Few things could be as exciting to a prog-rock fan as a new IQ album, especially considering they take their time releasing them. This venerable band is one of the few remaining rock acts to have truly grown and improved with each release since the 1980s. Or at least their releases certainly hit a peak in quality that would be hard to outdo with the albums Dark Matter (2004) and Frequency (2009), both of which are magnificent examples of the best of progressive rock, expertly mingling heartfelt emotion with a complex but eminently melodic musical sensibility.
So there’s a lot to live up to with The Road of Bones, which is available in single or double disk editions and a double disk download version. I of course have just acquired the latter, so I had a lot of new music to wade through. The heart of IQ is Peter Nicholls’ classic prog voice, which sits nicely in that David Cousins/Peter Gabriel territory of ethereal raspiness. The band’s other trademarks are the very classy playing of guitarist Mike Holmes and a boatload of synth sounds, now played by new-ish member Neil Durant, who fills that chair with panache and ease. The album also features the return of onetime bass player Tim Esau, who must have been practicing all those years, for his parts are superbly dexterous! All of these key elements are on full display on this album, in spades. However, it’s that heightened emotional profundity I found so appealing in previous tracks like “Harvest of Souls” from Dark Matter and “Closer” from Frequency that I’m after when I get a hold of some new IQ.
Opener “From the Outside In” is immediately striking since it’s easily the heaviest-sounding track I’ve heard from IQ thus far, with some pretty aggressive guitar riffing. But the track also goes through a number of dramatic and grand sections (including a brief intro from Dracula himself!) with lashings of choir mellotron and organ, weird vocal samples and a few Rush-like percussive flourishes. Classic IQ to be sure.
“The Road of Bones” is where we first find that transcendent profundity I’m after, a song that starts with only sparse piano and ambient synth pads accompanying Nicholls’ delicate vocal and his typically mysterious but emotional lyrics. An insistent beat and symphonic synths soon swoop in to set a hypnotic mood. The effect is actually quite similar to early eighties Genesis, which to me is not a bad thing at all. Until another shockingly heavy, almost Zeppelin-esque riff section kicks in. I wouldn’t have thought I’d like a heavier IQ, but I sure do! I’d love to know the story behind these lyrics. I’m led to believe there’s a serial killer theme to disc 1, in which case IQ may want to hang out and discuss the topic with Steven Wilson, who has written a lot of songs on that theme!
“Without Walls” is the album’s true “epic”, clocking in at over nineteen minutes. Again the intro is quite redolent of Duke-era Genesis with tasty synth pads and a drum sound almost like a vintage Linn machine. Nicholls’ lyrics are again evocative and his voice deceptively sweet. Once again the sweetness gives way to monolithic riffs that approach power metal! And we are finally graced with a Mike Holmes guitar lead, as well as some very Selling England by the Pound organ. The piece ends with an uptempo, dreamy song section. That’s the money right there, guys! Perfect prog and perfectly formulated atmospheric rock, needless to say.
The lovely “Ocean” combines a veritable raft (punny!) of keyboard sounds in a ballad that shows off Nicholls’ vocal power and versatility, which has surprisingly steadily improved with age. Another epic, “Until the End”, closes the first disk (just the first disk!), again featuring a ton of really tasty keyboard sounds from Durant. This track is closer to the sort of neo-prog that IQ produced on albums like The Seventh House and some of the tracks on Dark Matter, going through some louder (but not as metallic), complex sections featuring some wonderful leads from Holmes, as well as lush, quieter ones.
Initially I thought this first disk would not end with a powerful, inspirational song like the previous two albums, but that fear was put to rest by the magnificent crescendos that conclude “Until the End”, and some awesome lyrical imagery from Nicholls: “Will you stay until the end/When I’m down up on my knees/Will you defend me then?/And wreath my form/Deep in your velvet arms, one last time/Before my heart sets you free”. You bastard, Nicholls, you know how to get me.
OK, but that’s just disk 1! Disk 2 starts with the aggressive “Knucklehead”, which has the loudest riffing on the entire album. “1312 Overture” is a Genesis-y festival of tron, synth and “Supper’s Ready”-like time signatures. The lengthy “Constellations”, which sounds like it could be an extra track from Wind and Wuthering, has an almost jammy feel at times, featuring some synth solos that take us straight back to the time of onstage kimonos, as well as an opportunity for Holmes to really go off on a great Hacketty solo. He really is one of rock’s underrated guitar heroes. “Fall and Rise” has what I’m pretty sure is a banjo, which is definitely new for IQ, as well as some lovely nylon-string guitar. This moody ballad allows Nicholls to stretch out lyrically once more. “Ten Million Demons” is practically a prog-metal song that could have come off a Rush album, a festival of riffs and cosmic synths. Finally, we wrap up with another lengthy epic, “Hardcore”, but I’m sort of exhausted of superlatives here, to be honest. Let’s just say the hyper-dramatic Floydian middle section with Ebow, nylon string guitar and dark ambient synths is worth the price of admission alone.
It’s hard to believe a band could keep getting better and more ambitious with each release, thirty years into a career, but this one does it. In every aspect, from the choice of sounds (three cheers to Durant!) to the lyrics to the performances, this is the work of true masters. The Road of Bones‘ first disk alone is a garden of melodic delights, unquestionably one of the best musical rides I’ll be on this year — but that wasn’t enough for IQ. They had to throw a second album at us at the same time! The second disk would have suited quite well on its own as the new album. While the first album is definitely the more cohesive listening experience, the quality never lets up throughout the entire experience of listening to both disks.
I don’t want to come across all fanboy here, but lovers of great intelligent rock music are very lucky that IQ has remained in our lives.