The Key is the first of three albums Operation: Mindcrime fans were introduced to upon its release on September 18, 2015 via Frontiers Music SRL. While this is their debut album under their new moniker, front man Geoff Tate’s operatic, incredible vocal range isn’t far out of reach, though the album distinguishing his new mark in the world of music offers experimentation both musically and in terms of arrangement. A decorated cast of characters are portrayed through rock veterans such as guitarists Kelly Gray [Queensryche] and Scott Moughton [Geoff Tate], keyboardist Randy Gane [Myth], drummers Simon Wright [AC/DC] and Brian Tichy [Billy Idol, Ozzy Osbourne], along with new contributors vocalist Mark Daly [The Voodoos], bass players Dave Ellefson [Metal Allegiance], John Moyer [Disturbed, Adrenaline Mob], and drummer Scott Mercado [Candlebox]. The collaboration effectively comes together to unlock more than just a door, but rather a portal to the future.
We were recently able to sit down with vocalist/ songwriter/ producer Geoff Tate, who was in Ireland at the time preparing for a concert later that evening to talk more about the The Key, and to discuss the new direction he and respective band mates are traveling toward. In terms of working with the aforementioned members of Operation: Mindcrime, Tate stated that, “Everybody involved with the record has really approached it with enthusiasm and commitment and really creative ideas. Of course, that’s what you dream of with any idea you’re working on- that you have people that are interested in what you are doing, and interested in pushing it along, so I was really, really enjoying the project.”
While Tate has emphatically stated he is not the type of person who looks back on his past by infusing previous musical styles into his new albums, he did add that, “Life is a journey which leads you to constant innovation and experimentation.” When broken down into the parts of The Key‘s 12 track sums, it’s natural for fans to search for any remnants of his previously released music to help identify with. “When you’re a songwriter your style continues to follow you [laughs]. There’s things just kind of inherent in what you do that work their way into other songs or other records, you know. It’s just your musicality. It’s how you think, your note choices, your phrasing, [and] the chord progressions you find pleasing. It’s called style, I guess, so that’s probably evident to most people who would listen to the album, although what I’ve tried to do on this record and the records that follow this is to really stretch that out, and to really push that beyond where I’ve gone before- mostly in the area of arrangement, and kind of pushing the arrangements to a new musical level for me, and getting away from what I’ve done in the past to kind of reach a new plateau.”
Tate had described his take on the experience during the making of The Key by sharing, “I’ve opened my eyes and ears to new standards and arrangements, and that’s what keeps things fresh and exciting as an artist,” and had also said it’s freeing to write without constraints, adding this album is linear without directly leading the listener through a concise story line. When asked if he discovered new revelations in conjunction with The Key that might surprise fans who may compare it to past songs, Tate interrupted with a laugh and said, “Wow! I said all that? I sound pretty smart,” as I laughed in response. He continued with, “I always find it kind of difficult and challenging to explain music because I believe that music is a personal experience that the listener experiences on their own. Typically, we want to be affected by a song or a melody. I want to be affected emotionally by music, and that’s what I look for when I’m writing is ‘Is this chord progression something that grabs me? Is the melody interesting to me? Does that make me feel something?’ That was the judgment I used and Kelly [Gray] who co-produced the record with me used. Does it hit us in the face? Does it bring us to tears? Does it make us feel exhileration when it should because it’s a story?” He put forth this album so that the story would steer the listener down a path, which in his view twists and goes sideways.
The Key is the first of three albums Operation: Mindcrime has released in succession, bringing Tate’s signature progressive rock roots intertwined with lyrics that force the listener to face their own thoughts and beliefs about the state of our world with socioeconomic and worldwide politics mixed in. For example, on Track 3, titled Re-inventing the Future, the lyrics “Don’t know why I’ve been given the key that unlocks everything in this world. Do you dare to dream? We’re on the edge of a new world.” Given that sentiment, Tate’s songwriting choices came into question in terms of how current world events affected that, both from a non-fiction stance verses rhetoric and imagination: “I don’t know [laughs],” and continued by stating he’d been locked away in the studio focusing on the story to the music. Tate prefers to leave his lyrics open to interpretation, and added, “I suppose because I intend to write lyrics more from a futurist standpoint, which is a subject I’m very interested in- the development of technology, the study of human development- it always finds its way into my lyrics.”
There is not only a feel for futuristic wonderment told through each song, but also a definite musical landscape that drives that feeling throughout as well. Segues and passages found during the songs Choices, Discussions in a Smoke Filled Room, On Queue and An Ambush of Sadness solidify that point. The significance of those shorter tracks helped to propel the album from start to finish, with Tate describing them as “links” from one idea to the next idea, and added, “Along the way, you can establish some important information regarding the storyline. You can drop hints. You can paint a sonic picture. Funny enough, the other day someone pointed out to me the title of the tracks on the record actually tell a story [laughs].”
Tate touched upon the word sonic, which means relating to or using sound waves or vibrations. The Key illuminates different tones and styles, including spoken word, dialogue, technologically-based sound effects, and at times a dulcimer is used during the track An Ambush of Sadness. The tonality of the album projects recorded performance art (in a sense) by infusing these elements, which Tate stated was intentional. “There’s definitely a method to the madness. I think a story is dynamic. It should have the same instrumentation all the way through. The music shouldn’t be the samey at all. It should be dynamic and changing to best interpret the story.” For example, a dulcimer is trapezoidal zither with metal strings, traditionally heard in folk music, which album contributor Scott Mercado used on the aforementioned track.
Tate’s journey has taken him far from the musical sounds and instrumentation lifelong fans have grown accustomed to, and may leave some wondering if he’s reconciled his past to what Operation: Mindcrime stands for today. “I don’t necessarily feel that I need to define it,” he shared. “I’m kind of afraid of definitions… not afraid, but leery of defining myself too much, simply because once you start defining yourself and putting yourself in a little box and a label on yourself then it kind of closes your audience off to what you might do next. I don’t ever want to be in that position where people can define what I do so readily. It’s a long-winded way of saying I hate genres [laughs].”
Proof of Tate’s anti-genre point emerge during the songs Life or Death which features Mark Daly on lead vocals with Kelly Gray singing a verse and Kicking in the Door with Scott Moughton on lead vocals. Tate’s decision to hand over the microphone was based around telling the story of the album. “Mark (Daly) and I both wrote lyrics for the Life or Death track, and so his style and his writing and his uniqueness is definitely evident on that song, which I love,” he stated. Although Tate wrote the lyrics to Kicking in the Door, he stated he “wanted those lyrics to be sung by one of the other characters because it’s an important point in the story line.”
It will be up to each listener to discover if The Key unlocks the answer or leaves more questions, according to Tate, who expanded his reply with, “Those are following on the next two albums. This album is more of an introduction. It introduces the premise of the story. It introduces the four main characters, and the conflict between the four characters. It’s definitely not even close to the middle, and very far from the end [laughs].” Tate remained tight-lipped on their next two albums, but did say, “The first album drops a lot of breadcrumbs for you to follow. The second album- we’re in mix stage right now, and the third album we’ve got mostly written. We’re just wrapping up the last few songs before we mix it, and I should have the whole project finished by November.”
In whole, Tate hopes fans will be left wondering what comes next without labeling the road each listener should travel along with Operation: Mindcrime. He stated, “I don’t mean this to sound egotistical or arrogant, but I don’t write music for other people. I don’t really know any musician who does. We write music to satisfy ourselves. It’s an emotional journey, and one that as a musician and a writer your kind of held to do. People will get something out of it if they find it. You just have to be happy with the act of creation and move on.”