Elektra Records, 1973
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/11/2004
Queen is one of those bands that is really hard to label. Classic rock fits to be sure, as you can't touch FM radio without hearing them on a daily basis. Glam rock is too simple. Theater and flash were certainly part of their appeal, but glam has a connotation of musical simplicity for the sake of style. Queen never sacrificed quality or complexity for style. Progressive rock is certainly part of it. Heavy metal? Maybe, they certainly rocked hard and loud, especially on their 1973 debut, which is a heavy, hard-rocking ass kicker. It's all here, the trademark (impossibly high) vocal harmonies, Freddie Mercury's operatic vocals, Brian May's signature wall-of-guitars, and the always-solid rhythm section of John Deacon (bass) and Roger Taylor (drums).
Vilified constantly by the press, dismissed by critics as flashy excess, Queen nevertheless became one of the biggest concert draws ever, filling arenas on every continent through the '70s and '80s, and topping the charts around the world. Today, you can't go to a sporting event in any country without hearing the stomp-stomp-clap of "We Will Rock You" and the soaring refrain of "We Are the Champions."
Bringing together many styles, Queen carved their own niche in the popular music arena, cutting the template for bombastic arena rock while defying tradition at every turn. Combining hard rock, glam, pop, dance, art rock, prog rock, opera, English music hall and classical music, they manage to gel these diverse influences into a signature sound that is recognized throughout the world. Influencing artists as diverse as Garth Brooks, James Hetfield of Metallica, and Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, their influence is found across a wide range of mega-popular artists.
Starting out their debut album is the now-familiar staccato guitar into of "Keep Yourself Alive," a staple of FM radio for many years. With its catchy chorus and driving guitar it's a classic that always gets cranked up when it comes on my car stereo. Next up is the softer "Doing Alright," which kind of meanders until its hard-rocking close.
Two Mercury-penned songs follow, the blistering "Great King Rat" and the fantasy-infused "My Fairy King," both showcasing Mercury's gift for vocal acrobatics, and his early tendency toward fantasy-related themes.
Queens's secret weapon (not secret to Queen fans by any means) is the excellent vocal skills of drummer Roger Taylor. Roger takes the first of many lead vocals on the hard driving "Modern Times Rock 'n' Roll," and proves himself worthy with an excellent performance on this conventional yet fiery rocker.
The centerpiece of this album is the powerful "Liar." Why this song has never become more well known is a mystery to me. Showing much of the thematic and lyrical fuel that would drive "Bohemian Rhapsody" later on, this song is a masterpiece of operatic heavy metal, and shows the potential that would be realized on later albums. The heaviest duty on this disc however, is reserved for "Son And Daughter." Throwing subtlety to the wind, this thudding assault of blues-laden metal finds Queen at their heaviest, sounding like a cross between Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath.
A great thing about this disc is the way it provides a snapshot of things to come. Many of the songs show nuances of instrumentation and arrangement that would pop up on later Queen albums. Casual fans will be surprised at the outright heaviness of this album. Hard-core fans of their better known works will also be surprised, as I was, when giving this disc a first spin. Even the two ballads ("Doing Alright" and "The Night Comes Down") manage to venture into harder territory. I found this a surprisingly polished release for what was essentially a self-produced debut album. Lyrically they needed to mature a little, but musically they were already well on their way to their future successes.