Though my love for British neo-prog legends IQ dates back to the late 80’s, the real turning point of my relationship with them was in the early 90’s. Two things happened then, they released their first album with enigmatic frontman Peter Nichols back on vocal and lyrical duties, and I saw them live for my first and only time. The show was on their “IQ Goes to America, Plays One Gig, Gets Drunk, and Goes Home Tour” (no joke folks, that’s what the laminates said). Since that show, and the way Ever changed me, ensured that IQ and I would have a long and wonderful friendship together. So today, with nine studio albums, a few live albums and DVDs, and more than a few line up changes behind them, it gives me great pride to review their tenth studio release, The Road of Bones.
For this release, they are still led by original members Mike Holmes on guitar (who also produced the album) and Peter Nichols on vocals and their main lyricist. Coming back into the IQ fold after some time off is drummer Paul Cook, and after an even longer hiatus dating back to the late 80’s is bassist Tim Esau. Entering into his first studio experience with IQ is keyboardist Neil Durant. With the principle players at hand, let’s you and I, together, take a trip down The Road of Bones…
The Road of Bones is a five track album, measuring just over fifty minutes. A two disc special release is available with another fifty minutes of original music, but for the sake of the masses, we’ll just focus on the album proper here. The opening track is From the Outside In, and after a few seconds of atmospheric sound effects, we are blasted with a wall of sound that tells us right away that though this is distinctively IQ, we are also in for something a bit new, a touch heavier, and a little darker. This is a tone that is carried through most of the five tracks at one point or another, even those that start on a soft note, eventually get that intense urgency to them at some point. Holmes guitars, especially during the rhythm sections, have a rough edge to them, and Esau’s bass in frantic, up front in the mix, and omnipresent. Cook as always is a fill machine, letting fly with an unspeakable sickness any chance he gets, and don’t tell Mangini or Peart this, but he is probably my all time favorite drummer, so it’s a joy to hear him back in the mix. From the Oustide In has a brutal sense of urgency to it, building a frantic tension in the brief seven minutes it plays. It sets up the scene perfectly for the title track, The Road of Bones.
Now The Road of Bones refers to M56 Kolyma Highway which snakes through the Russian far east. The road itself was built from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s, and construction was done by inmates of labor camps. The name is derived from the bones of the dead that are buried in and around the road, for the permafrost didn’t allow for graves to be dug. As to the song, it is a deeply atmospheric testament to the historic route. Nichols shines brightly here, both vocally and lyrically. From a lyrical standpoint, I personally heard this song as told from the viewpoint of death, as he collected the souls of those who died during the day’s construction. With Nichols’ writing style though, my guess is as good as anybody’s, he has always had a very loose and open ended style of prose that allows for the listener to be very liberal in translation. For the beginning of the track, it’s just Nichols, a simple drum and bass line, with Durant’s keys laced on it. After we are thoroughly subdued into a haunted state though, the band explodes with a steamroller of a riff that is as heavy as anything they’ve ever written. When Nichols’ vocals rejoin the fray, it’s IQ at their strongest, the collective band putting the hurt on my ever so grateful ears, and something they do many more times before the album is done.
Next is Without Walls, the albums epic, which comes in at a bit over twenty minutes. Starting out ethereal and sublime, with a simple drum beat that harkens for me the track Corners off their album The Wake, it takes its own sweet time building into a beast of an instrumental section, one that builds into a stunning crescendo, breaks down into insanity, then comes together as a whole again. Instrumentally it, once again, is IQ at its best, creating that tense vibe, toying with us like a cat does a mouse, almost as if they enjoy it, then when we are at our most frustrated, they give us the resolve. They bring it all together as a whole and I for one feel it, deep down where it truly counts. It’s something that, though other prog and prog metal acts achieve it, when IQ does it, I am left resolved, a bit more complete than I was before. The Ocean is a vocal showcase for Nichols, with the band doing a wondrous job of backing him up with an emotionally searing song. For me though, it provides a nice rest break between Without Walls and the closing track, and what is slowly becoming one of my all time favorite songs, Until the End.
As I alluded to earlier, IQ shines when it comes to building moods, turning the intensity to high, then shattering through the walls to come out anew on the other side. As they did in Without Walls, they also do here in the final track, Until the End, but with this track it’s more a unified effort instead of the barely controlled harmonic chaos that was Without Walls. In this track, all the musical elements, the instrumental work, the vocals, and even the thematic elements converge to a climactic moment that is on par with the best the band has done. After a few minutes of atmospheric set up work that has a real sweet ethnic tone to it, the band starts to dig in. A slow frantic increase of pace enters the realm, and we soon realize we are all in, the band has us. I should note the impact of Durant on the album, he is truly a force no matter what breed of keyboard he is laying down on, his presence is wonderfully clear here and throughout the album. From a heavy classic neo-prog laden instrumental segment, they shift into a kinetic diatribe of music and lyrics, each segment picking up the pace a bit more than the last. The whole band is in precise cohesion from here on out, and with the most subtle of switches, they transform the whole emotional tone of the song from dour to hopeful, and they blast through to a Nichols vocal moment that will stick in my head for the rest of my days. The song is brought down to a whisper of piano, and Nichols draws every ounce of emotion left in me out with his soft, soulful vocals and intensely emotional yet humble lyrics. This folks, is why he is my favorite singer, bar none. A perfect IQ song to end a brilliant album.
For the diehard fans, The Road of Bones has all the goods that we would expect from the band, with a few surprise touches. The music is a bit tighter, a little darker, and intensely focused. Cook and Esau are unstoppable as a rhythm section. Durant is such a welcome force to the group, and shines all over. Holmes has his usual classic style that will never be mistaken for another, plus a much more increased presence of heaviness that is very welcome by this reviewer. As to Nichols, this is surely one of his better albums, though that is a really tough distinction to make considering his body of work. For fans new to IQ, give it a taste, and another. IQ is a grower band, their nuances take time to dig in, but I warn you, once they do, you are in for life. For the band, thank you for yet another brilliant album, and thank you for a lifetime of being the soundtrack to my days.