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.