This is the first progressive rock album I have reviewed on this blog. So let’s get the nonsense out of the way. If you are one of those people who have a knee-jerk reaction to the term (“Ew, prog-rock, that stuff sucks, it’s so geeky. All those long songs about elves”), then I have news for you: either you have been grossly misinformed, or you, sir or ma’am, are an idiot.
Here’s the reality: In the late 1960s, an explosion of liberalism and creativity gripped the world’s musicians, after pop music’s small first electric steps. The new counter-cultural attitudes created a subculture of musicians devoted to exploring any artistic idea they fancied, the market be damned. This was the most fertile period in the history of modern Western culture and led to the creation of some incredible and brave music. So, you don’t like that idea? Jeez, go get your head checked.
IQ is a band that started in the early 80s, well after progressive rock’s heyday was over. There was a small revival of the genre, or at least some of its elements, spearheaded by Marillion and the enduring success of Rush. This movement came to be known as “neo-prog”, though sometimes that term is used to classify bands whose music contains elements of progressive rock but also other pop genres and melodic rock. Blah blah blah, who cares.
IQ’s early output is not as hot, in my opinion, as what came much later. Some good songs and albums worth having, but nothing I’m going to lose my shit about. Once the decent-sized record deals went away and the movement was weakened, IQ didn’t give up and kept making records, despite the necessity of holding down day jobs.
And they made that rarest of rock n roll achievements: They actually got better with age. It’s like somewhere on the way, they mastered their instruments and singer Peter Nicholls, formerly a Gabriel clone of a sort, discovered his own artistic and lyrical path. The evidence of this can first be found on The Seventh House (2000), which contained some weighty material and some wonderfully melodic songs.
That couldn’t have prepared listeners for the majesty of Dark Matter (2004), an astonishing album full of dark textures, soaring melodies and deep lyrics. The 23-minute “Harvest of Souls” is one of the finest pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Yes.
OK, so that was a high point. Several years later they released this, their unfortunately latest album (where’s the next one, chaps?). It picks up in a way where Dark Matter left off. The key to the artistic success of IQ is their combination of compelling instrumental backing that matches any vintage Genesis album with an almost unparalleled sense of melody. This music, if you’re not made of stone, makes you feel. Most music doesn’t. In fact, most music makes me want to barf from its awfulness, but I digress.
While Nicholls has indeed become a great, dramatic tenor singer and a fine lyricist, the band’s ace in the hole is guitarist Mike Holmes. He’s a classy player, not inclined to shred, and definitely from the Steve Hackett school of wizardry. He always knows the appropriate notes to raise the dramatic barometer of any song, and though he doesn’t “solo” very often, when he does, it’s massive. (Listen to the outro of “Harvest of Souls” and tell me you’re unmoved. Just try.)
Frequency starts off with the title track of 8.5 minutes. It’s classic prog driven by some tasty Rhodes and Holmes’s authoritative playing. It also starts with some old news broadcasts about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, followed by a pounding riff and floating mellotron. Yes, the very essence of progressive rock.
On track 2 we find IQ returning to their 2000 form with a piano-led piece, “Life Support”, which is shamelessly dramatic. Nicholls has rarely sounded prettier than on this one. A very very beautiful ballad, “One Fatal Mistake”, provides some strummy acoustic AOR respite from the virtuosity before the full-on prog drama of “Ryker Skies”, which starts off softly with textured synths and chiming guitars before slamming into a dramatic pulse and a building of tension before breaking into some solos worthy of good ‘ol Tony Banks in his heyday. Another hyper-dramatic piece, “The Province”, follows a similar script and is possibly the most “vintage” sounding of the tracks on here…anyone into the artsier end of mid 70s music will get off on this.
So, this is all a very good listen, but the best is yet to come. Album closer “Closer” (ha) goes for the emotional jugular full-throttle. Kids, this is one of the best unions of lyrical and musical intent I’ve ever experienced. A delicate, repetitive acoustic/electric lick and walls of synth lead to Nicholls softly intoning “What began as hope/Became the fate of many nations/Founded on a lie/Believed by everyone”, and you know you’re in for something different, something deeper. This fragile ballad of piano and guitar is joined by skittering drums until minute 3, when an ambient music break is followed by a stentorian build-up into a fireworks-like explosion of giant chords and cathedral organ. “Hold on, when I’m dead and gone from you/Remember me as light breaking through” Nicholls lilts like an angel over all this incredible majesty. Man, I just can’t get enough of it. I think I’m gonna cry just writing about it.
See, I like people going for it. I like maximum beauty, no half-assed shit. If you are going to knock me out, I want to hear angels singing. And damn it, hasn’t IQ done it with this track? As it ends, the dynamic switches back to that beautiful, simple guitar lick and those skittery drums, leaving us in a peaceful place.
I really admire bands like IQ that stick to their musical guns and continue to make the best music they can. And look, when you do, who knows, maybe you’ll have an artistic second spring far greater than the first, as IQ has. Never give up on your art!