Having achieved its breakthrough U.K. single earlier that year with “Seven Seas of Rhye,” Queen reeled in the prog, upped the pop, and pushed its magpie ways to a higher level of willfulness with its second album of ’74. Launched with its debut American hit, the glam-tastic “Killer Queen,” Sheer Heart Attack makes room for an attention-grabbing Brian May guitar workout on its opening “Brighton Rock,” but then condenses the arrangements into pop-sized chunks and gives Freddie Mercury’s piano more prominence. While May multi-tracks his solos in complex harmonies and overlapping echoes, the riffs that define guitar-led tracks like future live staple “Now I’m Here” and proto-speed-metal “Stone Cold Crazy” (famously covered in 1990 by Metallica) are now more straightforward.
Part of this shift was practical: Queen had begun touring regularly, and a good chunk of Queen II was way too complex to ever be replicated live. Recording began while May recuperated from hepatitis and then an ulcer, so the band left him spaces that he now fills more judiciously. Bassist John Deacon makes his presence felt; his first composition to appear on a Queen album, the carefree Caribbean “Misfire,” is a harbinger of the hits he’d soon score. Mercury’s “Flick of the Wrist” doesn’t name, but almost certainly attacks, former Queen manager Norman Sheffield, who would soon be lacerated with even less mercy on the lead track of the foursome’s even more varied, much more popular ’75 extravaganza A Night at the Opera.
Most of all, Sheer Heart Attack is defined by its clean, music-hall-influenced vocal lines. No matter how many May guitars dart in and out of the mix, every melody is memorable. Even if you can’t comfortably hit all the notes (and face it, mortals, you can’t), your heart will sing along.