MUSIC: Queens of All Ages

They'll breakfast at Tiffany's, they'll sing to you in Japanese - oh, wait. Jardin, jardin, jardin, jardin! That would be French. No matter - they're still only here to entertain you. And that's exactly what the young boys in The Darkness do on their second album, One Way Ticket to Hell ... and Back (Atlantic; Music ••••, Sound •••½). Meanwhile, the band's supposed forebears, the old boys in Queen, have not only reworked their masterpiece in surround sound for a third time but reunited for a surprisingly rousing DVD, proving that the show must indeed go on.

But first things first - namely, the 2003 debut of the Darkness. Permission to Land hit No. 1 in the U.K. and sold nearly 4 million copies worldwide, led by the single "I Believe in a Thing Called Love." And everyone heard the second coming of Queen - everyone, it seems, but me. I don't believe that falsettos and leotards automatically make you the next Freddie & Co.

Cue up the opening title track of One Way Ticket, and the Dark lads still don't sound like Queen. If anything, they sound like AC/DC - super-good AC/DC, mind you, with a truly addictive chorus. Then again, the song does start with a pan flute. And who's this producing the album? Roy Thomas Baker, co-mastermind of that Queen masterpiece, A Night at the Opera. And where was some of the album recorded? Why, at Rockfield Studios in Wales, the cradle of "Bohemian Rhapsody"!

Okay, let's assume that the Darkness just might want to sound like Queen. Do they pull it off? You bet! By Track 3, regal harmonies - on both vocals and guitar - are holding court. By Track 6, there's a guitar processional à la Queen II's "Procession." Yes, this really is The Darkness II, with more elaborate arrangements than the debut, riffs holding their solid ground, and songs that segue from one to another.

As for the lyrics ... sure, "there ain't no place like between your thighs," but the attitude isn't as cocksure as you might think. In fact, "Knockers" finds lead singer Justin Hawkins to be "all thumbs," having "forgotten what to do." The album is dominated by regular guys talking more about love lost than lust. This gets a bit silly in "Girlfriend" - but then the song is saved when Hawkins shouts, "Listen to my synthesizer!" (joking on Queen's "No synths" motto), and we're treated to a wacko solo.

Besides, it's hard to argue with these fellers when they can come up with the master stroke of that jardin - er, "English Country Garden," where the sprightly piano, multitracked guitars, and eccentric vocals are so killer Queen that you'll want to break out the Moët & Chandon. In the end, the only disappointment is Baker's failure to give Hawkins enough space in the mix - a mix that doesn't sound as operatic as his work from three decades ago. If only this album were in surround ...

Speaking of which, Queen's two-disc A Night at the Opera: 30th Anniversary Collectors' Edition (Hollywood; Music •••••, CD Sound ••••, DVD Mix •••, Extras ••) indeed includes a third stab at a multichannel version. (For extensive coverage of the first two tries, see our July/August 2002 issue.) Brian May says "some improvements" were made to the last mix (which was done by Baker, May, and Elliot Scheiner); a Hollywood Records rep told ICE that Kris Fredriksson "tweaked throughout." But I was hard-pressed to notice anything other than, at times, less dramatic bass-and-drum support in the center channel. And any multichannel Opera will remain merely good until the choral vocals surround you, instead of being relegated mostly to the rear.

The other disc here does provide the best-yet mastering of the stereo album on CD. But the DVD's extras are underwhelming, with rarely song-specific commentary by May and Roger Taylor (plus tapes of Freddie Mercury and John Deacon) and 10 "new videos" that are just awkward edits of old footage and photos. And a "restored" version of the real "Bohemian Rhapsody" clip is more shimmery than the one on DTS's DVD-Audio disc. It's also the wrong cut. (Check out the dumb flames!)

The extras on the band's reunion DVD (a cover of "Imagine," a "jukebox" playback mode) aren't much either, and Justin Shirley-Smith's thudding surround mix emphasizes the bad aspects of an arena concert. But otherwise, the Queen + Paul Rodgers extravaganza on Return of the Champions (Hollywood; Show ••••, DVD Picture ••••, DVD Sound ••, Extras ••) is a must for fans. This longtime fan, fearing a travesty, wanted nothing to do with the reunion when it came Stateside for two gigs. But now I stand corrected - and thoroughly rocked by a set that's smartly paced, well played, and grandly staged. There are poignant nods to the late Mercury, but it must also be said that he's convincingly succeeded (if not replaced) by a robust Rodgers. See for yourself on ROTC - and in a full-scale U.S. tour that begins March 3. Against all odds, and with the considerable help of their new singer, May and Taylor have found a way to keep themselves alive.

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