To many people the music of early Genesis, which is the major influence on IQ’s new album, Dark Matter, is the apotheosis of progressive rock. In using those classic Genesis albums as a source of inspiration, IQ have taken an approach which is, at the same time, both populist (for obvious reasons) and risky. Get it wrong and the album could suffer in comparison.
IQ themselves are making very confident noises about Dark Matter and after a few spins I am happy to say that their confidence is fully justified; to my ears, this is the best album they’ve done. That Genesis influence is, at times, very apparent, however, so this may not be to everyone’s taste. Those looking for cutting edge alt.prog may be unimpressed by this feast of retro sounds, but even they may enjoy an album which is stuffed full with strong melodies and crafted compositions and which showcases a band performing with real exuberance. In particular, Martin Orford’s keyboard playing on Dark Matter is a revelation. Gone are the softer pad sounds which have predominated over recent years, replaced by organ and mellotron samples of real veracity. In less certain hands, the use of these instruments could sound ersatz. Orford, however, plays and sounds like the real thing.
The album, which features five songs, opens with the first of two epics, the 11 minute “Sacred Sound”. And it’s a cracker, featuring a classic IQ chorus, gritty organ riffing, a nod to Close to the Edge in the use of a church organ sample in the quiet bit, and some superb playing from Paul Cook, who manages to get a lovely groove going during a high speed section over alternating bars of 7/8 and 6/8. Rob Aubrey has managed to get a more natural drum sound than Cook has used before, which fits the retro vibe and enables the listener to hear, with great clarity, everything he plays.
Next up is “Red Dust Shadow” which is based around a lugubrious chord sequence played on acoustic guitar and some contrasting heavier sections where the band power up. This is a simpler song, but no less effective for that. The melodies are strong and the mellotron in the playout is beautifully judged.
“You Never Will” kicks off with some sound effects which I assume are meant to pay homage to “Clocks” by Steve Hackett. A bass riff starts up before the band comes crashing in. Again, this song shows IQ at their best with more strong melodies and another classic chorus.
“Born Brilliant” also opens up with sound effects, this time reminiscent of Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine”, although the rest of the music on this track sounds closer to Division Bell era Floyd. After some “Silent Sorrow” type mellotron chords, the song is mostly based on a repeating 6/4 riff in a mid tempo. The vocal melodies on this song are less strong, but the music and production are terrific, heaping up layers of guitars, keyboards and effects.
And so we reach the closing epic, the 24 minute “Harvest of Souls”, undoubtedly the song that will get the biggest cheer in IQ’s future live sets.
“Harvest of Souls” is surprisingly, and presumably deliberately, close to “Supper’s Ready” in terms of structure. It starts with a vocal section based on acoustic 12-string playing. The song then erupts into life with a section based on Banksian style organ riffing. Sound familiar? So far, so “Supper’s Ready”. The comparisons continue with the closing sections which feature a passage which could best be described as ‘Apocalypse in 6/8’ and a stately finale based on a familiar sounding drum feel underpinning vocals, organ chords and explosions of lead guitar.
Don’t get the impression, however, that “Harvest of Souls” is a mere pastiche. It is a very strong piece of music indeed, beautifully and cleverly composed. It is also packed full of moments of grandeur, as any such epic should be.
With all lengthy pieces, the composers face a number of problems. These include ensuring the whole track works as a single composition, keeping the quality high in all of the different sections to avoid the classic curate’s egg, and the need to sustain the listener’s interest. Whilst I think that “Harvest of Souls” might have been even more successful with a bit of editing (I could happily live without the six minutes of music following the eleven minute mark), IQ score highly in all of these areas. There is plenty of variety on offer (fast and slow passages, instrumentals and vocal sections etc.) and even the sections that work less well are very dynamic and may prove to be live highlights. Of particular note is the clever and careful restating of themes which is the glue which holds any long piece together. The re-arrangement of the vocal section from the second part of the song as the guitar /vocal finale, played with a slower feel, is especially memorable.
“Harvest of Souls” is a superb epic which graces a very strong album. I am sure Dark Matter will bring IQ considerable success. It will be well deserved.
Of the best-known bands that emerged from the British 'progressive rock revival' of the mid-80s - Twelfth Night, Marillion, Pallas, Solstice, Pendragon, and IQ - one could argue that IQ has been the most consistently excellent. Twelfth Night was a great band, but they couldn't recover from vocalist Geoff Mann's departure and subsequent death from cancer; Pallas has only recently come back to form after a long layoff with the fine Cross and the Crucible album; while Solstice has never really broken through despite several fine albums, each with a different lineup, and Pendragon has always been taken to task as kind of a 'prog-lite' band despite the talents of Clive Nolan. And Marillion...well, we all know the path they've taken since their glory days as the most commercially successful of all the so-called 'neo-prog' bands.
On the other hand, IQ has gone from strength to strength over the course of a remarkably consistent 20-year career, keeping the same core members (guitarist Mike Holmes, keyboardist Martin Orford and drummer Paul Cook) throughout their long and illustrious history, with only minimal changes at the lead vocalist (Peter Nicholls was replaced for two albums and tours by Paul L. Menel, triumphantly returning on the classic Ever album over a decade ago) and bass positions (with current bassist John Jowitt taking over for founding member Tim Esau on Ever).
IQ's best works have always been lovingly crafted from all the finest prog ingredients - dramatic vocals and mysterious lyrics, ever-melodic guitar solos, beautifully orchestrated keyboards, and a tight yet nimble rhythm section - and the five new tracks that comprise Dark Matter are no exception.
"Sacred Sound," the near twelve-minute album opener, begins with a haunting church organ sound that quickly sets the album's tone, followed by what will probably be - for this reviewer - the year's finest organ riff, which serves as the core of the song. The rhythm section is at its propulsive best, driving thunder pushing forward momentum behind Holmes' slashing guitar chords and Nicholls' plaintive vocal melody. Holmes' guitar work features his signature angular melodicism, soaring in his solos and on the choruses even as Orford dominates with his massive keyboard sound. The middle section returns us to the eerie, haunting chords from the very beginning of the song, demonstrating IQ's mastery of thematic development, mood and atmosphere. The rhythm section really opens up during the instrumental section that follows, with Holmes' second solo soaring and diving, and Orford contributing a short but fine solo of his own. For this reviewer, "Sacred Sound" may be the finest pure progressive rock song to be heard anywhere this year. The term 'tour de force' was invented for songs like this. Simply stunning.
"Red Dust Shadow" is a study in chiaroscuro, a powerhouse of light and shade, ambience, texture and atmosphere. The verses are dominated by vocal, acoustic guitar, fretless bass and synthesizers, contrasting them with powerful slices of electric guitar, Mellotron, organ, more fretless bass and drums. Nicholls' poignant lyric is perfectly framed and formed by the surprisingly restrained arrangement. Jowitt's playing throughout is exceptionally tasty.
"You Never Will" is prefaced with the sound of ticking clocks before Jowitt's elastic bassline is met with guitar, more organ, and drums. Cook really - dare I say - cooks on this track, which also features even more wonderful keyboard sounds. Orford's tasty synthesizer solo is reminiscent of Tony Banks' best days with Genesis, and Holmes' guitar solo is, as always, flavored with choice Hackett-like melodicism. Nicholls, too, is at his sardonic best, vocally and lyrically. One wonders at whom the lyric is aimed, as with the following track, "Born Brilliant," which is clearly about someone with whom the acid-tongued singer is quite displeased.
"Born Brilliant" offers up more synthesized atmosphere at the start, followed by stabbing organ chords and what sounds like some e-bowed guitar. More great keyboard sounds dominate this track, and by now it is clear that Orford took the upper hand compositionally on this disc. Jowitt's bass line in the chorus is kind of Chris Squire-like, and Holmes' guitar solo sounds very slide-like. One thinks of Yes crossed with Genesis in terms of ambience as the track fades out on what sounds like a massive choir of fallen souls, descending into musical limbo.
"Harvest of Souls" is the epic closer, and at nearly twenty-five minutes, the longest song IQ has ever done. It may also be their very best epic piece, as its six sub-sections flow perfectly together; nothing ever sounds disjointed or contrived. Others have compared the track to Genesis' classic "Supper's Ready," and given the Gabriel-era Genesis influences apparent on this disc, even more so than in IQ's previous work, that's entirely understandable, especially with the beautiful acoustic opening section ("The First of the Last") and the organ playing featured on the second section, "The Wrong Host." Some will complain about how this or that isn't 'original,' or 'groundbreaking,' or 'new,' but so what if it doesn't reinvent the wheel? The heavy instrumental section and the second half of 'The Wrong Host' are compelling nonetheless, with Jowitt's heavy bass again reminiscent of Chris Squire, bouncing off Cook's drums and Orford's Hammond with joyful abandon. Things slow down and again in the next part, "Nocturne," which finds Nicholls's voice rich with deeply felt emotion, mirrored by Holmes' gorgeously melodic guitar. The band turns on a dime again and wallops us with a fierce instrumental attack to open up the next section, "Frame and Form," ferociously reminding us of Yes' "The Gates of Delirium." Then, just as suddenly, the tempo and mood changes again as Orford's piano and Nicholls' voice come in and Jowitt and Cook rein in their fury to play as tastily and supportively as any crack rhythm section ever has. The last verse of "Frame and Form" features Orford playing some Banks-like piano, and then it's off to the next section, "Mortal Procession," which is just classic IQ, featuring a circular, sinister, snake-eating-its-own tail guitar/keyboard riff, with the verses dominated by almost evil-sounding keyboards. Nicholls sounds half-angry, half-insane on the hair-raising middle part of "Mortal Procession," which also features a terrifically taut synthesizer solo from Orford, followed by an even better organ solo, and once again, it's apparent that this is the keyboardist's finest shining hour. Things build to walloping climax, the tension stretched as tight as it can possibly be, then releasing into a re-statement of the majestic melody from the earlier "Wrong Host" part on the final section, "Ghosts of Days." Holmes wrings every possible ounce of emotion out of his guitar here, just wrenching the notes free of the fretboard, soaring yet again above the waves of keyboards, bass and drums as the track fades out rather than come to a definite conclusion.
Whew. It's only fifty-two minutes long, but by the end of Dark Matter, this reviewer is nearly spent from trying to take it all in. This is a big sounding, full-bodied, make no apologies, glorious and transcendent slice of classic 1970s style progressive rock, made the way only highly seasoned, and intelligent musicians can make it. It reminds me a lot of Glass Hammer's Shadowlands, another melding of classic sounds with modern production values, and like that fantastic disc, Dark Matter is a pure five-star, two-thumbs-up, 10-on-a-10-scale winner. It's music that's well-conceived and well-played, and if it occasionally tips its hat to history, that's fine, as long as it's exceedingly well-done, and in this reviewer's opinion, nobody does this kind of thing better th