Album num­ber three for Queen rep­re­sent­ed the divid­ing line between being cult favorites and being inter­na­tion­al super­stars.  Their first two albums, Queen and Queen II, are impres­sive and have aged well but they dis­play the band’s tal­ents in an insu­lar kind of way: putting Tolkienesque lyrics over an eccen­tric blend of har­mony pop and heavy met­al is inter­est­ing but hard­ly a for­mu­la for large-scale suc­cess.

Sheer Heart Attack found the band stream­lin­ing their vast array of inspi­ra­tions and ideas into a cohe­sive pre­sen­ta­tion meets the audi­ence half-way — and thus opened up the pos­si­bil­i­ty of major suc­cess for them.  The genius of the album lies in its pre­sen­ta­tion: it’s just as ambi­tious in its moods and tex­tures as the pre­vi­ous two albums were but it is much more focused.  The group har­ness­es their array of skills into a set of songs that work like a trav­el­ogue through their col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion.

You could say Sheer Heart Attack is a trip to the pomp-rock car­ni­val: fit­ting­ly, album open­er “Brighton Rock” kicks the album off with car­ni­val sounds before pit­ting a Gilbert & Sullivan-style tune about star­crossed love again­st a riff-sling­ing hard rock back­ing.  It’s eas­i­ly got an album’s worth of melod­ic ideas but the arrange­ment is sharp as a razor, rolling out its vocal frills and gui­tar licks with metic­u­lous pre­ci­sion.  By the song’s end, it’s obvi­ous that not only does this group have ideas to burn, they’ve also devel­oped the abil­i­ty to orches­trate them into a style of pre­sen­ta­tion that is as acces­si­ble as it is daz­zling.

The next song, “Killer Queen,” dri­ves that point home.  All the key Queen ele­ments are here — the play­ful­ly deca­dent lead vocal from Freddie Mercury, a care­ful­ly orches­trat­ed Brian May gui­tar solo that plays like its own song-with­in-a-song, art­ful­ly deployed bursts of oper­at­ic har­mony.  However, all the­se ele­ments are stream­lined down to a per­fect three-min­ute pop song. The lyrics tell the tale of a high-class call girl with a know­ing, urbane sen­si­bil­i­ty that shows Queen doesn’t need to rely on elves and fairies for their sub­ject mat­ter.

The rest of side one main­tains this lev­el of focus, off­set­ting tough rock­ers like the Chuck Berry-inspired “Now I’m Here” with del­i­cate­ly har­mo­nized inter­ludes like “Lily Of The Valley.” It also boasts a great song from drum­mer Roger Taylor in “Tenement Funster,” a por­trait of street­wise rock­er-type who dreams about ris­ing above the dis­mis­sive atti­tudes of his neigh­bors.  Taylor tops it with a whiskey-throat­ed vocal that makes a nice con­trast to Mercury’s more regal stylings.

However, it’s the sec­ond side that tru­ly shows off Queen’s new­found mas­tery of their kalei­do­scop­ic  approach to song­writ­ing and record­ing.  It plays like an Abbey Road-style med­ley, neat­ly book­end­ed with two parts of a song enti­tled “In The Lap Of The Gods”: the first part opens the side with an explo­sion of  Wagnerian-goth­ic vocal har­monies before giv­ing way to a spooky, piano-dri­ven melody, the sec­ond part con­tin­ues the Germanic the­me with a beer­hall-style sin­ga­long that builds in emo­tion­al inten­si­ty and depth of vocal har­monies until it gives way to a lit­er­al explo­sion.

As great as those two book­ends are, it’s what goes on between them that tru­ly stuns the lis­ten­er as Queen speeds through an ency­clo­pe­dic bar­rage of gen­res and mood shifts.  You get treat­ed to the birth of speed met­al (“Stone Cold Crazy”), a sump­tu­ous­ly-har­mo­nized lul­laby (“Dear Friends”), a bub­blegum pop tune built on calyp­so rhythms (“Misfire”), an adren­a­l­ized throw­back to music hall com­plete with ukelele and standup bass (“Bring Back That Leroy Brown”) and an eerie med­i­ta­tion on romance-as-slav­ery with wall-of-sound acoustic gui­tars (“She Makes Me (Stormtrooper In Stilettos)”).  Each song is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent yet they all flow togeth­er beau­ti­ful­ly thanks to the care­ful­ly-craft­ed per­for­mances and dev­il-may-care sense of dar­ing that unites them all.

Simply put, Sheer Heart Attack is a stun­ner from start to fin­ish, an album that con­tin­ues to impress because it boasts the kind of fear­less tal­ent required to make its insane­ly ambi­tious ideas work.  If you want to under­stand why this group’s seem­ing­ly obscure style con­nect­ed with so many peo­ple around the world, it is a per­fect place to start.