Sound — 6
Seldom does the progressive metal genre witness a lineup alternation that is as controversial and public as the one surrounding Queensrÿche's split with original lead vocalist Geoff Tate. This move came as the result of Tate's dictator-esque control over the inner workings of the band for more than a decade, including having the remainder of the Queensrÿche lineup sit out of studio sessions so Tate could instead work with a revolving door of session musicians and even withholding the band's earlier material from their live performances. After a disgraceful tenure with his own version of Queensrÿche, which produced the infamously horrid "Frequency Unknown" album with it's instantly recognizable "F.U." cover, Tate would later lose his rights to the band name and instead would continue forward under the name Operation: Mindcrime.
Long prior to his split from Queensrÿche, Tate had already established a solo career and remains readily recognized throughout the progressive metal genre for his contributions as one a redefining lead vocalist. His decision to force his relevance towards listeners by renaming his short-lived version of Queensrÿche to one of his former band's most celebrated albums is bizarre, however one would presume that this would allow Tate to work in the environment he has wanted to as an artist over the past decade. The announcement that Operation: Mindcrime's first releases would be a trilogy of concept albums received a warm reception among recovering Queensrÿche fans, providing a somewhat promising future for a project that seemed doomed even prior to it's formation.
"The Key" is a strong step above anything to come out with Geoff Tate's name in the credits since "Hear in the Now Frontier," however that alone doesn't say a whole lot considering those albums from Queensrÿche were hit and miss at best. The progressive elements are either entirely tuned in or discarded entirely, but when they're inforced it's hard to argue with the results. "Choices" is essentially an atmospheric introduction to "Burn," both of which introduce the album's technological themes through electronic elements and the clattering of a computer keyboard. Although the vocals are typically addressed in the following portion, it's worth mentioning how Tate is singing with ambition again and harnessing the extent of his vocal range. There's no wild screams ala "The Needle Lies" or "Queen of the Reich" to be found here, but the improvement is readily apparent.
"Re-Inventing the Future" is clearly a rehash of "The Mission" from the original "Operation: Mindcrime" album by Queensrÿche, but that's not entirely out of the ordinary. When bands and artists find a solid set of notes or overtones, we sometimes hear them reinforced on future albums; specifically, the soloings of Eddie Van Halen and the latter works of Pink Floyd come to mind, although there's no implication that Operation: Mindcrime is on the same tier as either. Halfway through the record, we find another departure into weak garage rap metal that cluttered "Dedicated to Chaos" on "The Stranger," an easily forgettable track which should have been discarded upon conception. "I'm the best/ Fuck the rest," he states with just a hint of insecurity. It would have likely proved more beneficial for Tate and company to walk away from the Queensrÿche name and present a cohesive progressive metal installment to attract the interest of fans bruised by the split, but there are still enough of those moments on "The Key" to justify a full listen.
Lyrics — 7
One has to give credit to Geoff Tate; there's more than enough substanance out there for progressive metal fans to cast his work out into the void and avoid him entirely, and yet he has managed to actually create something worthwhile with Operation: Mindcrime. Perhaps now that he has lost his official association to Queensrÿche, a passion or sense of urgency has reawoken in Tate and that's the source of his awakened vocal performance on "The Key." Where this energy stems from is unknown, but whether it's the Rush-esque "Ready to Fly" or the previously noted "Re-Inventing the Future" Tate is belting out notes and power that he hasn't emitted in the studio for years. "This is life or death," Tate yells out on "Life or Death," perhaps asserting this same point. Even the spoken word moments found throughout the album have an assertive focus towards them that are convincing to the listener.
Overall Impression — 7
Operation: Mindcrime's "The Key" might be the most surprising album of the year, and that's really saying something for the new project from estranged Queensrÿche singer Geoff Tate. Despite the atrocities, the subpar releases, the inexcusable stage actions and decisions, Tate proves that he's able to finally set his ego aside long enough to reenter the studio and deliver a passionate musical performance. This isn't an album that the casual Queensrÿche fan might be able to enjoy or might be anticipating, but this also is not an album anyone could have expected to hear from Tate at this point in his career. It's actually a rewarding listen for open ears and cautious minds.