The IQ cycle of 4 or 5 years between albums which has been their preferred mode for the last two decades continues with The Road of Bones, their first new music since 2009’s Frequency. That was an album I enjoyed but one that does not feature particularly highly on my IQ faves chart for some reason, probably due to the unerring quality of their other releases.
IQ are a band that I have followed since buying The Wake in the same week as Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood back in 1985 – although despite working in a record shop at the time I was completely oblivious to Ever in 1993, such was the limited press that prog got at the time. Normal service resumed with Subterranea and each subsequent IQ release has been a highly anticipated delight. I can’t think of many bands that have kept the quality control at such a high level over such a long period and IQ should be given much credit for that; they do what they do with panache and professionalism, never straying too far from what they know best and not worrying about appeasing those who don’t enjoy it.
I’ve never liked the ‘Neo’ word associated with bands like IQ and their ilk. I just don’t get it. Prog has always provided its emotional highs and there are countless bands that have followed a similarly theatrical methodology. The musicianship is always superb and Peter Nicholls is a truly great lyricist, it just seems churlish to regard it all as some sort of sub-standard tangent to the main prog tree.
There is a limited edition disc and other options and tracks available but this review is of the standard five track version. With two of the pieces over 10 minutes long, The Road of Bones is an album that allows the music to stretch out. There is plenty of variety although much of it is spent at the bleaker end of the musical spectrum and lyrically it is as dark as the cover image suggests. Nicholls pulls out some wonderful lines that draw the listener in to the gloom, the words evocative and powerful, even though the meaning is often elusive, interpretation being part of the fun. Ominous, dark keyboard chords and voices – is that Bela Lugosi? – burst into an energetic and unpredictable guitar line that crackles with life at the start of From the Outside In. Nicholls has seldom sounded so good and there is real drive, the rhythm section locking in nicely, but this is all about guitar and voice. After a couple of minutes all drops away with faint splashes of tinny rhythm and keyboard washes. Nicholls returns with choral keys, an effective device as the power builds back into the rhythm of the song with a lovely Hammond from Neil Durant before the abrupt close.
This is a very well recorded album that can hold its head high in the company of anything else currently being released. There are nods to the past and familiar references but the content has subtly shifted via the line-up changes which sees only Nicholls and guitarist Mike Holmes remaining from Frequency. Consistency is maintained however with the returning rhythm section of Paul Cook – a fixture for over 30 years until his surprise departure in 2005 – and original bassist Tim Essau who left in 1989 after Are You Sitting Comfortably? These two helped forge the IQ sound and they are a perfect fit into the current set-up – like a pair of old slippers! The final member is Sphere3 keyboardist Neil Durant who has replaced Mark Westworth who in turn took over from founding member Martin Orford in 2007. Orford’s influence over IQ history is an illustrious one but Durant feels immediately comfortable in his role and if truth be told his is probably the overreaching performance on The Road of Bones.
The album continues with the title track, stark piano against a drone setting things off in a direction as bleak as the title would suggest. Menacing keyboard strings add a hint of danger, Nicholls at his most elegiac, before Cook and Essau add a sparse rhythm. Both play out of their skins on this album; Cook’s fills are sublime, probably my favourite album performance from him, whilst Essau has completely emerged from the long shadow cast by fan favourite John Jowitt, his tone is just beautiful and playing precise. A peculiar xylophone phrase crops up here and there, slightly at odds with the rest of the proceedings, and after 5 minutes the guitar emerges in a metalistic storm with an epic keyboard set-piece that is classic IQ although edgier than usual. This section is particularly intense, Essau and Cook again making their mark, before things revert to the earlier, more peaceful groove, the final xylophone phrase leaving the track a little high and dry for me – not the most satisfying conclusion but most of what has gone before is just immense.
Without Walls again starts quietly with an ’80s Phil Collins pop rhythm. The piano – as is often the case where it is deployed sparingly and with thought – cuts through to give real depth to the piece which might otherwise have been lost, but with an epic running time of nearly 20 minutes you know that things aren’t going to stay in the same vein for long. Indeed, we are soon warped via a subdued vocal passage into a thumping beat and on with marvellous Hammond – think Tony Banks in the ’70s – as Nicholls takes the intensity to the next level, ending with a cathartic explosion of guitar chords. This is a track that develops satisfyingly and at its own pace, one of the most complete on the album. Essau adds greatly, Durant uses a choir setting this time and the song steps up, eases back then steps up again quite beautifully. He also gets a solo, again reminiscent of Genesis and some of Banks’ funny little vignettes, before everything is brought right back to basics in a chilling section with menace always close at hand. An acoustic section is wonderfully realised, the Hammond again adding much, before exploding into a rampaging gallop and a brief solo from Holmes. Nicholls delivers the verse with precision supported by delicate runs from Durant before things take a left turn into a typically IQ instrumental section – Durant excelling again – and a massive ELP crescendo that releases, after a storm of dissonant keys and noise, into a Marillion-esque theme like light returning after the clouds have parted. There is a calmness and sense of relief that Nicholls’ delicate vocals interpret beautifully into an uplifting extended finale flavoured by some lovely guitar and an ending solo as the song fades out. Many of the tried and tested elements of IQ’s sound are present and correct but have been reinterpreted through the addition of the new and returning members, the result being the highlight of the album for me.
One of the issues that could be levelled at The Road of Bones is that the guitar of Mike Holmes is slightly subdued. He still gets some great solos but they are few and far between and don’t provide quite the same level of emotional release as achieved on, for example, The Seventh House or Dark Matter. It seems that this album is far more about the contributions of Durant and Essau in particular although central to everything are the quite beautiful vocals of Peter Nicholls.
Ocean is a very different beast to what has gone before. The shortest track, it is calm and uplifting, opening with twinkling bell-like keys that remind me of Marillion again, this time the Season’s End era. Piano picks up the motif as Nicholls plaintively allows the lyrics to build into a satisfying whole. The album took a few spins to aclimatise myself to but this track was a particularly tough nut to crack. The moodiness and dark thoughts of what has gone before are left far behind as Essau and Cook work around each other, the peak arriving with fine organ chords and solo passages from Durant. This is a song of two halves but both work well togethe, although not gelling immediately it is certainly a grower and the climax before the quiet conclusion is superbly realised.
The horror movie eeriness returns for final track Until The End. Starting slowly, Nicholls descriptive lyrics set the scene as acoustic guitar adds a different texture, the detail in the rendering of the tracks turns them into the works of art that they are. The emotion evident in the words comes across in the music as the tension builds again, bursting out in another typically thumping IQ way but with subtle differences, an off-kilter solo from Durant working well against the rhythm, dragging it into new shapes. A section that could have come from The Wake and a Hackett-like solo from Holmes lead us into the galloping finale, Cook and Essau matching each other in support of Nicholls’ soaring voice into the most typically Holmes section on the album as the album reaches a vivid and perfect climax, one of the real high-points of a great record, before a homely piano and acoustic guitar conclusion that washes away all the darkness and fear, replacing it with an optimistic and safe denouement – although it does slightly remind me of The Shire in The Lord of the Rings before the shit starts going down! That said, a beautifully unexpected and satisfying way for the album to play out.
The set-pieces are great but somehow don’t reach the heights of previous IQ albums and the guitar histrionics that epitomise many of IQ’s finest moments are few and far between but this is a spellbinding listen and a great mature work from one of the most consistent bands that prog produced in its second-wind. Anyone with a fondness for their previous work is sure to find something for them here. Whether the album will win them any new followers is debatable but the quality is without question, IQ remaining one of the leading lights in U.K. prog and underlining their position as a band who can regularly produce the goods.
01. From the Outside In (7:25)
02. The Road of Bones (8:32)
03. Without Walls (19:15)
04. Ocean (5:43)
05. Until the End (12:00)
Total Time: 53:07
Paul Cook – Drums & Percussion
Neil Durant – Keyboards
Tim Essau – Bass Guitars & Bass Pedals
Michael Holmes – Guitars
Peter Nicholls – Lead Vocal & Backing Vocals
Record Label: Giant Electric Pea
Year Of Release: 2014
The Road of Bones – 2014
Frequency – 2009
Dark Matter – 2004
The Seventh House – 2000
Subterranea – 1997
Ever – 1993
Are You Sitting Comfortably? – 1989
Nomzamo – 1987
The Wake – 1985
Tales from the Lush Attic – 1983
Seven Stories into Eight (cassette) – 1982