QUEEN — Sheer Heart Attack (review)

QUEEN — Sheer Heart Attack album cover Album · 1974 · Proto-Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
Sometimes an artist’s trajectory is forged more by sheer luck rather than clever navigation and such is the case for one of rock history’s most celebrated and popular bands, namely QUEEN who having arrived rather late in the game in both the hard rock and prog scenes still managed to find themselves at the top of the world by decade’s end. After the power quartet of Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon formed in 1970 after the disbanding of May’s previous band Smile, the Fab Four of the 70s would continue together uninterrupted until Mercury’s untimely passing in 1991. The debut QUEEN I showcased a unique mix of hard rock and glam imagery all dressed up with slightly progressive touches whereas QUEEN II took those attributes even further and projected an image of going yet further down the prog pike as the fantasy themes became more enriched as did the pomp and awe of musical flamboyancy.

But that’s exactly where fate stepped in. After QUEEN II was released in March 1974, the band embarked on a promotional tour with Mott The Hoople and even had a minor hit with their single “Seven Seas Of Rhye.” As luck would have it, Brian May was stricken with a case of hepatitis in the middle of the tour and the band was forced to cancel their remaining gigs. So as not to waste the time away, the other three members sallied forth minus May and began the process of crafting the next album. Without May’s input, the balance suddenly shifted to Mercury’s more pop infused piano led dynamics that offered more catchy melodies and crazy deviations from the norm of the 70s rock paradigm. While May was down, he wasn’t complete out as the rest of the band instead delved into the vaults and rescued forgotten May penned songs that dated back to the first album.

The result was the second album of 1974, SHEER HEART ATTACK which emerged in November and offered a completely different style than projected on the first two albums, a style that would dictate the classic QUEEN sound and would catapult them into superstar status. SHEER HEART ATTACK was an awkward album that provided the bridge between the overdub rich guitar attacks of the first two albums and the streamlined production heavy and more commercial sounding albums that follow. While tracks like the opening “Brighton Rock” exemplified May’s love of the delay pedal and rich tapestry of guitar overdubs, other tracks like “Killer Queen” and “Lily Of The Valley” were pure unadulterated Mercury crafted pop songs enriched with his unique crafty style that found his piano playing and vocal range shoot through the roof.

As a result of their Led Zeppelin meets Jimi Hendrix style of rock adding more slick elements of the more pop oriented hard rock bands such as The Sweet, QUEEN experienced instant success as “Killer Queen” sailed up the charts as a pop single and the album followed with sales going through the roof. The crown had been placed and QUEEN found its way into the royal rock hall of fame in no time. Despite SHEER HEART ATTACK sounding like a rather disjointed collection of unrelated tracks, QUEEN pulled it all off with gusto and proved that they had what it took to boldly delve into disparate genres of music without a second thought, a feat that hadn’t been attempted in popular rock music since The Beatles dominated the decade prior and a testament to the explorative power and ambition that set QUEEN apart from the plethora of “stuck in the blues” rock bands that cluttered the music scene.

It doesn’t take long to discover as “Brighton Rock” cedes into the following “Killer Queen,” a sultry swinging piano based pop hit about a high class prostitute, that SHEER HEART ATTACK was an album that hops, skips and jumps all over the musical spectrum looking for the next good time and perpetual party to crash. The lyrics had been brought back down to Earth and infused with both more serious and more lighthearted subject matter. Next up was the Roger Taylor penned “Tenement Funster” that tackled youth and rebellion and he even sang lead vocals before the tracks once again cede into a double whammy of Mercury’s melodic charm on “Flick Of The Wrist” and “Lily Of The Valley,” a triumvirate of tracks that created a larger medley.

Despite a more pop appeal, QUEEN still dished out the machismo with the ball busting guitar riffing frenzy of “Stone Cold Crazy,” a clattering track of distortion and bombast that presaged both speed and thrash metal by nearly a decade however the biggest surprise of the album comes from Mercury’s interest in vaudeville kitsch in the form of the piano driven blast from the past “Bring Back That Leroy Brown,” which showcased a ukulele and banjo section as well as Deacon tackling the double bass. While May was down and out for much of the album’s development, he returned in time to tack on the superb “She Makes Me (Stormtrooper In Stilettos) where he wrote and sung the lyrics and provides a wealth of not only the expected overdubs but field samplings from busy New York City gloom and doom. “In The Lap Of The Gods” provided a two part theme revised bringing the QUEEN II era of just a few months prior to mind.

While there is no denying that QUEEN was a formidable talent, there was no guarantee as to how they would direct this talent much less become one of the biggest bands of all time. SHEER HEART ATTACK displayed how both talent, audacity and sheer luck melded together to create a more tangible and unifying style that would attract an infinitely larger listening audience. While not as stylistically slick or as unifying brilliant as QUEEN II and not nearly as accomplished as the followup “A Night At The Opera,” one can easily hear the nascent birth pangs of many of the ideas that would continue to evolve and dish them out in small rations. SHEER HEART ATTACK despite its rather awkward nature is nevertheless utterly infectious with a staggering amalgamation of groovy rhythms and ever changing dynamics with instantly likable melodies and just enough avant-garde pomp and awe to rival the most outrageous bands of the day. A transition album perhaps, but a really good one.
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