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!
Mike Holmes is an amazing guitarist. The emotion with which he can invest each individual note is just astonishing. Puts me in mind of Andy Latimer (Camel).
Indeed, and I look forward to writing about Andy very soon.
Couldn’t agree more. I really get off on this music. You can lay down in a darkened room and your body just weeps sheer musical emotion.
You said it, brother.
This is the best album review I’ve ever read. Excellent!
I’m blushing a bit…thank you!
i have loved this and many other IQ albums, they deserve so much wider air play.
I agree wholeheartedly, though I’d say hardly anyone of value gets airplay any more. People like us talking like this is what’ll get them the exposure!
Wow, what a great review. Although I do like their early albums, I agree that they just keep getting better and better. I’ve always found it difficult to express the emotional content of their music, but you’ve nailed it! Long Live IQ!
Musical Emotion, that’s what it’s all about…. This is one of IQ’s highlighting albums, although they had quite a few highlights allready.
Yep, Dark Matter may end up their best of all time, but this is close. And I agree, it’s the emotion in their music that makes it so appealing.
Hmmm, I’m not yet well-known with Dark Matter, I lost my interest a bit after The Seventh House, witch, for me, was a bit more of the same and a weaker version of the superb ‘Ever’. Frequency appears to me as much more powerfull and diverse. But what’s taste….so many ears, so many ears….
I discovered these guys on one of the Internet radio stations about a year or two ago…words don’t describe how moving some of their music is.
If you like the emotion and brilliance of songs like Yes “Awaken’ or Pink Floyd’s “The Division Bell”, Frequency and Dark Matter from IQ are must-haves in your collection. Great review!
Thank you, and I concur.
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If I’m to contribute my two cents, I should probably firstly add to the pool of compliments on this review; well done!
Just like Koehler, I do agree that they got better, despite my love for their old gems. But I would have to say that I really do think that “Ever” was the biggest transition, in terms of production quality. (However I *am* aware that it wasn’t where they *perfected* that end of their craft yet.)
As for “Dark Matter”, I couldn’t agree more with the majority (in our minority) that it was (and might always be) their best. Sorry, Arend, but I have to say that “The Seventh House” is likely what I consider the runner up.
So, here’s where it gets the most different for me; I happen to find “Frequency” to be a big jump towards something cool, but a bit more accessible in certain places. I’d say the same for the latest (“The Road of Bones”), with respect to the one track I’ve heard from it. A part of me, I think, might be too attached to the traditional back-in-action lineup they began with on “Ever”. Not sure I can cope with the idea of losing Cook, Orford, or Jowitt (although Esau being back is kinda cool). So, perhaps there’s a bias on my part, I realize.
One disclaimer I must make in spite of my opinion; the latest two records *do* have some similarities to how “Wind & Wuthering” contributed to Genesis’ evolving catalog. These last two are definitely the more denser sounding (chord-wise), and the ones more reflective of the romantic period, as Tony Banks would probably consider. I will give them credit for that. However, some of “Frequency” almost seems perhaps *too* close to “W&W”?
Thank you very much!
I do agree that “Ever” was the big transition and set the template for what was to follow, though on the whole that album is a bit to “AOR” for my liking. I thought “Frequency” sort of ended a phase for IQ that began with “Ever”; with “The Road of Bones” they’ve kept some elements of that sound but are definitely adding a tougher, ballsier element, which is impressive for a band at this stage of its career.
Yeah, I still need to get a copy and hear it all out. 😛 “AOR”? Album oriented rock? There seems to be contradicting views from the band on whether “Ever” was a conceptual one. I’ve read a while back that it was supposed to relate to a person’s experience while having, and dying from, AIDS. Then, more recently, I’ve read one of the guys saying that they wouldn’t consider it a concept album at all. 😕 Wouldn’t you say that “The Seventh House” and “Dark Matter” are much more obvious than “Ever”, as far as being conceptual? I take it you must really find “Subterranea” to be their low-point?
Well, AOR could either mean album oriented or “adult” oriented… some weird 80s holdover of a term. I would definitely say those two albums you mention are more conceptual than “Ever”. And I love a concept album, I really do. The problem with “Subterranea” is, although it contains some great tunes, it’s so dang long and a bit samey in places and the story’s not presented in an interesting enough way to keep my attention. I’m sure that’s me, though. In my opinion, IQ’s true glory days started with “The Seventh House”.
Just wanted to say thanks for this review!
I was looking up this album and was somewhat disheartened to find that the general consensus seemed to be one of mild disappointment. I think it’s a phenomenal piece of work! And I couldn’t agree more about “Closer.” Such a wonderful way to end the album and my eyes well up with emotion every single time! Great stuff.
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Thank you… I wasn’t aware that there is any dissatisfaction out there about the album. Those people must be crazy!