creating fifteen studio albums together, Queen’s musical career can be chopped into distinct sections – starting with their progression to fame as fantasy-driven progressive rockers, hitting it big with a consistent run of successful singles, their misguided attempt at dance pop which led to a brief hiatus, and finally ending their career with grandiose yet simultaneously accessible arena-rock – and yet, despite all of these changes, the quality of their music rarely faltered. Their singles, which were wonderfully compiled on the Greatest Hits I and II albums, nearly always found popularity outside of the United States, and after Freddie Mercury’s unfortunate passing, they became one of the most legendary and prolific bands in rock music history. Undoubtedly, the story of Queen can be portrayed as the ultimate underdog story; before garnering international success with the operatic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Queen was just another band from England doing their best to find their place, going on local tours donning their then trademark extravagant glam-clothing and booking studio time at three in the morning because that was the only time when they could afford it, all the while looking for their eventual break.

They would finally find a glimpse of success in the United Kingdom in form of “Seven Seas of Rhye,” the last track on their second (and most under appreciated) album, Queen II. “Rhye,” which is nothing less than a wallop of a track, is driven by a circular, endless piano riff that moves forward courtesy of Mercury’s overwhelming vocals, Brian May’s layered guitar tracks, and even includes a sea-shanty at the end. Needless to say, all of these characteristics made “Rhye” the perfect introduction of Queen to a larger audience. It turns out that their newly acquired fans would not have to wait long for a follow up; despite the fact that Queen II was released only eight months prior, Queen struck the coals of their success while they were hot, releasing their third album, Sheer Heart Attack towards the end of 1974.

While it is not their most cohesive or well-tracked album front to back, Sheer Heart Attack finds the band continuing to indulge in their wildest musical dreams by experimenting and tinkering with different sounds in the studio at a time when all four members had a plethora of various musical ideas. However, looking at Queen’s discography from a larger perspective, it is clear that Sheer Heart Attack was the turning point in not only the band’s luck on the charts, but more importantly, this is when they began to mold their sound into a more accessible format, all the while still clearly conveying their message and plotting their musical path moving forward. While the roots of the band’s earlier sound is all over this record – the “proto-metal” styled-riffing and quick spitting lyrics of “Stone Cold Crazy,” the straight up rock build-ups of “Brighton Rock” and “Now I’m Here,” and the fantasy themes that grace the sweetly sublime “Lily of the Valley” – what makes Sheer Heart Attack a step above and beyond both of their previous albums is that it also has the distinction of being a direct precursor to many of the characteristics behind Queen’s future sound.

queen
Queen helped to bridge the gap between glam, pop, and progressive rock and did so with a ferocity and over the top style that was impossible to replicate.

In general, the layering techniques that are used on nearly every track on this record would be used by the band on their future albums to the point of absolute pomp and self-indulgence. Looking deeper, however, the music hall/vaudeville style of their breakthrough chart single “Killer Queen,” the acapella-styling of the deep album cut “Bring Back that Leroy Brown,” the simple, beautiful, piano-based balladry of “Dear Friends,” the slow, acoustic guitar driven burn of “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper in Stilettos)”and Roger Taylor singing about his insane obsession of driving and/or automobiles in “Tenement Funster” all would be replicated to further levels of production and musical perfection on their next album and most realized effort, A Night At the Opera. Meanwhile, the last track, “In the Lap of the Gods (Revisited)” was one of the band’s first attempts at the arena rock style that they would be known for over a decade later. Even deep album cuts like “Misfire,” which was John Deacon’s first composition on a Queen record, is a quick slice of bubbly and uplifting guitar pop and continues the variation of different sounds and textures on the album without sacrificing accessibility.

While over forty years later, Queen may be more known for their overwhelming collection of singles, their over the top attitude in the studio, and their boundless creativity and exuberance in their writing, Sheer Heart Attack is a direct testament to the fact that their early albums, despite being less well known for their single releases, were masterpieces in their own right. Dissonant in sound from track to track, and yet unimaginably cohesive as a whole, Sheer Heart Attack presents a band finding their trademark sound through experimentation and ingenuity in the studio, while also highlighting the fact that all four members were talented songwriters and performers. While not as wildly outlandish as many of their future efforts, Sheer Heart Attack shows a band that is ready and primed for the big time, and, rightly so, remains one of Queen’s strongest front-to-back full album efforts.

[originally posted on Sputnikmusic.com on February 23rd, 2015]

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